Red Wings rebuild won’t be easy, but Yzerman is right GM choice

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Detroit Red Wings fans are right to rejoice. While the move’s been telegraphed for a while, this is indeed a good Friday for the Red Wings, as Steve Yzerman was officially named as their next GM.

Whether it was convincing Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman to sign team-friendly deals, or identifying the league’s general prejudice against smaller players to unearth draft day bargains, Yzerman* did such a great job with the Tampa Bay Lightning, that I’ve called him a magician and/or wizard on multiple occasions.

Even if you’re a vociferous defender of Ken Holland’s latter, sometimes-rebuild-resistant years, chances are, you’re probably very excited about Yzerman’s hiring. The team announced official titles for both Yzerman and Holland, if you like your updates especially granular.

So, to me and plenty others – not just Red Wings fans – this is a shrewd hire.

Still, if there’s one talking point that stands out as especially valid, it’s this: when Yzerman took over the Lightning, he already had an elite center in Steven Stamkos, and a future Norris-winning defenseman in Victor Hedman.

All due respect to Dylan Larkin (who had a strong season, and is only 22) and some other nice players, but the Red Wings don’t have foundational players at quite that superstar level. They do, however, have a pretty interesting setup. If Yzerman is as bright as he seemed to be in Tampa Bay, the Red Wings could really turn things around. All they need is some luck and patience.

Let’s get an idea of the path ahead for Yzerman.

On a Larkin

Look, there’s no shame in Larkin not being quite what Stamkos was in 2010, when Stevie Y took over in Tampa Bay. It’s easy to forget just how potent Stamkos was (the NHL’s most goals [156] and second-most points [283] from 2009-10 to 2010-11), possibly because a few catastrophic injuries briefly derailed his career.

Larkin is fantastic, and stands as the sort of contract you’d build around: a 22-year-old star with a bargain $6.1 million cap hit running through 2022-23.

Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi showed great chemistry with Larkin late in the season, with Mantha in particular boasting the sort of pedigree that points to continued success. One of Yzerman’s early challenges will be to strike affordable deals with Mantha, Bertuzzi, and Andreas Athanasiou, three useful forwards whose contracts expire after 2019-20. Would the best deals come in earlier extensions, or would the Red Wings be wiser to wait? It’s up to Yzerman & Co. to decide, and getting good deals could be key if they want to build a winning core.

Early fruits of rebuild

While I’d argue that Holland dragged his feet multiple times when it came to the rebuilding process, the good news is that when Holland did act, he landed some nice building blocks. In trading away Gustav Nyquist, Nick Jensen, and especially Tomas Tatar, the Red Wings have really loaded up on draft picks, most of which land in the top three rounds.

The development processes are already underway for a few interesting prospects, particularly 2018 first-rounders Filip Zadina (sixth overall) and Joe Veleno (30th). The Red Wings once again pick sixth overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, so it’s up to Yzerman to land another blue-chipper, even if Detroit doesn’t get the luxury of a more obvious choice like Jack Hughes or Kappo Kakko.

Almost as important is that the Red Wings have loaded up on picks like they’re at Prospect Costco:

  • Last year, they had those two first-rounders, plus: two second-rounders, and three third-rounders to go with their normal set of choices (minus a fifth-rounder).
  • Via Cap Friendly’s handy chart, the Red Wings have two extra second-round picks and one additional fifth-rounder in 2019.
  • In 2020, they have an extra second and third-round pick. (The third-rounder could turn into a second-rounder depending upon the San Jose Sharks’ actions.)
  • They already have an extra third-rounder in 2021.

That’s a fantastic start, eh? Even the best drafting teams would admit that there’s a lot of “dart throwing” involved in drafting, so it makes sense to load up on those darts, especially when you get the added precision of picks in earlier rounds.

The Lightning were adept at finding quality talent off-the-beaten-path under Yzerman,* most notably identifying Brayden Point as a third-rounder (79th in 2014) and Nikita Kucherov in a second round (58th in 2011). If Yzerman can carry that success over to Detroit, even partially, the Red Wings could really make some exciting leaps.

Cleanup duty

Which brings us to the messier part.

For all of Holland’s accomplishments, he left behind a shaggy salary structure. There’s dead money (Stephen Weiss’ buyout lingers through 2020-21), scary contracts (Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Danny DeKeyser), and, erm, maybe too much of a “veteran presence.”

