Reviewing Steve Yzerman's First 2 Years as Red Wings' GM

Steve Yzerman drafts Moritz Seider
By Jeff Watters

April 19, 2021

Today marks the two-year anniversary of Steve Yzerman’s return to the Detroit Red Wings. The Hall of Famer and youngest captain in the club’s storied history had spent the previous nine seasons building a perennial contender in Tampa Bay. Does he have the Red Wings on the same track? Let’s review his work to date.

April 19th, 2019. 

We’ve all speculated on the significance of Steve Yzerman re-joining the Red Wings on the 19th day of ‘19. What we know for sure is this was a hugely important day for the future of the Red Wings franchise.

Yzerman’s arrival signified the dawn of a new era in Motown. While his predecessor and fellow Hall of Famer Ken Holland won 3 Stanley Cups over his 22 seasons at the helm, it was unquestionably time for a new voice to lead the Red Wings through their rebuild.

Yzerman had built quite the reputation during his time in Tampa Bay. From his shrewd trades to his propensity for finding talent in the mid to late rounds of the draft, Yzerman had proven to be one of the best GMs in the game.

While he inherited a vastly different team in Detroit than he did in Tampa Bay in 2010, the job remained the same:

Build a contender.

It was universally understood that this would not be a quick fix — and it hasn’t been. If anything, the rebuild may end up taking even longer than expected. 

Now that the honeymoon phase has worn off, let’s dig a little deeper into the impact Steve Yzerman has had on the Red Wings’ rebuild after two full years as the man in charge.

What Yzerman Inherited With the Red Wings

Dylan Larkin Red Wings 2019
Dylan Larkin had a career-best 32 goals and 73 points in 2018-19. | Photo:

When Yzerman took over for longtime and decorated GM Ken Holland, the Red Wings were coming off a 74-point season that saw them finish ahead of only the lowly Ottawa Senators in the Atlantic Division.

To his credit, Holland did an admirable job jumpstarting the rebuild. Yes, it was overdue, but as soon as Holland committed to shipping out veterans and expiring contracts for future assets, he pulled off some impressive deals.

Still, the Red Wings lacked elite talent. No Steven Stamkos. No Victor Hedman. No generational players this time around. 

What the Wings did have was a decent, young core of Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Filip Hronek. Andreas Athanasiou also looked to be trending up after a 30-goal season.

Head Coach Jeff Blashill had just wrapped up his 4th season behind the bench and had been signed to a two-year extension just weeks before Yzerman was hired — but it’s safe to say Yzerman was at least somewhat involved in that decision.

Yzerman also inherited a promising group of prospects upon his return to Detroit. Again, a lack of elite, game-breaking talent, but a solid group nonetheless.

Filip Zadina Grand Rapids Griffins
Filip Zadina had 16 goals in 59 games for the Grand Rapids Griffins in 2018-19. | Photo: Sam Iannamico/Griffins

Notable Prospects in 2019:

Filip Zadina
Jonatan Berggren
Joe Veleno
Michael Rasmussen
Dennis Cholowski
Evgeny Svechnikov
Jared McIsaac
Vili Sarjiaarvi

Who Yzerman has drafted

It’s impossible to fully judge the 2019 and 2020 drafts today, but it’s certainly possible to assess how things have been trending and how these prospects have performed since being selected by Steve Yzerman and the Red Wings. 

The 2019 Draft

Coming off perhaps their best draft in 30 years, the Wings had 10 selections heading into the 2019 draft — and it didn’t take long for Steve Yzerman to become the talk of the first round.

The selection of German defenseman Moritz Seider at 6th overall sent shockwaves throughout the hockey world — and has since made Yzerman look like a genius. 

Nearly two years later, Seider is looking more like a steal than a reach, relative to where he was drafted. Although he’s yet to play an NHL game, Seider projects to be a top-pairing, two-way defenseman for the Red Wings. He’s dismantled the SHL and had one of the best teenage seasons in league history in 2020-21

In addition to a potential number one defenseman in Seider, Yzerman also drafted smooth-skating blueliner Albert Johansson 60th overall.

