April 19, 2019. That was the day the clouds over the Red Wings fandom finally cleared for good; a day that signaled nothing but smooth sailing from then on out.
It was the day Stevie Y came home.
The hopelessness from the waning twilight of the Wings’ dynasty was immediately replaced with optimism. The Wings’ very own living legend, the man whose #19 hangs in the Little Caesars rafters, and — more importantly — the man many considered to be arguably one of the best general managers in the NHL was now back in the fold.
Finally, Wings fans could enjoy the same shrewd moves that turned the Tampa Bay Lightning into a juggernaut. Gone were the days of dissecting any Ken Holland move to extend the playoff streak. Now, any trade, signing, or draft choice was an automatic A+ grade just based on merit — just part of the “Yzerplan” to turn the Red Wings into the next great dynasty.
That was the dream, right?
Just about four years later, that dream has been challenged by some harsh realities. This year’s Red Wings team, thought by some to be “sneakily competitive,” look only marginally better than the tank teams of the past few seasons. A noticeable number of Yzerman’s bigger moves have ranged from “haven’t worked out as expected” to “outright bad,” and there are growing questions from pundits around the league about whether the core group of players assembled is good enough to help the Red Wings take that next step. All of that’s led to the first whispers of fans’ discontent in Yzerman’s tenure.
None of this was supposed to be part of the “Yzerplan.”
It is, however, a normal, expected part of rebuilding, and perhaps a grim reminder of just how much work this Red Wings team needed to begin with.
The concept of a “rebuild” has become frustratingly romanticized in recent years. All you need to do is check the Twitter feeds or message boards of any middle-of-the-pack team to see fans crying out for a simple solution to a rebuild: “trade so-and-so for picks and prospects, tank for a season or two to get a top five draft pick, and then come back as a legitimate competitor in five seasons or so.” There’s an unrealistic expectation that the team’s progress is going to be a straight line, every move is a going to be a home run, and every highly-touted prospect is going to live up their best-case scenarios. And when that expectation is challenged, there’s usually a single argument to back it up.
“That’s what Steve Yzerman did in Tampa.”
But the reality is no, it’s not what happened in Tampa. The Lightning had growing pains throughout the entirety of Yzerman’s tenure there. Yzerman himself made several poor roster moves that aren’t talked about because of the sheer amount of INCREDIBLE roster moves he also happened to make.
For instance, when people talk about Yzerman’s time in Tampa, they talk about the trademark trade steals that spurred the joke “if you’re an NHL GM, and Steve Yzerman calls you, DON’T answer the phone.” They gush about Yzerman trading Jonathan Drouin for Mikhail Sergachev. They marvel at his prowess to turn Vlad Namestikov and Brett Howden into Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller, or swiping little-used backup goalie Ben Bishop for virtually nothing and developing him into an All-Star goaltender.
What they don’t mention is Yzerman sending three high draft picks to Nashville for Anders Lindback, or giving Dwayne Roloson a $3 million extension only to see him lose the starting job the following season, or opting not to sign Jonathan Marchessault, or inking Matt Carle to a megadeal so bad, he had to buy out the final two years of the deal.
Yzerman’s drafting in Tampa was legendary. He stretched (by some draft analysts’ standards) to get Vasilevskiy in the middle of the first round. He found Hart-winner Nikita Kucherov late in the second round, and his mid-to-late round picks were packed with players like Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, Ondrej Palat, and others who became game-changers for one of the most dominant teams in the era. Yzerman simply hit each draft out of the park in Tampa.
And yet, all of Yzerman’s gems overshadow the time he drafted Brett Connolly sixth overall, with players like Vladimir Tarasenko, Jeff Skinner, and Mikael Granlund still on the board. The same story could be told two years later when he took Slater Koekkoek 10th overall, one spot ahead of Filip Forsberg.
Does any of this mean Yzerman is overrated as a general manager or that he deserves less credit for Tampa’s rise to success? Absolutely not. It simply means that his tenure was just like any other general manager’s in charge of a rebuild. It had both hits and misses, steps forwards and steps back. The misses just aren’t talked about because over the course of nine seasons, Yzerman’s good moves overwhelmingly outnumbered the bad, and — as we’ve seen first hand — the Lightning won... a lot.
Those are two luxuries Yzerman hasn’t had yet in his tenure as Red Wings’ general manager, and it may take some before he gets them. The Wings’ rebuild was always going to be more complicated and challenging than the Lightning’s. Whereas Yzerman had two marquee prospects (Stamkos and Hedman) and a 90-point scorer (Martin St. Louis) on the roster his first day in Tampa, the Red Wings’ roster had little to build around. And even with a couple of positive developments, like good seasons from Larkin and Bertuzzi or re-stocking the prospect pipeline, the Wings still hadn’t fully bottomed-out when Yzerman walked into the GM’s office.
That last part may be the caveat to keep in mind when you analyze some of Yzerman’s recent moves. A lot of them have been shots in the dark, and he’s had the ability to take them because... well... why not? The Wings aren’t in “win now” mode, they’re not in cap hell, and none of the moves are jeopardizing the key building blocks of the franchise (i.e. they’re not trading their top prospects to “swing for the fences,” nor are they creating a tight cap situation that makes trying to re-sign key players difficult.)
Some of those shots have missed. The trade for Alex Nedeljkovic didn’t work out (at least, that’s the way it looks now), but at the end of the day, it just cost a third round pick in a draft where Detroit had 8 other picks. The big swing to sign Pius Suter to a $3.25 AAV looks like an miss at this point, but the contract comes off the books this year. Plus, a similar big swing, the Dominik Kubalik signing, is on pace to result in a 50-point season. Ben Chiarot’s contract is something Yzerman deserves a lot of scrutiny for. But again, the Red Wings had the cap space to take a risk, and by the time they NEED the space to sign their key prospects, Chiarot’s number will likely be off the books.
That’s not even mentioning the shots in the dark that DID pay off. Yzerman turned Jacob De La Rose into Robby Fabbri. He traded Nick Leddy’s expiring contract for a current top-pair defender, Jake Walman, and a very good bottom-line utility forward, Oskar Sundqvist. He found value in Olli Maatta, and — despite a few rough stretches — an overall solid goaltender in Ville Husso. Plus, waiting in the wings is a prospect pool considered by many to be one of the best in the NHL.
THIS is what the Yzerplan was always going to be: a series of moves that pay off, and a series of moves that don’t. Eventually, over time, the goal will be for the payoffs to vastly outnumber the whiffs. When that trend starts the happen, the Red Wings should take that elusive “big step forward.” However, the thinking that Yzerman was going to wave a magic wand and make every single signing or trade a home run was unrealistic, and the hope that the Red Wings would be an instant contender within five years bordered between “overly optimistic” and “naive.”
Patience is going to be key for the Red Wings rebuild. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future of this team, but the road to get there may be a little bumpier than we initially dreamt.