By that I mean this team is old, at least beyond the core. Niklas Kronwall is 38 with a (mercifully) expiring contract, both Jonathan Ericsson and Trevor Daley are 35, and Mike Green is a very banged-up 33. DeKeyser is oft-criticized and not really a spring chicken, either, at 29.

The goalie duo is also creaky. Jimmy Howard was fantastic in 2018-19, but at 35, it’s still surprising that the Red Wings didn’t trade him, even with the understanding that they’d come calling during free agency time in July. Jonathan Bernier is 30 and his $3M cap hit doesn’t expire until after the 2020-21 season.

Most of those trends are disturbing, and while the Red Wings need more talent basically everywhere, the defense and goaltending likely need the most strenuous surgery.

The good news is that a significant chunk of those contracts aren’t lingering too long after Yzerman takes the reins. Kronwall is headed to free agency (or retirement?), while Ericsson, Green, and Daley come off the books after 2019-20. Howard’s extension only lasts through 2019-20, so maybe Yzerman will get trade value out of the veteran where Holland could or would not.

In the short term, and in the case of a few lengthier deals, there’s a significant mess to clean up. The light at the end of the tunnel isn’t too dim, however.

Some pain for future gains

I’ve seen at least mild arguments to try to win now, with at least a portion of The Athletic’s Craig Custance piece (sub required) mentioning certain surprise stories in the NHL. And, sure, if the goal were only to make it back to the playoffs (and maybe even win a series), then speeding up the rebuild would make sense.

My guess is that mega-winner Stevie Y wants his best chance at a Stanley Cup, not merely getting the Red Wings to the playoff bubble.

The free agent market dries up pretty quickly when you realize that Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky likely wouldn’t find much of a lure to join a rebuilding team in a cold weather city (heck, “Detroiters” even got canceled).

So, instead of chasing mid-tier free agents and settling for mid-tier expectations, Yzerman should use his clout to absorb another rebuild year or two. Doing so would raise the ceiling on this rebuild, for a few reasons:

  • Most directly and obviously, tanking for an even better pick in 2020. If you look at the teams who regularly contend, virtually all of them required high-end talent found early in drafts.
  • Rather than giving valuable playing time to long-in-the-tooth veterans, why not let younger players learn on the job? You might just get an idea of what you have in, say, Michael Rasmussen. Difference-making players are hitting the NHL earlier and earlier, so why not find out which players can actually make a difference?
  • Allow the Red Wings to be a short-term receptacle to clear cap space, with Detroit taking a bribe, whether that means quality draft picks or useful players. See: the Coyotes landing an important scorer in Vinnie Hinostroza in exchange for keeping Marian Hossa‘s contract warm. Yzerman could even call up his buddies in Tampa Bay and offer to absorb the final year of Ryan Callahan‘s contract ($5.8M cap hit). Boy, Anthony Cirelli and/or Mathieu Joseph would look nice with a winged wheel …
  • Going further, getting more cap space means that the Red Wings could position themselves to land better players in trades than they’d likely entice in free agency. Perhaps teams would ready for the expansion draft by sending good, would-be-exposed players to Detroit for something? Maybe the Hurricanes would sour on Dougie Hamilton, or something similar would happen with P.K. Subban, considering his hefty $9M price tag? Could the Red Wings echo former exec Jim Nill in being the next team to say “Why, yes, we’d love to take Tyler Seguin for 25 cents on the dollar, thank you.”

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This isn’t an easy job, and again, some of this comes down to luck. Still, it’s easy to see why Red Wings fans are excited.

Make no mistake about it, though: Yzerman has his work cut out for him. It could be the fun sort of work that you’d get from tinkering with a car in the garage, and it should be fascinating for those of us who are dorks when it comes to studying how teams are put together.

* – And his staff, including current GM Julien BriseBois. We could have a lengthy, basically impossible-to-resolve discussion about who was most responsible for the great building in Tampa Bay, but it would be pretty fruitless. And, really, wouldn’t all smart GMs want to surround themselves with other smart people?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Return to Hockeytown: Steve Yzerman named Red Wings GM

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Steve Yzerman’s return to Hockeytown is now official.

The Detroit Red Wings announced on Friday afternoon that Yzerman will assume the role of executive vice president and general manager, responsible for all hockey operations, and that Ken Holland, who’s been in the GM position since 1997, will stay on as senior vice president with a new multi-year extension.

