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Steve Yzerman’s trade grades, part 2

Grading Yzerman’s general management tenure with the Detroit Red Wings.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Carolina Hurricanes - Game Five Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

There’s a lot that goes into building a contender.

Everything needs to go well. Drafting, player development, front office focus, and even luck play a part in producing a perennial winner.

Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman knows this all too well. He’s won at every level of the NHL as a player and was the architect behind the Tampa Bay Lightning’s recent success. His current job involves rebuilding the Detroit Red Wings — a task that’s nothing short of daunting.

In addition to drafting, developing, and proper deployment, trades are often utilized to bolster a roster. The first part of this series looked into Yzerman’s trades during the 2018-19 offseason and the 20190-20 season. This edition will take a closer look at Yzerman’s trade record from last summer to the start of the 2021-22 season. Trades will be graded upon their price, impact on the rebuild, and how they’ve affected the teams involved.

2019-20 offseason

Marc Staal, 2021 2nd round pick acquired for Future Considerations

Ah, Future Considerations. So full of potential, yet so unable to crack an NHL roster. Yzerman’s first trade following the abysmal 2019-20 season was a low-risk, high-reward gamble. In exchange for salary relief, the New York Rangers sent Marc Staal and a 2021 second-round pick to the Red Wings. At the time, it made sense for both teams: the Red Wings were looking for draft capital, and the Rangers needed salary cap space.

While Staal had a rough go to start the season, he eventually became more comfortable, playing bottom-four minutes with Troy Stecher. It should come as no surprise that Stecher was the primary driver of success for that line. Still, the fact that a 33-year-old defenseman was able to perform at the level Staal did came as an added bonus to the draft pick.

Speaking of draft picks, the second-round pick acquired from the Rangers was used to help the Red Wings trade up to nab Sebastian Cossa, who could potentially become the starting goaltender when the Red Wings are ready to contend. Acquiring draft picks for free is an easy win no matter how you look at it. The fact that Staal has been a solid depth player has only further amplified this victory.

Verdict: Win

2022 4th round pick acquired for Patrik Nemeth (50% retained)

This was another trade for long-term assets. Nemeth’s contract was coming to an end. The Colorado Avalanche needed help on the blueline. The Red Wings acquired a late-round pick, the Avalanche got an affordable depth defenseman, and Nemeth got to return to his old team. What’s not to love? This move appeared to be a win for every party involved. While it was certainly not a move that dominated headlines, it still managed to get the Red Wings another pick for the drafting board.

Any pick can become a win. Recent fourth-round successes include Jaccob Slavin, Drake Batherson, and former Red Wing Andreas Athanasiou. While the odds of a fourth-round pick panning out are low, what would you rather have: 13 additional games from a 29-year-old defenseman or a chance at drafting an NHL player?

With that said, this is a 2022 draft pick. There’s no telling who Yzerman will pick yet — or whether or not they’ll pan out. For now, this is a small win for the Red Wings.

Verdict: Small Win

2021 4th round pick acquired for David Savard’s contract (50% salary retained)

Julien BriseBois worked cap wizardry in order to obtain David Savard from the Columbus Blue Jackets. He enacted a three-way trade with Columbus, Detroit, and Tampa, trading away a first, third, and fourth-round pick in exchange for Savard at a fraction of his salary. This was a brilliant move for the eventual Stanley Cup winners, who obtained a defensive specialist that helped put them over the top. The Red Wings, in turn, received a draft pick for their role in the acquisition, absorbing half of Savard’s salary for a 2021 fourth-round pick.

Like the Staal trade, draft picks acquired for nothing in return should be considered wins. Even seventh-round picks have a chance of panning out, however small it may be. Building a contender means acquiring as many assets that you can — even if they’re late-round picks. After all, there’s no telling when they could come in handy.

Funny enough, this pick was put to immediate use. The Red Wings wound up flipping picks with the Vegas Golden Knights to draft Shai Buium. The USHL product is committed to the University of Denver next season and looks to be a high-potential player. If Buium pans out, this is an easy victory. For now, however, it’s a small win.

Verdict: Small Win

2021 5th round pick, Hayden Verbeek acquired for Jon Merrill

The trade deadline was anxiety-laden until the end for Red Wings fans. A feeling of dread began to form as teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and New Jersey Devils continued to stockpile big assets. Until this point, the Red Wings had obtained nothing but a few late-round draft picks. The Merrill move was the third transaction of this kind in a row. Many fans were left wondering why this trade occurred — and if the return was even worth it.

Merrill was having a very solid season as a defensive-minded player. He was seen as the affordable alternative to Patrik Nemeth and even performed the latter’s job with far greater results. Evolving Hockey’s numbers elaborate on this:

Jon Merrill’s advanced stats
Chart & Data from Evolving Hockey

The numbers above show that, while Merrill was underwhelming offensively, his defensive numbers were among the best in the league.

