Red Wings’ slow, painful ‘Yzerplan’ is finally starting to pay off

When is the rebuild going to be over for the Detroit Red Wings?

“Is the rebuild ever over?” Shawn Horcoff, the Red Wings’ director of player development since the 2016-17 season, said. “The rebuild’s only ever really over when you win the Stanley Cup. That’s my view of it. Either you’re rebuilding and trying to get better, or you’ve won the Stanley Cup.”

(So, apparently the Toronto Maple Leafs are in a 54-year rebuild …)

“The Yzerplan” is not like building a dresser from IKEA, even if many of the parts are made in Sweden. General manager Steve Yzerman said “this is going to take time” when he returned as a franchise savior in 2019, and over two years later, there is no lie detected. He inherited a rebuild and opted not to accelerate it, despite the frequent desires of his beleaguered coach to pick up the tempo in Motown.

“Obviously, these can be difficult things for a coach going through it. You see someone that can help you, and you want them here as soon as possible,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill, in his seventh season in Detroit, told me this week. “It’s not always easy. I don’t always agree. But that’s why I’m a coach and Steve’s the manager.”

Such is the “Yzerplan”: Slow and steady will, in theory, eventually win the race.

Painfully slow.

Impatiently slow for some, according to George Malik of The Malik Report, a Red Wings blog that might actually predate the internet.

“Not everybody believes in ‘The Yzerplan,'” he told me. “People still grumble about players being assigned to the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins instead of Detroit — see Joe Veleno, for example — and every loss yields at least three or four fans going, ‘Oh, Good Gordie Howe in Hockey Heaven, here we go again.'”

Fans like Malik are recovering from the whiplash that saw the Red Wings go from perennial Stanley Cup contenders to an annual conference basement dweller.

But this season feels different for fans like him. Defenseman Moritz Seider, 20, finally made his NHL debut after being drafted sixth overall in 2019. The team’s meticulous development path couldn’t keep 19-year-old Lucas Raymond from off-roading it to the NHL this season, practically forcing the Red Wings to put him on the roster after outstanding performances at the rookie showcase and in the preseason.

“That’s reason for hope in Red Wings land, and that’s why Steve Yzerman and company have earned a long leash after five years of crashing into a dumpster that happened to be on fire,” Malik said. “The fire is out, there’s a plan to get out of the dumpster, and there are tangible successes on the horizon, both individually and collectively. At this point, promise sells.”

It has been a fascinating psychological journey for the franchise to get to this selling point. To get better, they had to admit they weren’t all that good anymore. Which is a difficult ask for one of the most successful NHL franchises of the past 30 years.

For context: The Red Wings didn’t miss the playoffs for more than one season from 1984 through 2018. They made the playoffs for 25 consecutive seasons starting in 1990-91, winning four Stanley Cups and six conference titles in that span.

The last year of that streak was in 2016. Detroit lost in five games to the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that Yzerman built as general manager. Nicklas Lidstrom had retired, and Henrik Zetterberg (35) and Pavel Datsyuk (37) were next. But Red Wings general manager Ken Holland refused to enter a rebuild at that point.

“The media was really pushing for me to go into a rebuild mode, and my response was that to go into a rebuild mode and do it right, to come out the other side and be legit, was an eight- to 10-year process,” Holland told me this week.

“When you’re moving out established NHL players for draft picks, it looks great. But it takes a while. You’re drafting 18-year-old kids, and you need multiple ones to hit. Now you’ve got the lottery, where you finish last and you might not win the lottery. You’re trying to chart a course and go into rebuild mode. You think you’re going to get back into that big-boy league in three or four years? Somebody is dreaming.”

And so the Red Wings lurched ahead like a zombie clinging to the routine of the living, despite being in a state of decay.

They were still trying to win in 2016. They traded Datsyuk’s cap space to the Arizona Coyotes after he left for the KHL. Holland signed Islanders center Frans Nielsen to a six-year, $31.5-million free-agent contract that mercifully ended in a buyout last August. He chased Steven Stamkos as a free agent, before Yzerman re-signed him in Tampa.

Horcoff knew it was too late to retool. “When I got the job here, the writing was on the wall. It was going to be time to go through something that the Red Wings organization hadn’t gone through in 30 years,” he said.

Holland admits he was trying to keep a punctured tire inflated.

“I was spending to the cap. We were playing older players. I was trying to make it 26 years in a row. I was still trying to win,” he said.

But the streak ended emphatically, with the Red Wings missing the playoffs by 16 points in 2016-17.

Blashill noticed a shift in the winds at the 2016 trade deadline, when for the first time in his tenure the Red Wings didn’t trade any future assets for temporary help. They did the same in 2017, collecting some assets in trades involving players like defenseman Brendan Smith and forward Thomas Vanek.

But Holland said the rebuild didn’t officially begin until the 2018 trade deadline, when he traded winger Tomas Tatar to the Vegas Golden Knights for three draft picks and goalie Petr Mrazek to the Philadelphia Flyers for two more. Zetterberg retired in the offseason. Defenseman Nick Jensen and winger Gustav Nyquist were dealt at the 2019 trade deadline.