Johansson was a late riser heading into the draft and has turned out to be another brilliant pick. He has a chance to slot into the Red Wings top-4 in the not-too-distant future after taking huge steps forward in the past 12-14 months.

Albert Johansson farjestad bk
Albert Johansson was taken 60th overall by Steve Yzerman and Red Wings in 2019. | Photo:

Antti Tuomisto (#8 on Red Wings Pipeline’s Top 20), Robert Mastrosimone (#9), and Elmer Söderblom (#13) were also among the 11 players taken in 2019, concluding an impressive debut draft for Yzerman. 

The 2020 Draft

This past October, Yzerman kicked off the Red Wings’ 2020 draft by selecting Swedish playmaking winger Lucas Raymond 4th overall. Raymond has a track record of elite play and had consistently been one of the most impactful U20 players in the SHL this season before undergoing season-ending elbow surgery.

The additions of 2nd rounders William Wallinder (#7) and Theodor Niederbach (#6) gave the Red Wings a trio of talented Swedes in the first two rounds. Wallinder brings a rare combination of size, skill, and speed from the blueline, while Niederbach is an excellent playmaker who has one of the highest hockey IQs in the system.

Defensemen Donovan Sebrango (#17) and Eemil Viro (#14) were nabbed in the 3rd round and are both trending up. Yzerman also took a shot on athletic Czech goaltender Jan Bednar in the 4th round.

Yzerman added 12 prospects to the pipeline in the 2020 draft, and for the second time in as many years, he took some big swings on high upside talent. There’s risk involved here with the likes of Tuomisto, Wallinder, Niederbach, and Cross Hanas, but the surplus of draft picks allowed him to shoot his shot on a number of boom or bust players.

William Wallinder Detroit Red Wings seventh ranked prospect
William Wallinder has perhaps the most upside of any Red Wings defense prospect not named Moritz Seider. | Photo: Nathalie Andersson

It’s generally quite difficult to measure a general manager’s true impact on a draft. It’s even more of a challenge when a GM joins an organization mere months before the draft takes place — as Yzerman did in April of 2019.

Regardless, that’s what we’re doing here — and the amount of talent that’s been injected into this organization over the past two drafts is impressive. Given the Red Wings have had just one top-five pick and a boatload of mid-rounders, I really like what Yzerman and the Wings’ scouting department have done. 

And the Seider pick? C’mon. 

Grade: A-

Who Yzerman has traded for

Long before returning to Motown, Steve Yzerman had been lauded as one of the best in this category.

Check out these heists:

  • Steve Downie for a 1st round pick that turned into Andrei Vasilevskiy (Red Wings fans remember this one all too well)
  • Jonathan Drouin for Mikhail Sergachev
  • A 38-year-old Martin St. Louis for TWO 1st round picks, Ryan Callahan, and a 7th round pick
  • Cory Conacher and a 4th round pick for Ben Bishop

In the two years that have passed since Yzerman took over in Detroit, he’s swung
19 trades.

Yes, this stuff writes itself.

Just one week ago, on trade deadline day, Yzerman made what was easily his biggest splash of the 19. The Red Wings sent Anthony Mantha to Washington in what could go down as one of the defining trades of the Red Wings’ rebuild. 

In the deal, the Red Wings not only acquired Mantha’s replacement in 25-year-old Jakub Vrána but also picked up a 2021 1st and 2022 2nd round pick. Steve Yzerman took on the remaining two years of Richard Pánik’s contract as well.

Jakub Vrána scores in his first game as a Detroit Red Wing
Jakub Vrána was a part of the haul Steve Yzerman received from the Capitals in exchange for Anthony Mantha. | Photo: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

In Vrána, the Red Wings could have either a key member of the rebuild or a valuable trade asset that could be used to acquire another package of prospects and picks down the line. Either way, Steve Yzerman once again proved he’s among the best in the business. 

