Five years into Steve Yzerman era, Red Wings face biggest offseason yet

Five years into Steve Yzerman era, Red Wings face biggest offseason yet

By Oghale Apr22,2024

It’s been five years since Steve Yzerman arrived in Detroit as Red Wings general manager and cautioned, “This is going to take time.”

He was returning to a franchise still in the early stages of a rebuild in 2019, and he quickly indicated he had no specific timeline for how long that process might take — only that a lot of work needed to be done.

A lot has happened in the five years since. Of the players on the roster when Yzerman arrived, only Dylan Larkin and Michael Rasmussen remain. This season, the Red Wings for the first time under Yzerman made a serious run at the playoffs, tying for the final Eastern Conference wild-card spot, but ultimately missing the cut on the tiebreaker.

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There will, no doubt, be plenty of debate this summer around whether that progress is enough, and about whether the Red Wings’ rebuild is on track.

Yzerman, for his part, noted Friday that as close as Detroit came to the postseason in 2024, it is “probably going to have to get more than 91 points next year to get in.” He said he’s “looking more so at the overall growth of the organization, of all of our young players, and I see that progressing.” And of course, he hopes “that translates into more wins for us next year, and actually getting into the playoffs.”

With the 2023-24 season in the books, though, and the proud franchise’s playoff drought now at eight years, one thing is clear: Expectations have begun to arrive in Detroit.

Arriving at the same time, however, is a complicated, challenging reality: Though the Red Wings took steps forward this year, they did so with a roster made up largely of veterans — not all of whom will be back next season. Yzerman has said he has interest in bringing all six of Detroit’s unrestricted free agents back, but realistically, he will have to prioritize certain players over others — and likely also do some subtracting elsewhere to make room on the roster and salary-cap ledger. Especially with young cornerstones Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond in need of new contracts.

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And when some of those veterans inevitably depart, that will leave holes to fill and lost production that will need to be made up. Likely, those will be filled at least in part by younger players.

In some ways, that possibility is exciting. Yzerman’s conservative approach to promoting young players has been among the most criticized aspects of his GM tenure, and this season, despite the team’s rebuilding status, only one player with rookie status dressed for Detroit: Simon Edvinsson, who played in only 16 games.

Edvinsson looks locked into next year’s lineup, after an excellent stint to close the year, and in addition to him, Yzerman singled out forward Jonatan Berggren and defenseman Albert Johansson as players the team will need to make space for, as both will no longer be exempt from waivers.

“As far as young guys, anyone else, I wouldn’t rule out anybody,” Yzerman said. “Whoever it may be, pick a name, in GR (Grand Rapids) — I don’t want to say today that they definitely won’t be here, but because they’re just winding down their regular season and hopefully going to have a good playoff run. And things can change over the course of a long playoff run, and we could see potentially more players pushing for a spot on the roster.”

Certainly, for a team that has been stockpiling prospects for the entirety of Yzerman’s tenure, there is significant appetite from the fans to see those prospects reach the NHL level. Most notably, forward prospects Carter Mazur and Marco Kasper have been key parts of that playoff push at the team’s AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids, and 2023 first-round pick Nate Danielson was highly impressive in the 2023 NHL preseason and is having a strong WHL playoff run of his own.


Lucas Raymond is a restricted free agent this offseason. (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

But Yzerman has been in no rush to push his top prospects to the organization’s top level — even with young star Raymond, Detroit planned for him to play in Grand Rapids in his first season in North America in 2021-22, only for Raymond to exceed expectations and make the NHL club right away.

“I don’t know that there’s a perfect way to develop a player,” Yzerman said. “If they’re ready to play in the NHL, and they can thrive or they can help the team win games, and if you’re an offensive-minded forward that you can generate offense but still be responsible defensively — because the coaches won’t put you on the ice if you’re not — or if you’re a solid defender, and you can handle it, great. You can play. We’re not keeping them in the minors if they’re good enough to play in the NHL.

“But we think if they can benefit and be more — if they’re not going to have an impact in the NHL, we prefer they stay in the American Hockey League or stay in college, or stay in junior until you’re ready. There’s no real rush. I like guys playing a lot and having success, because regardless of what league they’re in, they’re happy and they’re having fun, and their confidence is growing and they’re maturing, and that’s important.”

Whether Detroit turns over roles to two young players or four, though, the reality is that youth can come with both energy and mistakes. Sometimes, an infusion of prospects sparks a team. In others, their inexperience can prove costly.