In April 2019, the team announced that franchise legend Yzerman, who stepped down as Tampa Bay GM in September 2018 to spend more time with his family, would become the new general manager. Holland was kicked upstairs, before leaving for the Oilers one month later.

“I started the rebuild. It was a philosophical direction change that Ken Holland started somewhere in 2017-18. Steve came back, and he’s done a fabulous job,” Holland said.

Remember that line from Yzerman: “This is going to take time.”

The biggest virtue of the “Yzerplan” is patience.

“Our philosophy isn’t to rush anyone. Slowly challenge them in better leagues and harder situations. Let them feel their way through it. They’ll tell us when they’re ready, from their play, when they’re ready to step into the NHL,” Horcoff said. “And not just step in. We don’t just want to give them games. They need to come in and play meaningful roles.”

What rebuilding teams want to avoid is the toxicity that can come with losing. That stench festers. Horcoff got a whiff of it when he was the captain of the Edmonton Oilers from 2010 to ’13.

“It’s not easy for any player, even the veterans,” he said. “These young guys were coming in — Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov — and we had some down years. It was tough on them. It’s hard to learn to win when you’re not.”

They haven’t been able to protect all the young players from the malaise of losing. Dylan Larkin is the team’s 25-year-old captain. He appeared in five playoff games in 2016. He hasn’t been back since. Blashill has had to have “a lot of conversations” with Larkin about the reality of his surroundings.

“It was important for Dylan, Tyler Bertuzzi, Filip Hronek and a lot of our good, young players to know that when you’re losing, you don’t want to lose your way,” he said.

The rebuilding plan isn’t perfect. They missed the playoffs for five straight years but haven’t earned a top three pick. Only seven players selected since the 2017 draft have seen time in the NHL. Flashes of rookie promise aside, the Red Wings aren’t expected to earn a playoff spot this season, even if their 4-2-1 start indicates they could potentially challenge for one.

But Yzerman has seen this process play out before: In Tampa, where he constructed the majority of the current roster that has won back-to-back Cups. And in Detroit, where he was drafted fourth overall in 1983 and joined a franchise that was affectionately known as the “Dead Things” back then, before embarking on three decades of success.

“One of the things I’ve enjoyed is that he’s lived this. He’s seen it. He and [senior vice president] Jimmy Devellano — who is still part of this organization and was the architect of the last rebuild — give critical perspective,” Blashill said. “Does that help with the fan base? That Steve’s been through it as a player? That he’s been through it in Tampa as a manager? I think it does.

“The fact is that when you do it right, in most cases, it takes time. You have to have patience. I’ve applauded Steve on that numerous times. He’s never going to let frustration impact any of his decisions long term.”

Jersey Fouls

From the land of oil and honey, Edmonton, Alberta:

Connor McDavid‘s primary nickname is “McJesus,” so this could be the less blasphemous Foul. That said, we’d be more comfortable with this variant if there was any evidence McDavid was into World of Warcraft or any edition of the “That’s What I Call Music!” series.

Meanwhile, in Anaheim:

This sweater falls squarely in the Protest Jersey category. Although we’re not sure why this person chose Scott Niedermayer‘s retired number in this ode to the Battle of California.


Three things about the Blackhawks

1. There are times as hockey fans when supporting this sport is quite difficult. This was one of those weeks.

The bravery of Kyle Beach coming forward with his truth is matched only by the calculated negligence of those members of the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks who dismissed or buried his allegations, treating them as inconvenient to their playoff run.

His interview with TSN laid bare the toxicity of hockey culture. It’s a culture where, in the words of Beach himself, “trying to win a Stanley Cup was more important than sexual assault.” Where protecting an assistant coach from scandal took priority over the humanity and dignity of a young athlete.

In the end, you’re left wondering how many more Kyle Beaches there are out there: Young players who never made the NHL or “didn’t fit the culture” because something like this crushed their spirits behind closed doors; and, conversely, how many more teams acted in the same manner as the Blackhawks allegedly did in failing to protect those players.

2. The most difficult part of this for me was hearing Beach describe seeing his alleged assailant, Blackhawks video coach Brad Aldrich, celebrate with the teams after their 2010 Stanley Cup victory. Going on the ice and raising the Cup. In the dressing room with Joel Quenneville and the other coaches, like nothing happened. Taking part in the parade.

“It made me feel like nothing. It made me feel like I didn’t exist. It made me feel like, that I wasn’t important and … it made me feel like he was in the right and I was wrong,” Beach said.

I say this in all sincerity: Get Brad Aldrich’s name off the Stanley Cup immediately. Use a series of X’s to block out. Burn it off. I don’t care. That man’s name on that trophy is a monument to the horror that Kyle Beach has lived with for more than a decade.

3. With Stan Bowman out, there’s already attention turned to the next Chicago GM.

What I imagine the team ends up doing is hiring two positions: president of hockey operations and a general manager. The president role can be a salve to the fan base: a respected name that can help turn the page for the franchise from a cultural perspective. Someone like Eddie Olczyk comes immediately to mind.

