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Yzerman's longtime friend excited to see him back in Detroit

Blues analyst Darren Pang says Wings GM will do whatever it takes to make team better

by Dana Wakiji @Dwakiji / DetroitRedWings.com

HIGHLAND, Mich. -- If there is one person who knows Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman better than anyone outside his family, it's Darren Pang.

Pang is the former Chicago Blackhawks goaltender who is currently an analyst for St. Louis Blues broadcasts on FOX Sports Midwest in addition to doing some games for the NHL Network and Sportsnet.

He and Yzerman have been friends since they were kids growing up and playing hockey in the suburbs of Ottawa.

"It's been almost 40 years now," said Pang, who played in the 11th Annual Celebrity Softball Classic to benefit the Joe Kocur Foundation for Children last Saturday in Highland, Mich. "Our kids have grown up, he's been at both my kids' weddings, we were in each other's wedding parties, we've been on numerous golf trips. We've been best friends … it's a long time."

Tweet from @Panger40: The @JoeKocur26 and @kocurfoundation did another great job with honoring Terrible ( Great) Ted Lindsay today in Highland MI at Duck Lake Ball Park. pic.twitter.com/XvNGOZpYT3

Pang has been there for Yzerman throughout his entire hockey career, both on and off the ice, so naturally he was excited to see his friend return to Detroit in April as the Wings' executive vice president and general manager.

"Obviously I'm thrilled for Steve to be back here," Pang said. "Steve's just a special guy. He does things the right way, he's an honorable friend, he's loyal. I went up there to his offices to see him and spent a half a day. I saw him in the Red Wings golf shirt and I just looked at him and I said, 'Boy, does that look good.' And it does look good. He's a special guy and I'm lucky to have him as a friend for a long time."

Pang said he was not surprised to see Yzerman, the Hall of Fame player, decide to stay in hockey in a front office role after his retirement.

"Once he started running Team Canada, started being under Kenny Holland, yes, I saw it," Pang said. "There was a determination typical of Steve that just never went away. He's a worker, he's a grinder, every day he's thinking about another way of making the team better and what player and Hot Stoving and talking about this player, that player, this coach, that coach, this assistant manager. He thinks about it, besides that and me and him golfing, those are the things we talk about all the time."

Of course, the Red Wings that Yzerman left in 2010 when he went to Tampa Bay to be the Lightning general manager are a very different team today.

After a run of 25 straight seasons of making the playoffs, the Wings have failed to qualify for postseason play the last three years.

At his introductory -- or perhaps re-introductory news conference -- Yzerman preached patience when it came to the Wings returning to their glory days.

Pang said he has seen that approach up close when visiting his friend.

"On July 1, I had a chance to spend some time with him in the offices there," Pang said. "There's a lot of players that are free agents that are good players but you don't want to get locked into these long-term relationships with just yet, and I think Steve did the right thing then. He filled a couple of holes that he needed to fill up and then he'll peck away and graduate and make the team more competitive.

"But I think people have to realize just because Steve comes in here -- I mean, (former Wings general manager) Kenny Holland's a Hall of Fame general manager -- it's hard, rebuilding. But I think Steve will have maybe a different eye than Kenny had. At the end, they both wanted the same thing, to win a Stanley Cup. That's all Steve wants is to win a Stanley Cup, that's all Kenny wanted to do.

"I think for Steve, he knows it's going to take a little bit of time. But he's got some good pieces here, he knows that and hopefully the draft picks that were before him and this year are going to be really good for him."

On July 1, the first day of free agency, Detroit signed former Wings center Valtteri Filppula, defenseman Patrik Nemeth and goaltender Calvin Pickard but did not rule out adding an additional winger.

Two weeks ago, Yzerman traded a 2020 fourth-round draft pick to the Lightning for forward Adam Erne.

"He's not bringing back Kocur because he's got a bicep injury, (Darren) McCarty looks like he can't play again so the Grind Line's out," Pang quipped. "I do believe that Steve will peck away at roster players first around the NHL. There's a waiver timeline that's going to come in before the regular season, a lot of teams have stocked up with the UFA, there's quality players that are out there and I believe Steve's got his hands on first and foremost, regular, good NHL players that are already roster players in the NHL. (As for a) Big move, I think that's a little down the line."

