For Yzerman And Red Wings, Rebuild Still Years From Completion

His arrival has put things into proper perspective.

Will Burchfield
February 24, 2020 - 9:43 pm

Steve Yzerman knew it was going to take time. He said as much when he was introduced as Red Wings general manager last April. Almost a year later, it's hard to shake the feeling it's going to take even longer than he thought. 

The Red Wings remain several pieces and several years away from where they want to go, back to where they were before. They have the right man in charge, a man who experienced the last rebuild here himself, but Yzerman's savvy alone isn't enough. The Wings need more players. They need more prospects. They need more promise at every level of the organization, and they need a little luck in the draft this summer. They really need a goalie. 

As hard as it is to admit after four straight losing seasons, the latest one of the worst in franchise history, they need more time. 

"I can’t say it’s two years, three years, five years," Yzerman said Monday after another trade deadline that saw the Wings sell players for picks. "I just don’t know." 

But he does know this: "It’s going to take a long time. You look at the top teams in the league, the St. Louis Blues won the Cup last year, they were at that thing a long time. Washington the year before. (In) Tampa Bay, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman were the first and second pick in the draft 10 or so years ago, (now) they’re challenging for the Stanley Cup. That’s the amount of time it takes to get there." 

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No, we're not talking about another decade of misery here. If we're using Tampa as an example, the Lightning drafted Stamkos in 2008 and Hedman in 2009 after consecutive last-place finishes, and five years later grew into the juggernaut they still are. By 2024-25, the Red Wings should be reaping the rewards of their current struggle.

But that's hardly a comforting timeframe, and the Lightning are probably a best-case comparison. They happened to bottom out in the respective draft years of a future 50-goal scorer and a future Norris Trophy winner, and they happened to get the latter second overall because a guy by the name of John Tavares went first. And that was back in the day when the NHL's last-place team was guaranteed at worst the second overall pick. 

The Red Wings this year could slip as low as fourth. Wherever they wind up picking, they need to find a difference-maker, which is no guarantee itself. 

"We say we’re going to build through the draft, sometimes that guy’s not there," Yzerman said. "It happens, but we have to stick with it. We’re hoping obviously to find a difference-maker. Looking at that group there at the top, we think we’ll get a real good player whether we’re picking one or we’re picking four -- and that’s today. In seven or eight years we’ll find out if they’re a difference-maker." 

Here are the difference-makers the Wings can point to right now: Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, Filip Hronek. A good case can be made for Anthony Mantha. None of those players rank among -- or even near -- the best at their position in the NHL. Here are the difference-makers they can hopefully point to soon: Filip Zadina, Moritz Seider. Beyond that, I think you really start to reach. And the question mark in the crease has grown larger with the struggles this season of prospect Filip Larsson.

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That's not to say an unheralded prospect or two won't blow our expectations away; take Bertuzzi as an example. It's not to say the Wings won't hit on a couple mid- to late-round picks; their track record speaks for itself. It's not to say a castoff like Robby Fabbri or perhaps Dmytro Timashov won't put it all together in Detroit. The unpredictability of young players can be a blessing as much as a curse.

But even factoring in some good fortune, the Wings need at least two more draft classes to mature before they can start thinking about any kind of run at the playoffs. This season has been a stark reminder of the challenge staring Yzerman in the face. 

"I think we’re fortunate here that this is a hockey market, that people like the game and play the game. Obviously they want the team to win. What I’m hoping people will embrace is Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Filip Zadina coming, Filip Hronek this year," Yzerman said. "Embrace their careers and their development. ... We’re seeing progress. We’re hoping next year if we can add another one and each of these kids takes another step, it’s all part of the process of us becoming a really good team again."

A year ago, Andreas Athanasiou seemed like part of that process, too. On Monday Yzerman shipped him to Edmonton for a pair of second-round picks. He's just beginning to put his imprint on the roster, and it's daunting to consider he's not done tearing it down. Yzerman rebuffed the idea he underestimated this rebuild 10 months ago, and he's so pragmatic he probably didn't. But maybe we did. Maybe we thought his arrival would automatically expedite things. In reality, it put things into perspective. 

Not even a GM of his stature can lift the Wings out of this morass. They can only trudge through it, step by hopeful step, until the ground beneath them feels like it did before. 

"I’m hoping the progress shows next season in wins and losses," Yzerman said. "It will show in prospects in the system and their development, but at some point we have to show progress, and I’m confident we’ll do that. All I can ask for is patience. I don’t know what else to say honestly, I don’t know what to tell people. The reality is, this is how most organizations do it, and if we stick with it we’ll get it back. Hopefully we can do it sooner than later because people’s patience is going to be tested."