Steve Yzerman is excited about the coming year — about next season, and the one after that. Having sat through the bleakness that was 2019-20, when the Detroit Red Wings won just 17 games, a new year beckons with hopes of something better.
While the coronavirus pandemic continues to threaten almost any plans, the NHL has a framework for a 56-game schedule, slated to begin Jan. 13. The Wings can start training camp on Dec. 31; it will be the first time the team will be together since practicing on March 11, the day before the NHL paused its season with roughly three weeks to go. Yzerman — now halfway through his second year as general manager — has made numerous changes to the team that finished 17-49-5, bringing in forwards Bobby Ryan and Vladislav Namestnikov, defensemen Marc Staal, Jon Merrill and Troy Stecher and goaltender Thomas Greiss.
Hence, Yzerman’s anticipation.
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“We’ve made a lot of changes,” he said this week. “It will be interesting to see who plays with whom and how we do. I’m excited to see the team. I hope we’re improved from last year. I believe we will be improved; how much, I don’t know. I”m anxious to watch the team play. We’d love to get off to a good start — we all probably have our own opinion of what a good start for the Red Wings will be this year.
“But nonetheless I’m excited, and I really don’t know what to predict.”
One issue, right off the hop, is the uncertainty over whether the American Hockey League will be able to operate, given its dependence on attendance revenue. If not, what will happen to players that don’t make the cut out of camp? NHL teams are limited to 36 skaters at camp, and an unlimited number of goaltenders. Once the season begins, rosters have to down to 23 players, but there will also be a taxi squad, featuring no less than four and no more than six players.
That will provide some leeway, but there still could be tough decisions regarding prospects such as Michael Rasmussen, Givani Smith and Dennis Cholowski. Given the compactness of the season, there won’t be any exhibition games — in the Wings’ case, it’ll be 14 days of camp, and then onto the season.
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“It’s hard for the young guys, guys that are trying to make the roster, or trying to make a really good impression,” Yzerman said. “All they can do is show up in great shape and practice well.”
That’s where the taxi squad could be beneficial. Beyond the possibility of an NHL regular testing positive for COVID-19 and needing to quarantine for up to two weeks, there always are injuries. A stay on the taxi squad one week could turn into a spot in the lineup the next week.
“I expect the taxi squad guys to play games in the NHL, dependent on injuries, dependent on your own club situation and your ability to move players up and down without requiring waivers and what not,” Yzerman said. “So the players on the taxi squad should play, but I’d debate the benefits of having a young player potentially practicing for one, two even three months straight and not seeing a game versus loaning them to, whether it’s to the American league or another league, and they’re playing regularly.”
Yzerman did praise the taxi squad plan, describing it as “an extra layer to facilitate adding players to your lineup. Whether it’s COVID-related or not, guys are going to have to quarantine, so if you keep them close by, they are ready to be recalled for whatever reason.”
While the players on the taxi squad will travel and practice with the NHL squad, they will be considered AHL players, and thus subject to waivers. So, for example, Evgeny Svechnikov could not simply be moved to the taxi squad if he is not in the lineup, because he’d have to go through waivers.
Each team must carry at least three goaltenders, but Yzerman said — again depending on what happens with the AHL — the Wings might carry four. Given that teams are scheduled to play 56 games over 116 days, having a solid third-stringer will be vital. After Calvin Rickard struggled last season in three appearances with the Wings (5.46 goals-against average, .797 save percentage), Kevin Boyle is expected to get the nod in case neither Greiss nor Jonathan Bernier is available.
Dividing the games
The pandemic has forced the NHL to realign into four mostly geographical divisions for the season. The Wings will be in the Central Division with the Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning. The schedule calls for 28 home games and 28 road games. Teams will play on the road in two-game segments — so, for example, the Wings might play two games at Florida, followed by two games at Tampa.
One thing Yzerman said with certainty is that he plans to name a captain before the season begins. The Wings haven’t had one since Henrik Zetterberg retired in September 2018. Under former GM Ken Holland the plan had been to give Dylan Larkin the “C” before the start of the 2019-20 season, but Yzerman wanted to wait.
The pandemic won’t permit the in-person news conferences held when Yzerman was named captain in 1986 and Zetterberg in 2013, nor will the announcement be greeted with a standing ovation as it was when Nicklas Lidstrom was named captain in 2006, because there won’t be any fans in the stands.
Yzerman didn’t divulge a name, of course, but in 2019 he said that when he did name a captain, the player would be captain for a long time. Larkin, 24, has worn an ‘A’ since 2018 and has steadily grown in the role. Last season, for example, he carried out one of the most joyless responsibilities of being a leader: talking to the media after losses.
Yzerman was 21 when he was named captain.
“There’s more of a heightened sense of responsibility,” he said “You take into account, in most situations, try to react in a leadership role or responsible role. You take a lot more things into consideration that you might not normally, whether it’s a call by an official or a situation off the ice with a teammate. Just anything to do with the team, as the captain you get a little bit more of a sense of responsibility.”
Yzerman made one trade (Staal) and otherwise looked to free agency to make the Wings more competitive. With the Wings in a rebuild, Yzerman kept contracts to either one or two years — and signed players who are looking to either establish themselves as NHL regulars (Merrill) or reboot their careers (Ryan).
It should make for a competitive 14 days of camp.
“We’ve made several changes and all the players were very enthusiastic when we talked to them prior to signing with the team,” Yzerman said. “That was very encouraging for me. I think there will be a lot of renewed enthusiasm. The majority of our players are on relatively short, one- or two-year contracts. They’ve got a lot to play for.”
The greater anticipation is for autumn, when prospects such as Moritz Seider and Jonatan Berggren — both of whom are having terrific seasons in the Swedish Hockey League — could show they’re ready for NHL jobs. The Wings loaned Seider and Joe Veleno to SHL teams, and by agreement with that league they’re not eligible to return until their season has ended.
Seeing them thrive is a terrific sign for the rebuild.
“It’s encouraging to see them do well,” Yzerman said. “I do think it’s just difficult to project, kids that have never played before in the NHL, to project today [when] they’re going to be ready. Eventually when we get back we’ll see them and they’ll show us whether they’re ready or not. But it’s extremely encouraging to see them doing very well as young players in what we think is a really good league in Sweden.”
Contact Helene St. James at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why Detroit Red Wings’ Steve Yzerman is excited to watch his team play
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