“I’m extremely honored to be named General Manager of the Red Wings,” said Yzerman in a statement. “I’m very grateful to the Ilitches, both for their support when I left to become General Manager of the Lightning, and for their kindness in welcoming my family and me back to the organization. I’d also like to thank Ken Holland. I was fortunate to learn the management side of the game from Jim Devellano, Ken and others in the Red Wings organization for four seasons after I retired, and I’m very happy to have the opportunity to work alongside them once again. It was very humbling to be approached about returning home to become General Manager, and I’m looking forward to building on the exciting young core Ken has already put in place.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Yzerman stepped down as GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning in September, citing a desire to spend more time with his family. Immediately, the Detroit connection was made, and after a season of rumors, the Red Wings and their fans can finally welcome the franchise legend back in the fold.

A Hockey Hall of Famer who played 22 seasons with the Red Wings, Yzerman helped the franchise win three Stanley Cups. Following his retirement in 2006, he served as Holland’s assistant as the team’s vice president. He was also executive director of Canada’s gold medal winning Olympic teams in 2010 and 2014. From 2015 to this past September he helped build a Lightning team that reached three Eastern Conference Finals and the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, and recorded the fourth-most wins in the NHL (402).

MORE: Red Wings rebuild won’t be easy, but Yzerman is right GM choice

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Red Wings give Blashill two-year extension to continue developing youth

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Another playoff-less spring means the Detroit Red Wings have already begun working on the 2019-20 NHL season. First, they extended goaltender Jimmy Howard and now they’re bringing back head coach Jeff Blashill.

The Red Wings announced on Thursday that Blashill has agreed to a two-year extension through the 2020-21 season. He was hired in June 2015 and has headed up a rebuild that is still on-going, but has some bright spots to it.

Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou each hit the 30-goal mark for the first time during career years, while Anthony Mantha hit 20 goals for the second straight season, and Tyler Bertuzzi took a big step forward as part of a developing Red Wing core. There’s still plenty of age on the roster beyond this season — Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Jonathan Ericcsson, Trevor Daley, and likely Niklas Kronwall, whose contract expires this summer — but a youth movement is afoot. In general manager Ken Holland’s eyes Blashill is the right choice to continue to lead this transition phase.

“Jeff has done a tremendous job developing our young talent as we continue to rebuild our organization,” said Holland in a statement. “Our young players have made significant strides during his time as head coach and are playing important minutes in key situations. As we continue to build towards the future, we have the utmost confidence that Jeff is the coach best suited to help our prospects become impactful NHL players. He has gained valuable experience as an NHL coach in each of his four years in Detroit and has instilled a work ethic in our current team that makes us hard to play against every night and competitive in every game, which is the identity we want our team to have as we move forward.”

The one solution the Red Wings have yet to find is a goaltender of the future who can step in in a year or two. With Howard’s extension and Jonathan Bernier still under contract through the end of next season, Holland has $7.25M invested between the pipes for 2019-20.

A two-year extension is a short enough leash that a change could be made if things aren’t trending in the right direction. There’s plenty of speculation about Holland’s future as well. He signed two-year deal last April, but his name has been constantly brought up in rumors surrounding the GM position for the Seattle franchise, which isn’t entering the NHL until the 2020-21 season.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Red Wings extend GM Ken Holland, for better or worse

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Some teams dive in the deep end when it comes to rebuilding (and/or “tanking”). Generally speaking, the Red Wings have instead opted to dip their toes in that pool.

With that in mind, it’s probably not too surprising to see the team hand GM Ken Holland a two-year contract extension.

As the Red Wings note, this opens the door for Holland to enter his 22nd season as GM. The team does a solid job of listing his biggest accomplishments as the league’s second-longest tenured general manager:

Under his watch, the Red Wings have won four Presidents’ Trophies, captured 10 division championships, won five regular-season conference titles and reached at least 100 regular-season points a league-high 13 times in the last 17 seasons. The Red Wings have also won 893 regular-season games and 119 playoff games since Holland assumed general manager duties in July 1997, topping the NHL in both categories during that span.

Of course, that press release doesn’t ruminate much on the present, and it only fixates on one positive part of the future: that they made 10 picks in the 2017 NHL Draft, hold 11 in the upcoming 2018 edition, and already claim 10 for 2019.