The famous “one for one” Robby Fabbri trade checks in as Yzerman’s next best deal. Fabbri has been one of the Red Wings’ most dangerous offensive players since arriving in Detroit while Jacob de la Rose has been a fringe player for the St. Louis Blues.

Here are a few more notable moves Yzerman has made thus far in Detroit:

  • Future Considerations to the Rangers for Marc Staal and a 2nd round pick (2021)
  • A 4th round pick (2021) to Tampa Bay for Adam Erne
  • Andreas Athanasiou and Ryan Kuffner to Edmonton for a 2020 2nd round pick and a 2021 2nd round pick 

Yzerman’s other moves have been trade-backs at the draft, trades to offload pending UFAs for mid-round draft picks, and a few minor swaps of little significance. 

The trade that sent defense prospect Alec Regula to Chicago in exchange for Brendan Perlini was perhaps Yzerman’s one hiccup, but it was a relatively low-risk attempt to revitalize the career of a once-promising goal scorer.

Jon Merrill only netting a 5th round pick at this year’s deadline was a bit of a letdown as well.

The lack of interest in Luke Glendening and Jonathan Bernier was also a bit surprising. It seemed like a guarantee Glendening would be moved, and Yzerman presumably held too high an asking price for Bernier.

You can’t fault Yzerman here, though. If you lower your price right at the deadline, GMs around the league will expect you to do it again and again — and that’s not the reputation you want to have. 

Overall, Yzerman has done well on the trade front. You win some and come out on the short end of some others, and there haven’t been many losses to date.

Grade: B+

How Yzerman Has Used the Red Wings’ Cap Space

It would have been nice to weaponize some more of the Red Wings’ cap space this season, but we have no idea if an internal cap was imposed by the Ilitches.

We also sometimes forget that it takes two to tango. Teams aren’t throwing themselves at Yzerman and looking to give away assets for free.

The Wings picked up the 2nd rounder in the Marc Staal deal and nabbed a 4th round pick from Tampa while facilitating the David Savard trade. You really can’t complain here.

The fact that Marc Staal has actually played 46 games for the Red Wings is a huge, but welcome surprise. He’s been decent. There were even rumblings of trade interest leading up to the deadline.

Marc Staal was acquired by Steve Yzerman
The Marc Staal acquisition could not have worked out any better for Steve Yzerman and the Red Wings. | Photo: Detroit Red Wings

Moving forward, the flat cap should present the Red Wings GM with more opportunities to acquire assets from teams looking to shed some payroll.

The days leading up to the expansion draft will be a good opportunity for Yzerman to work his magic as well. There could be a number of young players that teams don’t want to risk losing to the Seattle Kraken for nothing — and the Red Wings could find themselves the beneficiary.

You know Yzerman is exploring every avenue. If he has the chance to take advantage of a team that’s up against the cap, he’ll strike.

Grade: A

What Yzerman has done in free agency

It’s universally known that teams are not built through free agency — though some NHL GMs still haven’t gotten the memo. 

For Steve Yzerman, he’s consistently shown that he is not one of these GMs.

Most of his free agent signings have worked out just fine. Yzerman has targeted solid if unspectacular players on cheap, short-term deals to incrementally improve the NHL team — while maintaining cap flexibility.

It’s exactly what he should be doing.

He’s done a nice job of identifying guys who wanted to be Red Wings — especially during the 2020 offseason.

Players who, despite the team’s historically bad 2019-20 season, chose to come in and be a part of the solution. Yzerman has been able to convince players to step in, contribute, and understand they’re likely to be dealt by the trade deadline. It’s a win-win.

Free agent signings Patrik Nemeth and Jon Merrill were flipped for a 4th round and 5th round pick, respectively.

Bobby Ryan, had he remained healthy, would’ve likely fetched a 3rd or 4th round pick as well. 

Troy Stecher has been the Red Wings’ best defenseman for much of the 2021 season and carries just a $1.7 million cap hit through 2021-22.

Would guys like Carter Verhaeghe (FLA), Matthias Janmark (VGK), or Alexander Wennberg (FLA) have been good “buy low” candidates heading into 2021? Sure, but who’s to say Yzerman didn’t target them?

