‘We need to improve the team’: What’s next for Steve Yzerman’s Red Wings (2024)

The big news item from Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman’s season-end press conference was answered early: Detroit is bringing back Jeff Blashill as head coach next season.

But over the course of a more than 40-minute video conference with media Wednesday, Yzerman also shared much more about the team’s approach to draft preparation and player training in this altered landscape, hinted at what could be a slightly more aggressive approach in free agency, and offered other insights from his first year on the job.


Here’s what else stood out:

Draft preparation

Yzerman described his reaction to Tuesday’s draft lottery format announcement as “mixed feelings,” but nonetheless said he’s confident the team will be happy with whoever it gets (the Red Wings will pick between first and fourth overall).

The preparation process, however, has certainly been altered from past seasons. The cancellations of seasons and international tournaments have cut into the number of live viewings any teams were able to have of draft prospects late in the season, as did the loss of the NHL’s draft combine, where teams often get important face time with players.

“We’ll be prepared as best we can be for the draft,” Yzerman said. “It doesn’t look like we’ll get to physically spend some time with the kids, we don’t have the luxury of being at the combine to get the physical testing results from that, so we’ll be as prepared as we can be.”

He did sound relatively happy, though, with the way virtual meetings had gone. It also seems to have helped that this was coming after a year on the job, allowing Yzerman familiarity with the staff.

“I don’t think we want to work remotely forever,” he said. “I think human contact and being together as a company, as a staff, is important. But it’s worked reasonably well, and we’ve been able to do what we need to do, and discussions have been good and everyone has been focused. So we’re very comfortable with how the meetings have gone. They’ve worked as well as they would have in person.”

How to handle the long layoff

One of the realizations that quickly set in with Tuesday’s announcement of a 24-team Return to Play format, which ended the Red Wings’ season, was that the team is not going to play again for a long time.

Even aside from the fact Detroit won’t be taking part in the playoffs, it’s plausible the NHL’s 2020-21 season may not start until January.

Bettman reiterates that '20-21 season will be played in its entirety. Mentions a November-January range for a possible start.

— Craig Custance (@CraigCustance) May 26, 2020

If that ends up being the case, then the Red Wings and the six other teams not taking part in the playoffs or qualifying rounds could be significantly left behind by the layoff.

“I don’t see any positive in not playing, as far as your development and your career at any stage,” Yzerman said. “But there’s nothing we can do about it, and we’ll work our way around it, and we’ll figure out through the offseason here how we best prepare for coming out of this.”


He pointed out that some younger players in Europe have been able to train with their teams, which certainly helps. And for players who stayed local, the NHL’s phase 2 protocol could give players who are in Detroit the chance to train at Little Caesars Arena soon.

Beyond that, there’s some ambiguity about the team’s options. Yzerman wondered if there could be any opportunity for minicamps among the non-playoff teams, although local, state and federal regulations certainly would come into play there.

Ultimately, the team would like to get together when possible. But in the meantime, without formal, team-facilitated camps, there may be an opportunity for some of the team’s most dedicated prospects to separate themselves.

Yzerman said Shawn Horcoff and Dan Cleary, who run the team’s player development department, have been in contact with players and and will continue, along with the strength coaches, to facilitate instruction and any resource or equipment needs. From there, much of it will be up to the players.

“The young guys that are motivated, they’re going figure out a way and find a way to get it done,” Yzerman said. “And part of it is, we’ll learn who really wants to be a hockey player. Guys that want to train are going to figure it out. Guys that want to get better and improve are going to figure it out, and we’re going to provide the resources to do that.

“The ones who truly don’t are going to find a way, and they’ve got as good a reason as they’re ever going to have of not being able to train right now. So a lot of the onus is on the kids’ motivation.”

Free agency/offseason

In discussing Blashill’s job performance, one quote in particular stood out in Yzerman’s answer.

“Quite frankly, we need to improve the team for anybody to truly critique or assess the coaching staff,” he said. “We need to improve the team.”

