Longtime captain Steve Yzerman is ready to guide the future of Red Wings hockey from his new position as general manager.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Steve Yzerman has been here before.
When he was named the captain of the Detroit Red Wings before the 1986-87 season at the age of 21, the team had not won a playoff series in eight seasons. The following spring, Yzerman would lead the Red Wings to only their second playoff series win in the modern era (since 1967). A decade later, Detroit would win the first of three Stanley Cups (1997, 1998 and 2002) with Yzerman as captain.
So there was considerable excitement in the Motor City when Yzerman, the longest-serving captain in NHL history, was introduced as the new general manager of the Red Wings last April.
Detroit’s fan base rejoiced at the idea of Yzerman restoring the Red Wings to glory after the team missed the playoffs the past three seasons on the heels of a remarkable stretch of 25 consecutive postseason appearances.
Given Yzerman’s track record not only as a player but also in regard to his success in building one of the league’s powerhouses as the general manager in Tampa Bay, there is certainly reason for optimism.
While he is wisely avoiding making any promises and smartly sidestepping any specific timetable for success, Yzerman believes there are reasons for hope, and he is convinced much will depend on what happens in Grand Rapids.
“Detroit and Grand Rapids have been affiliated for a long time and the organization has enjoyed a lot of success,” Yzerman said shortly before the start of his first season as the Wings’ new GM. “A lot of the players have come through Grand Rapids and gone on to play for the Red Wings.
“From the Red Wings’ perspective, Grand Rapids occupies a positive place in the organization. Our players have enjoyed playing in Grand Rapids because it’s a great place to live, it’s relatively close (to Detroit) and the fan support is excellent, so it continues to be a tremendous relationship.”
Yzerman first became privy to the relationship between the Griffins and Red Wings when he joined the front office in Detroit as a team vice president before the 2006-07 season. During the next four years, he got a first-hand look at the intricacies of that relationship from a management perspective.
“Those years were incredibly valuable because I learned a lot,” he said. “From my time as a player, I saw a completely different side of things. I learned how decisions are made, how organizations are run, how situations are managed. It was a tremendous opportunity to learn from Kenny Holland, Jim Nill and Ryan Martin. They’re very bright people and they were fun to work with. It was a great start to my post-playing career.”
Most significantly, Yzerman recognized the necessity of building a braintrust upon which he could rely for evaluating players.
One of his first moves was to bring in Pat Verbeek, his former teammate who had been his right-hand man in Tampa. Yzerman began to reshape the infrastructure of Detroit’s organization – overhauling the scouting department, promoting some members of the front office while hiring others to fill new roles.
“You try to hire the best people for each position and you try to give them the resources they need to do their job, whether they’re coaches, scouts or front office managers,” Yzerman said.
“There are still people here who were with the organization when I left and there are some new faces who have joined since that time and I’m looking forward to working alongside them and getting to know them. My responsibility is to lead the hockey department and I’m trying to put the best team in place while giving them the necessary resources to be successful.”
Much of their work toward rebuilding a potential Cup contender will start in Grand Rapids, where the organization will place a plethora of prospects as the Red Wings look to rediscover the magic of the past.
“The relationship between Detroit and Grand Rapids is vital,” Yzerman said. “You want a good environment for your young prospects and a good organization in which they can develop as players. Another strength of the AHL are those quality, high-character veterans who can not only help the team win but who can also guide and mentor the younger players. It’s crucial to have a strong relationship with your AHL affiliate.”
As a training ground for the NHL, the AHL provides the perfect place for young hockey players to learn their craft.
“I always stress to the young kids that it’s a very difficult league to play in,” Yzerman said. “If you think you’re going to come into the AHL, just show up and put up big numbers while biding your time until you get to the NHL, it’s the wrong approach. Guys need to come in with the attitude that they have their work cut out for them if they want to prove that they can play their way up to the NHL.
“It’s an extremely competitive league, very demanding physically and the schedule can be difficult at times. It’s the closest thing to playing in the NHL outside of the NHL itself. It’s a fantastic league for young players to play in and it’s beneficial for them to spend some time in the AHL if they’re not ready for the NHL, whether they played in college, junior hockey or any of the European leagues previously.”
Certainly, there are fans hoping that the return of The Captain to the Red Wings organization will speed the rebuilding process, but Yzerman contends that he will not rush the normal course of development.
Some vilified his predecessor for adhering to the adage of allowing players to become “overripe” in the minors before being promoted to the NHL, but Yzerman also believes that there are risks in pushing a player too fast.
The fact is the development process at the AHL level frequently takes time. How much time a player may need will vary.
“The timetable is different for every player,” Yzerman said. “My feeling is when you have young guys who are excelling in the American League for an extended period of time, they’re showing they’re ready for the NHL. When they’re really good in the AHL, they’re usually good enough to play in the NHL. But you have to look at it player by player.”
Yzerman feels that it’s in the best interest of the player’s development to put them in a position to gain from experience. The more minutes available to a prospect, the more opportunities for that player to polish their skills.
“If they’re in the NHL, but they’re sitting at the end of the bench and only getting limited minutes and struggling to meet your expectations, they’re better off playing in a place where they can be improving and excelling and their confidence can be growing,” he said. “Our goal is to help them become better players.”
Still, Yzerman won’t hesitate to promote a prospect if they can help make the Red Wings a better team without stunting their own growth.
“If they’re in the NHL and they can make the team more competitive, they’re helping the team,” he said. “If they’re excelling on the ice and holding their own – given it can be difficult, it can be a challenge – they’ll be given the opportunity to show they can play in the NHL. If they’re not able to do it in the NHL, they have to do it at a different level. We want them to be successful. That’s an important part of development.”
