Steve Yzerman is a fan of Detroit's sports teams, has been since he joined the Red Wings in 1983 and watched the Tigers win the World Series a year later. In his role as GM of the Wings, he follows the city's other three teams closely, partly "to learn from them and what they’re doing, how they’re going about it."
"We're in similar situations," Yzerman said Wednesday in Grand Rapids, where he was the keynote speaker at a luncheon hosted by the West Michigan Sports Commission. "Rebuilding teams trying to get better."
Indeed, it's been four years since the Red Wings, Tigers, Pistons or Lions made the playoffs, the longest drought among U.S. cities represented in each of the big four North American sports. It's been seven years since Detroit won a playoff game -- the Red Wings, in 2016 -- and 10 years since it won a playoff series -- the Tigers, in 2013. Yzerman is well aware. But no, he doesn't feel "any extra pressure" to end this drought, because merely making the playoffs isn't his goal. That would be selling this town -- Hockeytown, anyway -- short.
"We would love to make the playoffs (this season)," Yzerman said. "But is it playoffs-or-bust? Internally, no."
The Lions may well take care of the playoff drought themselves. Favorites in the NFC North, they're poised to break through this year under Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes. Yzerman says the optimism around them is "well-deserved." But if the Lions live down to their own standard, the Red Wings are Detroit's next best shot at a playoff team. After another active offseason, headlined by the acquisition of Alex DeBrincat, this is by far the deepest and most talented roster of Yzerman's five-year tenure as GM.
If that leads the Wings back to the playoffs, great. Their seven-year drought is the second-longest in the NHL and tied for the longest in franchise history. If it doesn't, well, fine. Asked if making the playoffs is something that "has to happen" this season, Yzerman said, "I wouldn’t put it in those terms."
"Our goal isn’t just to make the playoffs. Our goal is to build a championship team, a team that can compete for a championship," he said. "So the moves we’re making along the way aren’t necessarily designed toward, 'Oh my god, we gotta make the playoffs this year, or playoffs-or-bust.'
"No, again, we’re trying to build a nucleus of a young team that’s going to be together for a long time that can compete in the playoffs for the Stanley Cup, and we’re sticking with that path."
That might sound like it runs counter to what Yzerman did this summer (and last), when he added several veterans to the roster. This year's free agency tab included forward J.T. Compher and defensemen Justin Holl and Shayne Gostisbehere, while Jeff Petry joined the blue line via trade. Some of those players could block prospects from making the team. But the Wings "had cap space -- and we still have a lot of that -- and roster spots to fill," said Yzerman, "and we did that through free agency."
"All the players that we’ve added address somewhat of a specific need or fill a role that we didn’t have," Yzerman said. "Are we complete or perfect yet? No. Do we have every type of player or every structure of a team in place as far as ... do we have enough playmakers, enough goal scorers, enough of this or that? No. But we’re hoping that with our young payers and the players we’ve added, we’re a little closer to completing a team that has everything we need."
If we take the optimistic view, the Red Wings have a No. 1 center in Dylan Larkin, a No. 1 defenseman in Moritz Seider, a 40-goal scorer in DeBrincat, a strong pair of supporting centers in Compher and Andrew Copp and a top-six winger in Lucas Raymond. That leaves a lot to be desired, to Yzerman's point.
Simon Edvinsson and Jake Walman are potential cornerstones next to Seider, but Edvinsson, for one, has proven very little in the NHL. (He also underwent shoulder surgery this offseason. Yzerman said Wednesday that the 20-year-old might not be fully cleared by training camp, but should be ready "by the start of the regular season.") Same goes up front for Marco Kasper, Carter Mazur and Jonatan Berggren. And then there's Sebastian Cossa, the 6'6 goalie who might be the biggest swing of Yzerman's rebuild. Time will tell if he's a home run in Detroit.
When Yzerman arrived here in 1983, the Red Wings had missed the playoffs five years in a row, the Pistons six years in a row and the Tigers 11 years in a row. It was the Lions, ironically, who offered the most hope, headed for their second straight playoff appearance behind Pro Bowlers Billy Simms and Doug English. Then Yzerman helped bury the Dead Wings, the Pistons grew into the Bad Boys and the 1984 Tigers became the toast of the town. The Wings joined the championship parade in 1997.
"So we’ve been through the process," Yzerman said. "The fans in Detroit have seen it all. It’s understandable they would want to see some success at some point. They want to see their teams win. I don’t feel any extra pressure. I was hired to do a job, and I understand the pressures and scrutinies that come with it, but it doesn’t change what you have to do or what needs to be done."
What you need to do is add talent. What you have to do, in most cases, is be patient. There's no way around it, especially in a salary cap league in a city with forgotten appeal. Yzerman has restored some of the allure of the Red Wings, but their luster must be burnished on the ice. Banners can only be brandished for so long. In Hockeytown, they don't hang them for making the playoffs.