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Calder Cup Champions -'13 '17

Official site of the Grand Rapids Griffins

Winning Chemistry

As the new general manager of the Griffins, Pat Verbeek hopes to help Steve Yzerman catch lightning in a bottle a second time.

Story by Mark Newman

Something clicks.

Call it synergy, a special connection to a psychological space. It’s a meeting of the minds that is unspoken but unmistakable. Some call it chemistry, although it’s not really science.

As members of separate Stanley Cup-winning teams, Pat Verbeek and Steve Yzerman were both familiar with the indescribable intangibles necessary to win championships. As Red Wings teammates for two seasons at the turn of the century (1999-2001), they shared the same internal drive for perfection.

In Tampa, the pair worked together to help assemble the pieces of the Lightning team that has won the last two Stanley Cups. Verbeek worked alongside Yzerman for nine seasons as director of professional scouting (2010-12) and assistant general manager and director of player personnel (2012-19) before rejoining the Red Wings before the 2019-20 season.

Now, with the departure of Ryan Martin, who joined the front office of the New York Rangers this past August, Verbeek has assumed the general manager duties of the Griffins in the AHL while continuing in his role as assistant general manager of the Red Wings.

“I’m excited about the opportunity,” Verbeek said. “It’s a very important job for our organization right now. I look forward to continuing the winning culture in Grand Rapids and providing our prospects every necessary resource to develop as professionals and become impactful players in the NHL.”

Yzerman and Verbeek have been on roughly the same page for some time. While Yzerman was putting together a Hall of Fame career in Detroit, Verbeek was making a name for himself on his own.

Nicknamed the “Little Ball of Hate” as a result of his shorter stature and pesky playing style, Verbeek recorded seven seasons with at least 35 goals for the New Jersey Devils, Hartford Whalers and New York Rangers before heading to Dallas, where he won the Stanley Cup in his third season (1998-99) with the Stars.

During the twilight of his career, Verbeek signed with the Red Wings. In Detroit, he passed the 1,000-point mark, scored his 500th goal, and moved into the top 25 in career goal-scoring before returning to Dallas for his final NHL season in 2001-02. He is the only player in NHL history to total over 500 career goals and 2,500 career penalty minutes.

Playing together in Detroit, Verbeek and Yzerman found they were usually on the same wavelength.

“For about a year and a half, we were linemates on the ice, so I got to play with him quite a bit,” Verbeek said. “In a lot of ways, we thought the game the same way. Whenever we’ve had discussions, I can’t explain it, but we just see things the same.”

Verbeek, who retired after the 2001-02 NHL season, became a part-time color analyst for television broadcasts of the Red Wings’ road games when his playing days were done. Yzerman retired after the 2005-06 season and in September 2006, both men joined the Red Wings front office; Yzerman as vice president and Verbeek as a scout.

“When I sat down for my interview with [former Wings general manager] Kenny Holland a long time ago – and it is a long time ago now – I had just finished playing,” Verbeek recalled. “I hadn’t been out of the game for long, so one of the unique advantages for me is that when I went into scouting, I already knew a bunch of players. Unlike some scouts, I didn’t have to start from scratch.”

Verbeek spent four years learning his trade, an important time that was fundamental to his development as an evaluator of talent.

“Oh, I’ve made mistakes on some guys,” he admits. “I’ve seen some players turn out better than I thought and some guys who didn’t turn out as well as I imagined they would. You draw on the mistakes that you’ve made and you analyze where you went wrong and you look at the things you did right.”

Scouting, as Verbeek quickly learned, is not an exact science. Projecting the development of teenagers who usually will not be ready to play at the NHL for several years, if at all, is a challenge.

“It’s not an easy thing,” Verbeek said. “It takes time. As you’ve seen over the years, especially with amateur players, it’s a difficult thing to predict where they will be down the road. Some guys aren’t going to hit the heights that you think they might while some guys are going to blow it out of the water when you thought they never would.”

When Yzerman became the general manager in Tampa, he recruited Verbeek to join him in the Lightning organization.

Verbeek said it’s hard to explain why, but he believes that he and Yzerman continue to be in sync – often, if not always. “He and I think very similarly about players,” Verbeek contends. “There are times when you have to get to the blatant truth and I don’t have any problem doing that. I think he appreciates the honesty.”

He knows that the future fortunes of the Red Wings rest in their ability to not only find the right players but also to foster their development to maximize their talents.

“I know it’s going to be a huge challenge,” Verbeek said. “When you really want to get your organization headed in the right way, you have to develop players. I’m looking at this as an important role in helping the Detroit Red Wings get back to where we need to be, which is back in the playoffs and winning the Stanley Cup again.”

When Red Wings management makes the decisions that will determine which players will play in Grand Rapids for the Griffins, Verbeek believes there needs to be a balance between development and an emphasis on winning hockey games.

