It should come as no surprise that two of the men who made the biggest moves at the trade deadline once worked together. If Steve Yzerman of the Detroit Red Wings and Julien BriseBois of the Tampa Bay Lightning weren’t considered to be at the top of their profession before Monday, their deadline moves cemented their status.
Let’s start with Yzerman. Now it’s perfectly conceivable that Anthony Mantha, the 26-year-old winger Yzerman gave up in a deal with the Washington Capitals, will realize his potential after almost five full seasons in the NHL and become an impact player, if not a star in Washington. But Yzerman felt comfortable dealing an asset of Mantha’s stature, a player who once scored 57 goals in 57 games in junior hockey and is arguably in the prime of his career, because he was convinced that was never going to happen with the Red Wings.
The last time Yzerman made a similar determination, he dealt Jonathan Drouin to the Montreal Canadiens for a highly touted, but unproven, defenseman in Mikhail Sergachev. That worked out well. Not saying that Capitals GM Brian MacLellan should have ignored the call when he saw Yzerman’s number on his speed dial, but it’s safe to say that Yzerman has a pretty good feel for these things. In exchange for Mantha, Yzerman extracted Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, a first-round pick in 2021 and a second-rounder in 2022. The Red Wings now have 12 picks in the 2021 draft, five of them in the first 64. He has nine roster players who are due to become unrestricted free agents and a ton of cap space for next season. The Red Wings are emerging from salary cap hell and are accumulating assets. The rebuild is going well.
Over in Tampa, well, all BriseBois did at the trade deadline was get one of the most coveted players in pool of available players, despite being in a bit of salary cap hell of his own. Getting defensive defenseman David Savard, which is exactly what his team needed, was a stroke of genius by BriseBois. The same way Yzerman learned to manipulate the salary cap in his first stint with the Red Wings working with assistant GM Ryan Martin, BriseBois has perfected the art of straddling the salary cap. The fact he made the Savard transaction a three-way deal to further mitigate the cap hit was a trailblazing move that was quick to be copied.
The thing about Yzerman and BriseBois is they’re both comfortable enough in their skin and confident enough in their own abilities to make bold, cowboy-like moves without worrying about what outsiders think. Almost everyone in the hockey world thought BriseBois overpaid when he traded first-round picks for Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow in 2020, the latter of whom had never scored more than eight goals in a season. And this year, when Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas did the same thing with Nick Foligno, he was lauded for not being reticent to pay a premium for a player who filled a gaping need on his roster. In the space of just one year, BriseBois basically made two pioneering moves at the deadline. That takes a lot of guts and self-confidence.
Any list of the top GMs in the league would have Yzerman and BriseBois at or near the top. And the thing they both have in common is they had outstanding mentors. Yzerman brought a wealth of hockey smarts with him when he retired, but for four years learned the craft from Ken Holland, who is part of the current class of Hockey Hall of Fame inductees and one of the game’s all-time greats. And Holland learned under Jim Devellano, who learned from Bill Torrey. These things don’t happen by mistake.
And shortly after Yzerman took the GM job in Tampa, he hired BriseBois away from the Montreal Canadiens and groomed him to take the top hockey job in the organization when he stepped down eight years later. Contrast that to the situation in Buffalo, where poor neophyte GM Kevyn Adams has almost nobody with credible hockey experience upon whom to lean and is really tough in a market where the fan base’s morale might be at an all-time low.
The deals that Yzerman and BriseBois consummated at the deadline have been years in the making. And they were made by a pair of GMs who are bright, dispassionate and calculating. Neither Yzerman nor BriseBois seems to crave anyone’s approval, but in operating the way they do, that’s exactly what they get.