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Red Wings sticking to rebuilding plan, sell at NHL Trade Deadline

Drafting difference-maker, developing players takes time, GM says

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

DETROIT -- Steve Yzerman cannot predict or promise how long it will take to rebuild the Detroit Red Wings into a Stanley Cup contender. All he can offer is the truth that it will take a long time. All he can do is stick with his plan to draft, develop and maneuver methodically.

"All I can ask for is patience," he said Monday after his first trade deadline as general manager. "I don't know what else to say."

This speaks volumes: In an era defined by the salary cap and parity, the Red Wings are last in the NHL, 16 points behind the 30th-place Los Angeles Kings, and in a season in which eight teams have changed coaches, they have not.

"It's unfair to judge Jeff Blashill on our team's record," Yzerman said. "Really, it is."


[RELATED: 2019-20 NHL Trade Tracker]


Yzerman said he didn't expect Detroit to make the playoffs. Everything would have had to have gone right, and many things have gone wrong, including injuries. Yzerman said Blashill and his staff have "coached the team very well under very difficult circumstances."

"I'm not going to make any decisions on anything until the season's over," Yzerman said. "We're going to sit down and go over it, but again, I think Jeff's done a really good job. I've enjoyed working with him, and as of right now, I don't plan to make a change, so you read into that what you want."

There is one way to read into that: The problem is the personnel, and the injuries have exacerbated it. There is no quick fix.

Yzerman said the Red Wings set out to acquire as many draft picks as possible and the highest picks possible. They did not add a first-round pick as hoped, but they did add two second-round picks and a mid-round pick in trades with the Edmonton Oilers.

The Red Wings received a second-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft and a second-rounder in the 2021 draft in a trade that featured forward Andreas Athanasiou. They will receive a fourth-round pick this year for defenseman Mike Green, unless the Oilers make the Western Conference Final and he plays half the games. In that case, it will be a third-rounder. 

Video: Oilers acquire forward Athanasiou from Red Wings

That means the Red Wings have six picks in the first three rounds this year (one first, three seconds and two thirds), seven if the pick for Green becomes a third, and five picks in the first three rounds next year (one first, two seconds and two thirds).

"We're rebuilding," Yzerman said. "We've got to give up something if we want to be a good team three, four, five years down the road, and somewhere along the way we're going to have to hit on some of these picks, and the only way to do it is to keep them and get more."

The problem is, it's not an exact science, and it's a grueling process. 

If the Red Wings finish last in the NHL, they will have the best odds in the lottery for the No. 1 pick. They cannot drop lower than No. 4. Yzerman and his scouting staff have been focusing all season on the pool of players expected to go in that range. It's easy to say they have to turn this dismal season into a star player around which they can build, but Yzerman was cautious.

"Sometimes that guy's not there," Yzerman said. "It happens. But we have to stick with it, and we're hoping, obviously, to find a difference-maker, and looking at that group that's there at the top, we think we'll get a real good player whether we're picking one or picking four. Now that's today. In seven or eight years, we'll find out if they're a difference-maker."

Even when that guy is there, it can take a long time. The Red Wings selected Yzerman with the No. 4 pick of the 1983 NHL Draft. They didn't win the Stanley Cup until 1997, after they endured more hard times, drafted players like center Sergei Fedorov and defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and acquired players like center Igor Larionov and Brendan Shanahan. They won the Cup again in 1998 and 2002. After Yzerman retired in 2006, they won it again in 2008 in large part because they drafted centers Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. 

"Honestly, I was here for a long time, and we didn't win anything," Yzerman said. "We need the next Lidstrom and Fedorov and Larionov and Shanahan and Datsyuk and Zetterberg. So you need a bunch of good players."

Video: Trade Deadline: Oilers acquire Athanasiou

One of the reasons the Red Wings are in this predicament is missed opportunities in the draft. They had three picks in the second round in 2011. They selected forward Tomas Jurco at No. 35, defenseman Xavier Ouellet at No. 48 and defenseman Ryan Sproul at No. 55. Each is long gone. Among the players they could have had: goalie John Gibson and forwards Nikita Kucherov, Brandon Saad and Vincent Trocheck.

"I knew what I was getting into," said Yzerman, who took over April 19, 2019. "I think I have a general idea of what it takes to build a team and how to go about it. You need a little bit of luck. You try to minimize your mistakes, and that speeds it up a little bit. But the reality is, even the best organizations don't get everything right. There's a lot of unpredictability in it, I guess."

Yzerman said he hopes the fans embrace the process. He thinks they get it. At the same time, he knows their patience won't last forever.

"It's very difficult to sell," he said. "We've got to show progress. I'm hoping the progress shows next year in wins and losses, but 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."

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