Steve Yzerman, then with the Detroit Red Wings, speaks during the first round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft at Nationwide Arena on June 22, 2007 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Steve Yzerman admits it is not exciting. It is a rather simple, methodical philosophy.
The most important thing for the Lightning’s new vice president and general manager is that he has seen it work first hand with the Detroit Red Wings organization by raising Cups over his head.
Yzerman’s approach will be thorough and patient with the young players that enter the organization, much like the Red Wings have done over the years.
“There’s kids like Steven Stamkos who are so good they can play right away,” Yzerman said. “But that’s two percent of the world. The rest of the guys have to play in juniors, go to college, learn how to train, how to eat. The most important thing is to provide them with a good environment to learn how to be a pro. That way, when they hit the NHL, they are NHL players, not kids just trying to keep their heads above water.”
Fourteen of the Red Wings regulars this year were drafted by the team, a few others acquired with astute seemingly-minor trades and another draftee returning from Europe (Jiri Hudler). Only one of the players drafted by Detroit in the last four drafts is playing in the NHL – Shawn Matthias, who was traded to Florida. Two players drafted in 2005 are now breaking in with success – Darren Helm (132nd) and Justin Abdelkader (42nd), both at 23.
Detroit has also drafted such players such as Johan Franzen, Jimmy Howard, Valtteri Filppula, Jonathan Ericsson, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom and Pavel Datsyuk after the second round.
In comparison, last year’s Lightning roster was formed mostly of free agents and players acquired via trade. Of the 22 players who either played a minimum of 40 games with Tampa Bay or were acquired during the season, just five of them were drafted by the Lightning (Vincent Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Mike Lundin, James Wright). Of those five, only Mike Lundin (102nd overall) and James Wright (117th overall) were selected after of the first or second overall picks.
There is no quick fix, but over time the team may add a few key players through free agency and/or trades to a group of players who are developed through a stable developmental process and strong work on draft days.
Yzerman watched the process the previous four years as vice president and alternate governor with the Red Wings. He witnessed who took which roles, how it all came together, and developed his plan on how he would later oversee things as a general manager. He intends to let the amateur scouting staff do its job.
“The biggest thing I learned is to stay out of it if you are not living it,” Yzerman said. “If you are not involved in that process, for me to come in and say ‘this is who I want to draft or who I don’t want to draft’ is a mistake. These guys have been working hard. I want them to continue with it and they’ll run the draft for us.”
The Red Wings have had great success with many of their European draftees, while Tampa Bay has found prolonged success by selections from across the pond hard to come by before selecting Victor Hedman last year (Although Richard Panik and Johan Harju are considered good prospects). Yzerman said most teams look all over the globe for players these days and he will be no different.
“You’re competing against 29 other teams that are trying to find the best players,” Yzerman said. “If you limit yourself to one area, you’re limiting your chances of success in the draft. There are great players all over Europe and North America.”
Every player is different.
The goal is to see steady progress. For instance, the Wings drafted defenseman Brendan Smith 27th overall in 2007. In three seasons since at the University of Wisconsin, he has gone from 12, to 23, to 52 points. He signed with the Wings last month and will likely play in the AHL next season.
The Lightning have seen a similar scenario work with Lundin, who played four years at the University of Maine and turned 23 during his first training camp. After some seasoning in Norfolk, he played top-pair minutes last season as a 25-year old.
Yzerman wants to put the right pieces in place throughout the organization, good coaching and good people with character, to set an example of strong work ethic for the young players to follow. Once players are drafted, the long process starts.
“You just want to let them play and let them develop on their own,” Yzerman said. “They need to go through the process. That builds character and they become more physically and mentally ready to mature.”
Yzerman saw it all through his 22-year Hall of Fame playing career and four years in the front office. He said he learned a lot as a player, adapting to new things and watching others develop into pros.
The first words he used in describing the players he wants to bring in were “skill” and “compete level.” But Yzerman said it will take everything to build and sustain a successful organization. He will need patience from his young players as well.
“I’ve watched players have to go to the minors that second or third year of pro hockey and not be happy about it,” Yzerman said. “But then they get down there, they work at it, playing 20 minutes a game instead of being in and out of the lineup in Detroit. Then when they are ready to go in, they’re 22-year olds, physically strong, mature guys who have been through some of the wars.”
“It’s simple, but it’s the way it needs to be done,” Yzerman said. “It’s proven successful and it’s the way I intend to do it here.”