Because of his job and also because of his relationship with Yzerman, Pang is familiar with the current Wings, some of whom he played with in the 11th Annual Celebrity Softball Classic.

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: .@Dylanlarkin39: Athlete. pic.twitter.com/e01R4tOi24

"Obviously Dylan Larkin's a top-end player," Pang said. "I guess I look at the speed of the team. You always wonder about the draft picks, how are guys going to develop and how long is it going to take and those are big factors. Can they develop the D fast enough? They've got expiring contracts. Once those contracts are up, what does Steve do to move in some new pieces? When I look at the team, I look at it as a team that's kind of like everybody else. When I saw them play late in the year, I saw them play a fast game, I saw (Wings coach Jeff Blashill) have them playing a good, quick, tenacious game and I was inspired by that."

Pang said a lot depends on how high the arc of players like Larkin and those in his peer group can go.

"If Anthony Mantha, if he turns out to be a real sniper, like we're talking, I don't mean 19 or 20 goals but can he turn that into 35 goals? Can (Andreas) Athanasiou turn into a real total overall player and be that reliable 25-goal guy and a 70-point guy?" Pang asked. "There's a lot of questions about the young players. because they've been anointed ice time, I think now it's a really important time for them to show that they are dependable players so that if Steve's going to build around these guys, that they're going to be players that he goes, OK, they're staying, they're staying, they're staying. I think that's important for these young players that I just mentioned to say, I gotta prove to Steve that we're foundation blocks."

As a former goaltender, Pang pays close attention to that position and he knows it is another area the Wings will have to address as Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier get older.

"I do believe there's a lot of teams out there that have great depth in goaltending," Pang said. "You can't graduate everybody. I believe that and Steve in his past has been very shrewd in looking elsewhere as well. Jimmy Howard's been an excellent goaltender. Staying healthy and being the guy that he was for several months last year, this team could surprise somebody. Maybe they slide in there, to a playoff spot, or compete.

"What you do want, though, is for your goaltender to be really good but for the players to believe in the system that's there and get them into the important games late in the year. That's the important part. You don't want the young players that have never experienced it go through the last two months of the year, not be in the playoffs and just be a team that tries to surprise people. You want them to be in big games because that's when you see the development of everybody.

"But the goaltending position, let's face it, (Filip) Larsson's just coming out of college hockey. I played Major Junior A for three years, I played three years in the minors, I made it my fourth year of pro hockey. (Jordan) Binnington just made it in his fifth year of pro hockey. Larsson's a ways away, that's just the facts. But right now, you've got two very good goaltenders in the NHL. When they're on their game, they can compete with any tandem in the NHL. Those are the facts."

The fact is, as Pang said, Yzerman is back where he belongs in Detroit and everyone is looking forward to seeing him guide the team off the ice as they saw him do on the ice for so many years.

"It has to be (special) and it is," Pang said. "Otherwise he doesn't leave an organization that's such a great organization in Tampa Bay with an unbelievable owner that's he's dear friends with. For him to leave Tampa Bay, it wasn't an ordinary step. It took a hard decision. For it to work out and for Kenny Holland to really be such a big part of this -- they're great friends, Steve would never step over Ken. Not in a million years would Steve do something that would remove Kenny Holland. Kenny Holland was the initiator and to bring Stevie back, Kenny said it many times, he's back home. And Steve's family and everybody here, he's No. 19, Steve Yzerman.

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: He's home. pic.twitter.com/hj7pfxCb2Y

"It's great that he's back here and it's not that he's back here as a gift. He's a top general manager in the National Hockey League. As Kenny moves along, Steve gets to put his brand on the Detroit Red Wings and hopefully win one for Marian Ilitch and the Ilitch family and the fans of Detroit. That would be the ultimate, I'm sure, for Steve. But he's a proud guy and he works every day at it. He's determined to make this a winning franchise. It's just going to take some time."

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