“We want to win,” he said. “We want our young players exposed to winning and we want them learning what it takes to win. At the same time, they have to earn their ice time. We’ll give them every opportunity to perform and if they do, we’ll give them more rope to go, and if don’t, we’ll reel them in a bit to simplify their game and get them going in a direction to help them become better players.”

Finding the right veterans to mentor young talent is crucial to Detroit’s development process.

“One of our primary focuses is that we have a lot of young players coming into the organization now and we want to support them with some good veterans, especially ones who can provide scoring so our young guys aren’t strapped with having to provide all the offense. The same can be said for our defensemen. We have some quality veterans who can mentor our younger defensemen.”

When it comes to drafting prospects, the Red Wings have seemed to focus on one country in particular, which they hope will be as fertile for their future as it has in the past.

Over the past couple of decades, the Red Wings organization has thrived on the talents of Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall – not to mention Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, Gustav Nyquist, Jonathan Ericsson and others from the Scandinavian country of Sweden.

The concentration of talent has prompted a continued search for prospects there, putting the Red Wings in a sweet spot for developing future stars.

The 2021-22 roster for the Frolunda Hockey Club, one of the top teams in the highest Swedish league, features several Red Wings prospects, including defenseman Simon Edvinsson, who was selected by Detroit with the sixth pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, as well as Liam Dower Nilsson, Theodor Niederbach and Elmer Soderblom.

Lucas Raymond, the fourth overall pick in the 2020 NHL draft who played the past two seasons with Frolunda, will play in Grand Rapids if he does not make the Red Wings lineup this fall. It’s the same case for another Swede, Jonatan Berggren, a 2018 draft pick who had a breakout season with Skellefteå last year. Other recent Red Wings draft picks playing in Sweden include Gustav Berglund, Albert Johansson and William Wallinder.

Is there an advantage to having several prospects in the same country or the same league or even on the same team?

“It’s nice when your scouts can do one-stop shopping and can watch all your kids play in the same place,” Verbeek said. “When you have several prospects in the same place, it’s a little easier to get them together for a development camp and get them to work on those things that they need to work on.

“While it’s true that we have a few guys playing for Frolunda, it’s just one of those things that worked out the way it did.”

Of course, every player’s journey is different, whether they play in Sweden, Finland or Russia. Verbeek said while there is no guiding philosophy as to when the organization should leave a player in Europe or when they should be brought to North America, there is a little bit of strategic thinking.

“Shawn Horcoff and Dan Cleary oversee the development of our players and they’re in touch with the kids that we’re watching while we are getting progress reports [from our scouts],” he said. “Depending on their contract status, we’ll make decisions on when to bring them here.

“We’re aware that it’s a big step for these guys and we want to make sure that they’re ready both on and off the ice. We tend to wait to make sure that they are ready to come, especially the Europeans. I know if I was 18 or 19, it would be hard for me to live in Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, or even Russia for that matter.”

Verbeek is enthusiastic about the Griffins’ prospects for the 2021-22 season.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “You always want to see your young players get to the NHL and we’re excited about their skill level, their hockey sense, and their ability to provide offense, which is important moving forward if we want to take some good steps in the right direction.

“Having said that, we’re not going to rush them. When they’re ready, they’re ready. The NHL is a tough league to develop in. We’ll give them every opportunity to make the hockey team in Detroit, but if they’re not quite ready then they’ll go to play in Grand Rapids and develop there.”

Although a large portion of the Red Wings’ fan base would welcome the idea that management would embrace an immediate infusion of youth in Detroit, Verbeek says it is unlikely, which is no surprise given prior quotes attributed to him on the subject.

“Nobody ever says you left a player in the minors too long,” he said. “It’s always that you brought them up too soon.”

Verbeek prefers to let players mature and develop before they get promoted. Nobody benefits from being rushed into the NHL.

“I think you do more damage when you bring a kid up too soon before they’re ready,” he said. “It’s better to have players be overripe than not ripe at all. We like to see them play their way out of the AHL. When they start to dominate in the AHL, that’s when you know they’re ready.”

Patience is key.

“When you bring them up, you know there’s going to be some growing pains at the NHL level,” he said. “Most of the time, guys have already gone through their share of adversity in the minors, so that they know how to overcome anything they might run into.”

The Red Wings are obviously anxious to return to being a perennial playoff team, but they are content to let players develop at their own pace. Some guys are going to take longer than others to become comfortable at the AHL level, let alone in the NHL.

“That’s why I keep telling our scouts that they have to keep watching,” Verbeek said. “Keep watching every day because players change and you want to be able to try to be able to predict when they will change so you’re ready when they do change.”

Verbeek plans to do plenty of watching himself. “What’s nice is that the majority of the Griffins’ games fall on the weekends, so I’ll still have opportunities to scout and do all the things that I’ve been doing for Steve the last couple of years.”

The influx of young talent has the Red Wings’ brass buzzing about the future and the potential in Grand Rapids this season.

“I’m excited,” Verbeek said. “We should be a very good team.”

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