And that’s what makes this offseason so tricky — and so crucial — for Yzerman and his front office.

Coming so close to the playoffs this year means for many, the only acceptable progress next season will be to make the postseason this time around. The team trying to do it, though, will likely be less proven, and the bar to clear (in terms of standings points) will likely be higher. Throw in the added cap room being occupied by Seider and Raymond’s pending extensions, and the margins of error are slim for Yzerman this summer, with the weight expectations now heavier.

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One clear emphasis from Yzerman, in wrapping up the season over the weekend, was on improving the team’s defense — and not necessarily just from the defensemen. He pointed to the team’s forwards, too, as well as the coaching staff.

“We’ve got to become a better defensive hockey team,” he said. “And it’s the fundamentals of defending, and I’m counting on our coaching staff to work with our players, and our players to be determined to do that. And it’s not necessarily the system: It’s the basic fundamentals of defending that at times this year we struggled with, and we need to address it again. Because you look at the teams in the playoffs, the majority of them, they’re in the top half in goals against and shots against.”

Indeed, of the 16 teams who made the playoffs this season, only four were outside the top 16 in goals against per game, and only two were outside the top 18. Those two teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Tampa Bay Lightning, finished second and fifth in goals for per game.

None of the 2024 playoff teams finished as low as Detroit, which was 24th. By more advanced stats, the only teams in this year’s playoff field that gave up more expected goals than Detroit were the Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders.

“We have to improve in that area,” Yzerman said.

Doing it, though, will be a tightrope act.

On the blue line itself, all of Detroit’s defensemen except Shayne Gostisbehere from this season are still under contract (or in Seider’s case, team control as a restricted free agent). The Red Wings will need to keep room on the roster for Johansson, lest they risk losing him to waivers. And, Yzerman indicated he would at least like to “strongly consider” re-signing Gostisbehere, who led Detroit’s defensemen with 56 points, tied with Erik Karlsson for 13th most in the NHL this season.

Justin Holl stands out as an obvious buyout or trade candidate, after playing just 38 games with a $3.4 million cap hit. And it’s possible Detroit could look into additional trades to clear space as well.

Up front, the Red Wings added nearly 40 goals to their total from 2022-23, finishing the season ninth in the league at 3.35 goals per game. That was their biggest problem going into last offseason, and they addressed it — bringing in scorers such as Alex DeBrincat and Daniel Sprong up front, and Gostisbehere on the back end.

It seemed to come with a trade-off, though, as their forward group too often committed turnovers leading to easy offense the other way, blew coverages defensively and struggled to break out cleanly against heavy forechecks. And for stretches late in the year, the scoring Detroit was counting on dried up, too, as games took on a tighter-checking nature and the Red Wings struggled at times to find hard-area offense.

Striking the balance of maintaining this year’s offensive production (with perhaps a harder, grittier flavor in the offensive zone) but improving the defensive responsibility of the forward corps stands out as a major balancing act. It will have to be split between upgraded personnel and some internal growth — especially if there are indeed more young players on the roster.

But Yzerman’s approach there could define the 2024 offseason.

It’s also worth noting that a reduction in goals allowed could also come from a potential upgrade in goal, although that might prove challenging as well. Though the Red Wings have Ville Husso and Alex Lyon still under contract for next year, Husso struggled to stay healthy this season — and wasn’t consistently sharp when healthy either, finishing with an .892 save percentage.

When asked whether he was comfortable going into next season with Husso and Lyon as the team’s tandem, Yzerman first pointed out the “interesting position right now around the league, in goaltending, that everyone is looking for a goaltender — whether it’s a (No.) 1, a 2 or a 3 — and most teams need three goalies.” He said he felt all three of the team’s goalies this season had “a very positive impact” at different points in the season, helping the team to nearly make the playoffs.

“But, having said that, they need to be better,” Yzerman said. “We need to be better in all aspects of keeping the puck out of our net, not only with our goalies but our play defensively collectively — not just our D corps, our forwards as well. I think it’s really my job, and it’s not a headline-making statement, but to try and look to see if I can look to improve our team in any which way. And I will do that at every position.”

Having just come so close to playoffs, the urgency from the fans to make the postseason is only rising. The spotlight on Yzerman is getting brighter. And the margins, from existing contracts and the ones to come, are getting slimmer.

Next season is shaping up to be a big one in Detroit.

And that makes this offseason Yzerman’s most important yet.

(Top photo: Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)

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