The general manager opening will have no shortage of candidates and options, ranging from execs with previous experience (former Rangers GM Jeff Gorton, former Devils GM Ray Shero, current Blues VP of hockey operations Peter Chiarelli) to assistant GMs knocking on the door like Montreal assistant GM Scott Mellanby and former Chicago Steel exec Ryan Hardy, who is currently with the Leafs.

The wild card: Jim Rutherford, the former Pittsburgh Penguins GM, who at 72 years old is still looking to lead another franchise. I’m heard he’d rather be the president of hockey ops than a general manager at this stage, but he’s pulled double-duty before.

Good luck to whoever gets the gig, knowing there are considerable messes to clean up on and off the ice in Chicago.


Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Flames On

Andrew Mangiapane and Elias Lindholm ended Wednesday night tied for second in goals in the NHL this season behind Alex Ovechkin (8), who appears to want to break Gretzky’s record by New Year’s Eve. No one on the Calgary Flames has more than two goals through six games. Hey, leave something for the rest of the boys, you greedy ones.

Loser: Habs Off

Losing Shea Weber possibly forever and Carey Price for an undetermined amount of time was going to knock the Canadiens off their axis, for sure. But no one thought they’d be this wobbly: 1-6-0 with the league’s worst offense (1.57 goals per game). Brendan Gallagher and Josh Anderson each have one assist in seven games. Nick Suzuki has two assists. Tyler Toffoli has a goal and an assist. All of it adds up to “yikes.”

Winner: Vincent Vega

It’s NHL Halloween party season, and it’s going to be difficult to top New York Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin and girlfriend Anna Butusova getting their “Pulp Fiction” on as Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace. Get that man a $5 milkshake!

Loser: Candy corn

Candy corn is the most divisive trick-or-treat acquisition this side of a box of raisins — because, seriously… raisins? The Boston Bruins were asked their opinion about this Halloween standard and were nearly unanimous in being disgusted by them. Well, save for the ultimate indignity from David Pastrnak, who had never heard of them before.

Winner: Connor McDavid

The Edmonton Oilers star opened the season with six straight multi-point games and remains on pace to score over 200 points this season. I wasn’t old enough to have watched much of Wayne Gretzky in his prime — and having SportsChannel America didn’t allow me much access to Campbell Conference games, either. Was it like what we’re seeing now from Connor? Except without the competent goaltending he faces, like Gretzky didn’t?

Loser: Candid reality

One of the narratives in the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ stupefying start to the season was that the team was internally damaged by its appearance in Amazon Prime’s “All or Nothing” series. In particular Mitchell Marner, who has two assists in eight games and didn’t come off well on the show. That sound you heard was teams rushing to lock their dressing room doors from camera crews.

Winner: Spooky names

The ECHL’s newest franchise is based in Savannah, Georgia. There were 3,000 entries in a name-the-team contest. The winner was “Ghost Pirates,” because in Savannah you can pay for guided tours involving ghosts or pirates or ghosts and pirates. Also, this logo is adorable and we’d like to poke its tummy, provided it’s not an actual apparition and our finger passes right through it.

Loser: Jump scares

Evgeny Kuznetsov was sliding down the ice for the Capitals on Wednesday night when — boom! — he was smacked in the face by a stick being passed from the Detroit bench to Dylan Larkin. There was no penalty, which is a shame, because we bet the referees could have made up something pretty fun to justify it.


Puck headlines

  • Good piece here from Mark Lazerus on who should really be sorry in the Kyle Beach saga. “Beach’s courage and humanity shine through, sharply contrasting with the lack of both that the men charged with shepherding his career and protecting him showed 11 years ago.”

  • Cat Silverman on Joel Quenneville: “It’s going to be hard not to bring up the kindness of Joel Quenneville and Stan Bowman — and, very likely, a number of Blackhawks players who will come under fire for their handling of the situation — when these points of reckoning wash over the hockey world. But these people are not good mentors. They aren’t very nice. They just aren’t.”

  • Can the Sharks keep up their great start? “They are the worst possession team in the NHL right now and while it’s a small sample size, it is something to keep an eye on.”

  • How a Jake Guentzel injury led to “the development of a new piece of hockey equipment that could prevent others from suffering a similar fate.”

  • Could an NHL franchise work in Cleveland, the current home of the AHL’s Monsters? “Dan Gilbert, who also owns the NBA Cavaliers, doesn’t have an interest in an NHL team because he could run that minor league team [for] a lot less.”

  • The Colorado Avalanche‘s arena shifts its COVID policy during the season to require “proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of the event.”

  • Interesting look at the Red Wings’ Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond. “Seider’s most interesting attribute is his ability to get involved by sprinting up the rink, then recover efficiently to snuff out the counter-attack.”

  • Maybe the Ducks should be a little more careful with Jamie Drysdale?

From your friends at ESPN

A big welcome to our newest friend, Kristen Shilton, who helmed the Power Rankings this week!

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