From an organizational perspective, it’s often prudent to think long term. Sometimes it’s better to sacrifice short-term success for the sake of operating in a way that is ultimately best for the advancement of a player seeking to build a long career.
“As an organization, I don’t think we should run our minor league team any differently, whether we’re rebuilding or contending for a Stanley Cup,” Yzerman said. “You may have fewer young prospects when you’re competing for the Cup, but my feeling is with young players unless they’re dominating their league, they’re better off playing in the minors rather than trying to find their way at the NHL level.”
Numbers – the fancy term is analytics – occupy an increasingly important space in the player evaluation process. Although he played in an era that preceded the current appreciation for analytical data, Yzerman confirmed that metrics may be another tool that an organization is wise to consult in the decision-making process.
“Analytics is a broad term, but we use data in everything,” he said. “We look at analytics, but we also try to look at things from a subjective point of view. The more information you have, the more you can make more informed, better decisions. We try to use analytical data in every aspect of running the organization.”
Statistics, however, remain only one factor in determining the quality of a player’s performance. Just because a player leads the Griffins in goals or points does not mean they will be the first to be promoted to the NHL.
Every decision, Yzerman points out, is influenced by any number of factors. “It may be a positional need – defenseman versus forward, center versus winger, or whether you need a right shot or left shot, what role they’re expected to play, or even how much they’re going to play. It might be whether you need a veteran versus a younger player,” he said.
“Generally speaking, we would like to bring up someone who is playing really well and deserves it, but sometimes you have other reasons that guide your decision. A lot of things go into every move.”
Development is key in the AHL. But so is winning. Young players need to learn how to win. That means young players have to learn the value of sacrificing points for the sake of the team, how to play good defense, how to be a good teammate – all those things that win championships.
“Being on a good team in a good organization is important and it’s important that they learn the habits, traits and characteristics that are common to winning teams,” Yzerman said. “You try to establish an environment where players are held to a certain standard and create an atmosphere that is conducive to winning.
“We’re trying to put the best players out there and it’s up to the coaches to make sure that the players adhere to the standard while being challenged to live up to expectations. If players are learning what it takes to be successful, they’re progressing.
“So you learn from winning, but you can learn from losing, too. Our goal is to put a good team on the ice, but we’re not going to sacrifice the development of our young players. We’re not going to put together a very experienced, veteran team for the sake of trying to win. We need our young guys to play.
“Having said that, young prospects are not entitled to play. They have to earn their ice time, even if they’re in the American League. If they can’t hold their own in the AHL, we’re going to have to find another spot for them to play in. That’s just the way that it works.”
As far as Yzerman is concerned, an organization should give their players the tools and resources necessary for them to succeed. For example, the Red Wings recently hired renowned strength and conditioning guru Mike Barwis as director of sports science and human performance.
“The role of science and sports performance regarding nutrition, strength and conditioning has grown incredibly in recent years,” Yzerman said. “There is so much more information, equipment and technology available to players today which enable them to be more fit and better trained than ever before. We’re just trying to provide the guys with the tools to be the best possible hockey players they can be.”
Yzerman said it is paramount that all parties work together to make sure players are progressing in the proper direction.
“Everyone in the organization needs to be on the same page,” he said. “Each person is assigned specific responsibilities and ultimately we are all trying to do our best to run a good organization. My responsibility is to make sure that everyone understands their role and to communicate our objectives.”
During his time in Tampa, Yzerman was able to draw considerable talent from what he called an “outstanding, well-run organization” in Syracuse. The Lightning’s AHL affiliate twice reached the Calder Cup Finals, losing both times (2013, 2017) to the Griffins. Syracuse, however, is a long way from Tampa compared to the distance between Grand Rapids and Detroit.
He looks forward to taking advantage of the closer proximity between his NHL team and AHL affiliate.
“You’re going to run your program the same way regardless, but logistically, it makes it easier when your minor league team is close,” he said. “It’s better for travel. It makes it a little easier to get players back and forth, whether it’s to recall or reassign players. It also makes it easier to go see them play when your team is only a couple of hours down the road.
“I intend to be in Grand Rapids as much as I possibly can. I enjoy watching American League games and I think it’s important to see our players in action – the veterans as well as the young guys. I want to have a good hand on how they play. Our minor league affiliate is an important part of our entire organization.”
With the help of his scouting department, Yzerman plans to do his best to keep the Red Wings’ minor league team stocked with prospects through well-researched picks from the annual NHL Entry Draft. Typically, it’s a matter of selecting whoever is the best available player.
“Ultimately, there’s no way to know which kids are going to become the best players, so you take the guys who are the best prospect at that certain date,” he said. “You’re drafting teenagers and a lot of things can change by the time they’re 23, which is the average age of a player entering the NHL.
“You try to project (into the future), but you don’t know what’s in their heart, how hard they’re prepared to work and how willing they’re going to be to do the things necessary to get to the NHL. Once you draft them, you try to educate them and help them any way you can to help them get there.”
Playing in the minors is a process of constant self-improvement according to Yzerman, who adheres to the mantra of “nothing is given, everything is earned.” Prospects should focus on doing something to improve themselves every day.
“While the specific guidance is different for every individual, the overall message is that it’s hard to get to the NHL but it’s also hard to stay in the NHL,” he said. “It’s the best league in the world with the best players in the world. You better love what you do because it’s hard work and the truth is that you’re going to have to deal with a lot of adversity during your career.”
Yzerman recognizes the value of the Griffins to the Red Wings organization.
“Grand Rapids is the place where the majority of our prospects will begin their careers and it’s extremely important that we have a good environment and atmosphere for them to play in the AHL,” he said. “We must run a good program in the AHL for them to continue to develop and be successful.”