It's More Complicated Than "Yzerman sacrificed offense for defense"

Just wanted to put some finer points on the "Yzerman sacrificed offense for defense" narrative.
  1. overg
    I'm just going to do a mind-dump of various Yzerman related opinions I have that I think often get glossed over (in general, not necessarily on HoH). These are more "on the margins" things that I think might have some impact on his legacy. Basically, I want to try and flesh out the "Yzerman sacrificed offense for defense" narrative.

    1. First, a con. Yzerman's health and age played a significant role in his diminished offense. The short narrative of Yzerman's career says that he sacrificed offense for defense. There's some truth to that, but that gives Yzerman a little too much credit for the switch. The reality is, starting around '95, Yzerman's body just couldn't do the same things it could during his offensive prime. Even when he had offensive opportunities, he wasn't converting them at the rate he converted in his youth. He just wasn't as fast, he wasn't as strong, and he wasn't as shifty. This is perfectly natural, but I think it often gets whitewashed a bit by the "switch to defense" narrative, which makes it sound like all of Yzerman's decreased offense was by choice.

    2. On the flip side, I don't think the "leadership" aspect of his defensive focus gets enough credit. There's no doubt Yzerman became a much better defensive player on an individual level. But Selke-level Yzerman doesn't win the Wings three Cups. Instead, it was the fact that the rest of the team followed Yzerman's lead. When his teammates saw Yzerman start doing things like this, you better believe they followed suit.

    That's an Al Freakin' MacInnis slapshot he's throwing his body in front of. Yzerman started doing that regularly in '96, and a good 8 or 9 Wings forwards (including stars like Shanahan) followed suit. Similarly, when Yzerman made it clear he was going to follow Bowman's defensive system, his teammates lined up behind him. This was very much a run and gun team in the early 90's, and if Yzerman hadn't bought in, there's no way Bowman sells that team on the left wing lock (see, e.g., the early 90's Penguins for a leader and team which didn't want Bowman's preferred play-style).

    3. Leadership, Pt 2. It wasn't just defensive responsibilities Yzerman bought into, he also led the way in accepting Bowman's line juggling and ice time. Bowman never met a line he couldn't tinker with (Yzerman-Shanahan-Fedorov regularly dominated, but were used infrequently, the Russian 5 tore things up, but didn't last a full season as a regular unit). And not just linemates, but ice time would randomly change from game to game. It wasn't all that rare to see Kris Draper having the almost as much, if not more, ice time than Yzerman or Fedorov. Bowman was all about rolling four lines as much as possible, and all about trying to get every player ready to play with every other player on a moment's notice. Bowman was playing the long game, and was willing to sacrifice his players' egos and his teams' short term success in order to build a playoff-ready beast. And once again, Yzerman proclaimed Bowman's way was the way it was going to be.

    The ice time buy-in was particularly huge, because the reality was, the Avalanche (most notably, but not exclusively) had higher end talent that could beat the Wings if they tried to play them straight up strength versus strength. The Wings succeeded based on their depth and system. Yzerman might not beat Sakic head to head, and Fedorov might not beat Forsberg, but Yzerman-Fedorov-Larionov-Draper rolling out in a steady, even, succession could eventually overwhelm them.

    4. Leadership, Pt. 3. Yzerman was also a quiet force in ensuring the Wings European players were considered a valued part of the team. He spoke reverently of Fetisov and Larionov, and they were the first players Yzerman handed the Cup off to when the Wings broke their Cup drought in '97. In a time when there were still a lot of doubts that Europeans cared about the Cups, Yzerman always heavily emphasized and recognized their value.

    5. Leadership, Pt. 4. Finally, Yzerman put his money where his mouth was. Most notably, in '01-02 when the Wings brought in Hasek, Robataille, and Hull, Yzerman was the first approached, and the first (but not last) to volunteer to defer salary so that the Wings could afford all of these players. As rich as Ilitch was, and as good as he was about opening his wallet, even he had a limit. Yzerman (followed by a handful of other Wings) stepped up to the plate to make sure the Wings could get every weapon possible while staying within that limit.

    "Leadership" is one of those terms that often gets thrown around, but it's extremely hard for fans to judge because we're not in the locker rooms. So it's often mentioned as a toss-off in discussions like this. I bring up these particular points because they were tangible, visible evidence of Yzerman's leadership that go beyond the "he was a great leader" talk that pretty much every player says about their Captain. That sort of talk is easy to disregard, but in Yzerman's case we have some tangible results we could see on the ice and the Wings' payroll.

    I don't know that any of these points move Yzerman anywhere with respect to his voting competition this round. Just wanted to put some finer points on the "Yzerman sacrificed offense for defense" narrative. I think it's more complicated than that, for both the good and the bad.

    NOTE: This post was pulled from the History of Hockey forum's debate over the top 100 players of all time. Follow along here: The History of Hockey

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