Steve Yzerman experienced how hard it is to rebuild a team when he was a player, waiting 14 years to hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time.
Nearly two years into his reign as general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, Yzerman already has put a significant imprint upon the team, making numerous personnel moves from draft picks to trades to free agency.
As the Wings embark on a pandemic-shortened 2021 season, Yzerman will be watching and evaluating across the club’s crop of players to gauge where the organization is at in once again becoming a contender.
“We’re just looking for everybody to get better — that we improve in the rebuilding of our team and in the becoming more competitive,” Yzerman said Wednesday on the eve of the Wings opening their season vs. Carolina. “I want us to be better in every area.
“Next summer when the season ends, I want to know that Dylan Larkin is a better hockey player, all the way through from Tyler Bertuzzi, Anthony Mantha, down to whether it’s Gustav Lindstrom, Michael Rasmussen. Regardless of whether they’re in Detroit or Grand Rapids or wherever they’re playing, I want to see us be a little bit better and have more optimism that we’re closer by the end of the season.”
Yzerman used free agency to add forwards Vladislav Namestnikov and Bobby Ryan, defensemen Troy Stecher and Jon Merrill, and goaltender Thomas Greiss to this season’s squad, also acquiring defenseman Marc Staal via trade. The hope is they help the Wings be more competitive than the squad that ended last season in last place.
The greater excitement comes in looking ahead to 2021-22. That’s when defenseman Moritz Seider, who Yzerman drafted with the sixth pick in 2019, is expected to headline a group of young players seemingly ready to challenge for spots on the Wings. Seider is spending this season in the Swedish Hockey League, assigned to Rögle last fall because, with pro hockey on hold in North America, Sweden presented the best opportunity to have the 19-year-old play regularly in a good league. Joe Veleno, the 30th pick in 2018, was assigned to Malmö for the same reason. The SHL is also home to Jonatan Berggren, the 33rd pick in 2018, who has averaged a point a game for Skellefteå.
Those three project to make the Wings next fall. There’s also Lucas Raymond, Yzerman’s selection at fourth overall in the 2020 draft, who is with Frölunda after tallying two goals and three assists in five games for Sweden at the World Junior Championships.
Raymond was one of five Wings prospects on the Swedish team, joined by fellow forwards Theodor Niederbach and Elmer Soderblom, defensemen Albert Johansson and Gustav Berglund. They left empty handed, but defenseman Eemil Viro was part of Finland’s bronze-medal winning team.
Filip Zadina, drafted at sixth in 2018 by former GM Ken Holland, looks like he’ll be a positive impact on the team this season. Zadina impressed during training camp with his newly honed skill of stealing the puck off opponents (granted, it was off teammates in scrimmages); it’s a skill that will serve him well because it will give him more time with the puck. He looks to be part of the group with Larkin, Mantha, Bertuzzi and Filip Hronek that will push forward the rebuild. Add the prospects currently in Sweden to next fall’s team, and the Wings look more competitive.
“Ultimately I like the nucleus of the young players that are here,” Yzerman said. “Some of the young players that are not here, we have some optimism for some. We’re hoping for more out of some. We’ll see. Until they’re actually in the NHL and contributing, you wait and see.
“We are going to have guys that exceed our expectations and some that won’t, but I just think it’s a process. I’m not sure that I’m happy or displeased. This is the process we’re going to go through, and we’re going to stick with it and hopefully, we can become a good team sooner than later.
“I can’t tell you, being two years in, how I totally feel about it, but I think the process will eventually work out for us."
Yzerman did admit to a misstep or two, saying, “without elaborating, there are some decisions I’m pleased with and some decisions I’m not so pleased with that I’ve made along the way.”
One decision he may regret is trading defense prospect Alec Regula for Brendan Perlini last season. Regula, drafted 67th in 2018, is 6 feet 4, shoots right, and put up 60 points in 56 games last season in junior hockey, earning him a contract with the Chicago Blackhawks. That’s where he landed after Yzerman flipped Regula for Perlini, a first-round pick from 2014 who, despite being given ample playing time with the Wings registered one goal and three assists in 39 games. Perlini has yet to find employment since being let go by the Wings.
Overall, Yzerman has made far more decisions with which he should be pleased. He improved this season’s squad without impacting the future, limiting contracts to one or two years. He has made astute draft picks, even as the Wings have been pushed back in the draft lottery.
How the Wings perform in this compacted season will play out over the coming months, but Yzerman appears to have the Wings on a good path.
Contact Helene St. James at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Red Wings' Steve Yzerman likes pipeline of young players