DETROIT — Steve Yzerman is not making any promises about quickly being able to turn around the Detroit Red Wings.
That’s probably a good idea.
Yzerman, who earned a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame for his play in Detroit, is entering his first season as the general manager of a franchise plodding through a rebuilding project.
The Red Wings have failed to make the playoffs for three straight years, following a run of 25 straight postseasons that included four Stanley Cup titles. Detroit’s drought is expected to extend through Yzerman’s debut season in charge of the front office Ken Holland led for two-plus decades.
“It just takes time, “Yzerman said. “I can’t tell you in three years we’re going to be this. In five years, we’re going to be this.”
The Red Wings appear to have a handful of promising players, including centre Dylan Larkin, but they still seem to be at least another year away from being talented enough to earn a spot in the post-season.
“This is year two or three where we’re pegged to be a bottom-five team in the NHL,” Larkin said. “To me, that stings a little bit.”
Detroit opens the season Oct. 5 at Nashville.
Yzerman did not attempt to make a splash in free agency, figuring a high-priced free agent wouldn’t suddenly turn the team into a contender. Yzerman did add 35-year-old centre Valtteri Filppula, who he signed away from the Red Wings in 2013 when he was leading Tampa Bay after the Finn was drafted and developed in Detroit. Yzerman acquired another familiar face in August, trading a fourth-round pick next year to the Lightning for 24-year-old winger Adam Erne. Patrik Nemeth, who has 250 games of NHL experience, was also signed to bolster the blue line.
Detroit lost some depth on the backend when Niklas Kronwall decided to retire. The team chose not to bring back 35-year-old winger Thomas Vanek, creating more opportunities for younger players.
Holland agreed to step down as general manager to clear the way for Yzerman’s hire before leaving to lead Edmonton’s front office.
Detroit’s top two lines have to be spectacular for this to be a surprising season. Larkin is coming off a career-high, 73-point season. He is expected to centre the top line with Anthony Mantha, who had a career-high 25 goals last season, and Tyler Bertuzzi, coming off a career-high, 47-point season. Andreas Athanasiou is back at wing after the speedy player was a centre last year and the team needs him to make the transition smooth.
The Red Wings are desperately hoping Mike Green, Trevor Daley and Jonathan Ericsson can stay healthy to make up for the veteran presence lost when Kronwall decided to be an adviser for Yzerman instead of playing for him. They would be pleasantly surprised if 19-year-old winger Filip Zadina, drafted No. 6 overall last year, is ready to contribute on the third line.
Detroit decided to keep a standby in net, signing Jimmy Howard to a one-year contract extension. He has 244 victories since Detroit drafted him in 2003 and he gives the team its best chance to win this season.
Red Wings fans have been clamouring for Yzerman to come back to lead the franchise. They got what they wanted, but Yzerman isn’t going to be able to make miracles happen with a team that doesn’t have much offence after its top two lines and a defence that is average at best. Coach Jeff Blashill acknowledged the organization has to be surprised by many of its players to speed up the turnaround.
Detroit seems destined to win a little more than 30 games for a fourth straight season. Yzerman retained Blashill, who was given a two-year contract last spring, but there may be a change on the bench by this time next year.
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Larry Lage, The Associated Press