Yzerman will have plenty of opportunities to do so this offseason, and there was some insight Wednesday into his priorities.

First of all, in case there was any doubt, pending restricted free agents Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi are not going anywhere. Presumably, some clarity on the league’s salary cap would be useful going into those negotiations, but Yzerman made his intentions clear, saying, “we’ll get deals done with them,” without giving a timeline.

There will be some tougher RFA decisions to make, however, as the Red Wings have a total of eight restricted free agents from the NHL roster (plus more in the AHL) they will need to submit qualifying offers to and/or sign to contracts this summer. Presumably, not all of them will be back as the team looks to improve.

Beyond that, Yzerman was asked if his level of aggressiveness had changed at all in his first year on the job.

“I’d say maybe slightly,” he said, before reiterating that the franchise’s ultimate plan would be built around drafting and developing.

Yzerman’s preference is to not go “make a splash” in free agency. He wants to make “sensible signings” that help improve the team, which means the right type of player, the right type of person and the right kind of contract. He made that clear. He also said it’s very difficult to build a good team over time through free agency.

But for someone who could have quickly ruled out a more aggressive approach in free agency, he did not do that either, instead saying, “We’re prepared to do anything we can in free agency, but it’s not a ‘get a player at all costs.’ That’s not the plan.”

Elaborating a bit further:

“To get those elite players — if, in fact, they’re there — you’ve gotta spend a lot of money for a long time, and I don’t know if we’re a market for those types of players at this time. That’s the reality. If a player wants to play in Detroit, we’re certainly going to explore every opportunity. But the deal has to work for both parties.


“… Would we be a little bit more aggressive in free agency? Maybe so. That doesn’t mean going out and spending seven-year max contracts, just to get a player. But we’re certainly going to have some roster spots to fill, we’re going to need to fill them. We won’t be able to fill them with all of our younger players. So we’re trying to improve the team, but ultimately we’re not trying to do everything overnight, because that can really handcuff you at times. We’re trying to use free agency wisely.”

Ultimately, that’s a very measured answer. It’s certainly still in line with his idea of patience through the rebuild process. But it does seem to signal a bit more willingness in the free-agent market than we’ve heard from Yzerman to date, which is notable in its own right.

Yzerman was candid in saying the team needs to improve in every area, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him address each of them this offseason.

A captain next season

Finally, Yzerman was asked early in the conference about naming a captain, which he said he plans to do prior to next season.

He did not say who it would be, but obviously, the odds-on favorite will be center Dylan Larkin.

It was much later in the call when Yzerman was asked about Larkin broadly (as in, not specifically in the context of the captaincy), but his answer nonetheless gave a window into why Larkin is the natural pick for that role.

“He’s a dedicated professional, he’s a hard worker, he’s very competitive (and) he’s a very good hockey player,” Yzerman said. “And I’ve enjoyed my conversations with him and discussions about hockey, about our team and whatnot, throughout the course of the season. I’m very impressed with him. I think being a member of the Red Wings and improving this team is very, very important to him and he takes it seriously.”


Realistically, it would not have been a surprise had Larkin been named the captain last fall. But Yzerman, in his first season, wanted to get to know all the players. When the team did name a captain, he said at the time, he wanted that person to be the captain “for a long time.”

Larkin, at 23 years old, certainly seems like he’ll be around quite a while.

“He’s an excellent player for us,” Yzerman said. “He’s a very important player, he’s a great leader, and he’s dedicated and mentally strong and committed. So I’ve been very impressed really getting to know him over the course of the year.”

(Photo: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

‘We need to improve the team’: What’s next for Steve Yzerman’s Red Wings (1)‘We need to improve the team’: What’s next for Steve Yzerman’s Red Wings (2)

Max Bultman is a staff writer for The Athletic covering the Detroit Red Wings. He has also written for the Sporting News, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Max is a graduate of the University of Michigan, where he covered Michigan football and men's basketball. Follow Max on Twitter @m_bultman

‘We need to improve the team’: What’s next for Steve Yzerman’s Red Wings (2024)
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