Nemeth has been marketed as a shot-suppressing defenseman for the majority of his career. Here’s how his numbers stacked up last season:

Patrik Nemeth’s advanced stats
Chart & Data from Evolving Hockey

In layman’s terms, the numbers above show that Merrill was far superior on the defensive end. Why, then, was he flipped for a presumably lesser return than Nemeth? Following the king’s ransom Columbus obtained with the Savard trade, many fans felt confused by the Merrill move. A fifth-round pick for a cost-controlled defensive specialist felt like an underpay. While Hayden Verbeek, nephew of assistant general manager Pat Verbeek, was involved in the trade, this was seen as more of an AHL deal than anything else.

While there’s no way the Red Wings would’ve been able to net a first-round pick from Merrill, something higher than a fifth-round should be warranted. Even with the potential for a player to pan out, the underwhelming return makes this trade a loss.

Verdict: Loss

Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, 2021 1st round & 2022 2nd round acquired for Anthony Mantha

The proverbial sigh of relief from the fanbase came at the eleventh hour. Mere minutes before the trade deadline clock wound down, Mantha’s name was announced and the rest was history. Anthony Mantha went to the Washington Capitals in exchange for Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2022 second-round pick. On paper, this seems like a massive overpayment for the Capitals. It can be argued that the first-round pick was in exchange for taking on Panik’s salary, but when you put the second-round pick and Jakub Vrana in the mix, it becomes a very lopsided affair.

This move, no matter how you slice it, is a winner. Even if Vrana manages to just become a 50-55-point player, the additional assets put this trade well over the top. The first-round pick was used to trade up for Sebastian Cossa; if he lives up to expectations, this could be seen as one of Yzerman’s best moves in his career as general manager. The second-round pick has yet to be used, but Richard Panik played a role in the next trade on this list — a move that has left many in the fanbase divided.

Verdict: Huge Win

Nick Leddy acquired for 2021 2nd round pick, Richard Panik (50% salary retained)

Two conclusions can be drawn from this trade. Moritz Seider, by all accounts, appears to be ready to take the next step. As one of the NHL’s most exciting prospects, his rookie year will be a bit of an adjustment as he acclimates himself to the smaller ice of the NHL. He’ll need a mentor with years of experience on tough defensive teams. Leddy is just the guy for that. His zone entry work, ability to play in challenging areas, and scoring touch make him an excellent mentorship candidate for Seider. In addition, Yzerman can theoretically flip Leddy for the price he paid or higher, should Leddy exceed expectations.

The other conclusion, however, takes a much more sobering look at the trade. Leddy just finished one of the worst seasons of his career. His defensive analytics suggest that he was much more of a detriment on the blueline than a contributor. While he excelled on the powerplay, his even-strength metrics reveal that he struggled to suppress the offense of opposing teams. It’s also important to note that the Islanders used the pick they obtained to draft Aatu Raty.

2020 World Junior Ice Hockey Championship, Semifinals: Canada vs Finland Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images

Raty was once considered a no-brainer as a first-overall pick in the 2021 draft. While he was unable to live up to that expectation in the 2020-21 season, he’s since started his post-draft career with a bang, scoring 16 points in eight games at the World Junior Championships. If Yzerman can’t recoup his assets with a Leddy trade, and if Raty pans out, this trade could look very ugly in hindsight.

Verdict: Pending Loss

Alex Nedeljkovic acquired for 2021 3rd round pick, rights to Jonathan Bernier

These are the exact types of moves that rebuilding teams should make. The Carolina Hurricanes found themselves in a pickle this offseason. They wanted new goaltending help but weren’t prepared to pay for the services of Alex Nedeljkovic. Enter the Detroit Red Wings, an organization on the hunt for a starting netminder. One trade later saw the Calder Trophy finalist ship off to Detroit, where it appears he’ll split starting duties with Thomas Greiss.

This was a low-risk, high-reward trade for the Red Wings. The team had a need and promptly filled it, trading one of the 11 picks they had in the 2021 NHL Draft. Nedeljkovic ended last season with the highest save percentage and lowest goals-against average in the NHL. Still, it’s important to note that Nedeljkovic has only played 29 NHL games in his career. Additionally, he will not have the defensive support that he had in Carolina. He may struggle to produce similar results to his 2020-21 campaign.

Still, there’s a chance that Nedeljkovic can live up to the hype he generated last season. If this deal works out as planned, Nedeljkovic may steal the reins as a starting goaltender and continue to improve on his previous season. Even if he falters, Sebastian Cossa will be developing in tandem with his contract. When you’re a rebuilding team that struggles to win the draft lottery, the best thing to do is take swings on high-potential players. The trade for Nedeljkovic is a win that could potentially pay off down the road.

Verdict: Win

Conclusions

No general manager is perfect. Even the best make a few whiffs from time to time. When it comes to rebuilds, intention can justify moves that look poor in hindsight. Still, intention and impact are two totally different things — and only one moves the needle forward in the NHL. Fortunately, the vast majority of Steve Yzerman’s moves have blended both intention and impact. He’s taken the Red Wings from one of the worst teams in the NHL to a slow up-and-comer in the right direction. While a few moves have yielded less-than-ideal results, the wins have more than covered for the occasional loss.

What has your favorite move been in Steve Yzerman’s tenure with the Red Wings?