It was almost a decade now that Steve Yzerman left the Wings front office. While it seemed a bit off, and there was a section of Red Wings fans that thought it was on the level of a crime that Yzerman wasn’t allowed to replace Ken Holland then, it didn’t rise to the level of controversy as the Wings were still on top and Holland not yet discovered to be one of the luckier morons around. Since Yzerman left of course, the Wings haven’t seen anything past the second round in 10 seasons, haven’t won a playoff round in six, and will have missed the playoffs the last four when this one’s over. It may be far too late to have saved that era of Detroit hockey, but according to Wings fans everyone is where they should be now.
The first thing Yzerman will have to do is identify or find pieces that the team will be built upon. Is that Dylan Larkin? Jury is still very much out on that, though he is very good. Is he a franchise turner? When Yzerman landed in Tampa, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman were already there. You can’t get much better than that. Dylan Larkin is now Steven Stamkos. There isn’t anyone here to be a homeless man’s Hedman yet.
However, to discredit what Yzerman built down there would be completely unfair. Yzerman’s second draft saw him nab Vladimir Namestnikov, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat. The latter two would form two-thirds of the Triplets that were major parts of the Lightning’s continued runs to the conference final and beyond. His third draft netted Andrei Vasilevskiy and Cedric Pacquette. Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, and Mathieu Joseph would follow in the next few years, who are the backbone of this Lightning team.
Yzerman also went outside the draft in signing Tyler Johnson and stealing Ben Bishop for Cory Conacher. Anton Stralman ended up being the analytic darling of free agent signings. The Zobrist of hockey, if you will (you won’t). It’s an impressive list of team-building.
There were missteps, of course. The Bolts blue line was always a bit plodding beyond Hedman. Ryan Callahan sucked up a ton of cap space for what became a pretty shitty Brandon Dubinsky impression. Dan Girardi did the same. Ryan McDonagh aged a ton upon arrival. No one bats 1.000.
But Yzerman did earn a rep for moving on pretty quickly when he could. His first team went to the conference final under Guy Boucher and his overrated, boring-ass ways that were just riding Dwayne Roloson‘s second nuclear streak. Boucher was fired just over a season later and that entire team moved out for what would come next and what you saw here in 2015. Jonathan Drouin at #3 overall in the draft never earned a spot and never stopped bitching about it. He was chucked for Mikhail Sergachev, who has contributed heavily to the Lightning of late. Stevie Y rarely falls in love with something that isn’t worth it.
Maybe it’s better to arrive at the Wings now. In 2010-2011, he would have had the same problems that Holland refused to see, the aging stars that were no longer up for carrying a team deep into the spring. The cap problems. And the desperation to keep bolstering that up.
That doesn’t mean it’s a total blank slate in Motor City. Yzerman will lose the contracts of Mike Green, Jimmy Howard, Jonathan Ericsson, and Trevor Daley after the season. That’s some $16M in space. Only Andreas Anathasiou and Tyler Bertuzzi will require big raises. And splashing cash in the free agent market in the summer shouldn’t be a priority, as this team is a long way from anything.
Still, the major part is finding the foundation. Larkin has done the best he can, but he’s never had an 80-point season. Then again, he hasn’t had much talent around him either. Is Filip Hronek the new anchor on the blue line? Filip Zadina (Larry Horse say too Filip-y) hasn’t flashed yet to signal why he was taken 6th overall.
What Yzerman buys everyone is a ton of time. Wings fans aren’t going to get seriously impatient with him for seasons, which is good because he’s going to need it. His time in Tampa buys a lot of additional trust. A possible #1 pick overall will as well, though there’s no generational player in this draft as there have been in previous.
The only complaint is that Yzerman’s Lightning only won one Prince Of Wales trophy. Of course, if Duncan Keith hadn’t gone supernova in ’15 and the Penguins not around in ’16, that might be different. Three of four years they lost to the eventual champions in the third round or later, and all of them to the definitive teams of the era.
Wings fans won’t accept that when it’s all said and done. But it’s a long road to even there for them.