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Schedule, Bracket, Streams and More

For one thing, the massive haul of draft picks are a mixed bag. Holding such a quantity of picks does open the door for Holland to justify the belief that the Red Wings might once again unearth gems as they had in the past, a thought that becomes more promising if you still believe that they’re better than most at developing prospects.

On the other hand, such a smorgasboard of selections could also have been useful for a new GM to define a new vision. And, hey, maybe some of those picks could be packaged in a deal to ship some crummy deals out of Detroit.

Because, make no mistake about it, this team is a real mess on paper. Despite missing the playoffs for the second straight season in 2018-19, they were essentially a cap team. Via Cap Friendly, the Red Wings already have $56.875 million in cap space devoted to 14 players, and that’s with key young players (including Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, and Andreas Athanasiou) needing new deals as pending RFAs.

Now, there are some contracts that even the most creative, aggressive executive would probably just need to deal with.

Still, you wonder if Holland might be “too close” to some deals and decisions, thus keeping the Red Wings from making crucial calls to accelerate the process toward being competitive again. This franchise clearly needs to yank the “Band-Aid” off swiftly, and you have to wonder if the chief architect is truly willing to undergo a necessary makeover.

This is yet another example of a franchise handing a polarizing GM an extension, such as the Vancouver Canucks re-upping oft-criticized exec Jim Benning. Time will tell if Holland can turn the Red Wings around, but from a sheer PR standpoint, it’s not a move savvy Red Wings fans are very happy about.

In other key organizational news, the team is expected to make an announcement regarding head coach Jeff Blashill in the coming week. The Detroit Free-Press’ Helene St. James and others indicate that he’ll probably be back, and it’s worth noting that Blashill has one year remaining on his contract.

Holland’s name has been connected to the Seattle expansion franchise, and while it’s feasible that he could still move on, this extension should at least turn the volume down on such speculation for a while.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Should Ken Holland lead rebuild for Red Wings?

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If the Detroit Red Wings are going to turn their fortunes around, it’s going to be Ken Holland remaining at the controls.

Holland, who’s been general manager of the team since 1997, will be back at the helm according to three Detroit outlets. MLive.com, the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News are all citing sources saying that ownership will not make a change after this season. Head coach Jeff Blashill, who has one more year left on his deal, is also expected to be back.

The Red Wings wrap up their season on April 7, so it should become official some time before the team breaks for the summer.

Holland entered the 2017-18 season without an extension, something that was routine business in year’s past. When that didn’t happen, and the Red Wings began to struggle again, he was firmly placed on the hot seat. After two decades in the GMs chair and three Stanley Cups, it’s been a good run, but with Christopher Illitch taking the ownership lead following his father’s death, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see a new face replacing Holland.

Since 2011, the Red Wings have only one playoff series victory and have now missed the postseason two straight years after a 25-year streak of getting into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With the likes of Julien BriseBois, Kyle Dubas, Paul Fenton, Tom Fitzgerald, Mike Futa, and Laurence Gilman among the names floating out there as possible future NHL GMs, you have to wonder why ownership has faith that Holland is the one to lead them out of their current mess when he’s the one who helped direct them down that way.

Their salary cap picture is not a good one, and while the ceiling is expected to rise for 2018-19, the Red Wings have some important young pieces — Andreas Athanasiou, Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha — who are due raises as restricted free agents this summer. But while that extra room should help with re-signings, there are still the contracts of Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Trevor Daley, Jonathan Ericsson, Danny DeKeyser, Darren Helm and Henrik Zetterberg — all Holland signings — that are long and eating a lot of space.

Holland’s rebuild efforts got off to a great start last month when he flipped Tomas Tatar and Petr Mrazek for draft picks. According to Cap Friendly, the Red Wings could have up to eight selections in the opening four rounds of this June’s entry draft and five in the first three rounds of the 2019 draft. That’s great for restocking the prospect cupboard or packaging in trades for young roster players who can aid in this rebuild.

But the hard part, identifying and securing talent, comes next.

“We’re not good enough quite right now,” Holland said last month. “For me, it’s about trying to acquire pieces that I think can have an impact on this team three, four years down the road in order to build a team that’s a playoff team, that’s got a young foundation. That’s the goal. Those are the decisions that I’m making.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.