Yzerman’s persuasive nature will be very beneficial moving forward as the Wings turn things around. He’s clearly making Detroit a desirable free agent destination once again.

Grade: A

Yzerman’s use of buyouts

When Yzerman used his 2013 compliance buyout to get out of the remaining 7 years and $45 million left on Vincent Lecavalier’s contract, the NHL took notice. 

Yzerman removes all emotion and takes any external factors out of the equation when making this type of decision. He does not hesitate to pull the trigger when he’s presented with an opportunity to improve his team’s future outlook.

This was apparent yet again during the 2020 offseason. The Red Wings said goodbye to longtime winger Justin Abdelkader when Yzerman bought out the remaining 3 years ($4.25 million AAV) on his contract.

Justin Abdelkader contract buyout by Steve Yzerman
(via CapFriendly)

Sure, it stings to pay Abdelkader thru 2025-26, but Yzerman felt the $1 million cap hit from 2023-26 was of little significance. In the meantime, he freed up about $2.45 million in 2021, nearly $2 million in 2021-22 and 2022-23, and opened up a spot for a younger, more productive player.

There was really no downside here. A bold and unexpected move to be sure — but one that made too much sense not to make. 

Grade: A+

Yzerman’s handling of the Red Wings Prospects

This has not been a normal year. Teams around the league have struggled to find roster spots for some of their prospects due to the delayed start to the AHL and WHL seasons, the off-and-on nature of the QMJHL’s season, and the absence of the OHL.

No one would’ve predicted Joe Veleno would be playing the wing in the SHL or Filip Larsson would be struggling to put up a .900 SV% in Denmark. Even 2020 third-rounder Donovan Sebrango has found himself making the unexpected jump to the AHL.

In terms of the Red Wings’ younger prospects, there’s nothing to scoff at here in terms of assignments Steve Yzerman has had a say in.

The decision to call up Michael Rasmussen has been a bright spot. He hasn’t set the world on fire, but he’s been noticeably better and playing with more confidence.

Givani Smith has been getting more of an opportunity as well, and I think we all know what he is at this point.

The treatment of Dennis Cholowski has been questionable for the second consecutive year, but Yzerman does have to make a call on him this summer. To protect, or not to protect? The same goes for Gustav Lindstrom.

Michael Rasmussen called up by Steve Yzerman
Michael Rasmussen has looked much more comfortable in the NHL this season. | Photo: Raj Mehta, USA TODAY Sports

And then there’s the Evgeny Svechnikov saga. While he’s no longer considered a “prospect” per se, he still fits the definition of a player who’s yet to show what he can do over an extended period in the NHL. Despite being one of the more talented Red Wings forwards, Svechnikov has routinely been a healthy scratch and was passed through waivers earlier this month.

No, he’s not an impact player or a significant piece of the rebuild. But it’s difficult to understand why he’s being handled this way — especially by a GM who’s shown such sound judgment across the board. This one is baffling.

Grade: B

Final Thoughts

While Steve Yzerman hasn’t been perfect, I think it’s fair to say he’s come as advertised.

And that’s a good thing.

He’s done a good job of stocking up on draft picks and targeting toolsy, high upside prospects.

He’s also taken some swings on former 1st round draft picks who hadn’t quite panned out at the NHL level. Robby Fabbri has worked out; Brendan Perlini hasn’t. Looking at what it took to acquire these players, that’s still a definite win.

Yzerman has ensured he has ultimate cap and roster flexibility moving forward. With the expansion draft looming and a flat cap wreaking havoc across the league, this is going to be a huge advantage for the  Red Wings. 

The overall grade for Steve Yzerman after two years on the job?

Grade: A-

Red Wings fans, you should have all the trust in the world in Steve Yzerman — until he gives you a reason not to. The man clearly has a well-defined plan and there’s not much you can pick apart when looking at the moves he’s made thus far.

The Red Wings are well on their way to building a perennial contender.

And Steve Yzerman is just getting started.


Featured Image: Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

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