Niyo: Steve Yzerman, Red Wings staying busy, not going for broke

Detroit News

John Niyo
| The Detroit News

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It helps to have a clean sheet of ice. The passes are crisper, the turns sharper, and the pace generally quickens.

And it’s no different for an NHL general manager, as we’re starting to see in Detroit, where Steve Yzerman’s vision for building another Stanley Cup contender with the Red Wings is beginning to come into focus.

The full picture is still a long way off, but after a frenetic first week of the NHL offseason, you can start to see the early stages of a plan and the framework of a philosophy as Yzerman retools the roster and replenishes the farm system.

With a draft haul that ended up netting a dozen players, the Red Wings weren’t afraid to take some chances. But they also went into the two-day marathon with a clear directive, emphasizing skill and smarts even as they took a few flyers on prospects with higher ceilings and lower floors. When you’re in the basement, that’s not a bad idea at all.

Meanwhile, in free agency, Yzerman found some immediate help without mortgaging anyone’s future, least of all his own just 18 months into this reclamation project.

In signing a handful of veteran players to one and two-year deals over the weekend — forwards Bobby Ryan and Vladislav Namestnikov, defensemen Jon Merrill and Troy Stecher and goaltender Thomas Greiss — the Red Wings’ GM didn’t make any big splashes. But he didn’t give up any financial flexibility, either, while still managing to upgrade his roster with more skill up front, more size and skating on the blue line, and more stability in net.

That’s not saying much, I realize. This was a team that managed just 17 wins in 71 games last season — the third-worst record in franchise history — and was outscored by a whopping 122 goals.

The time is now

But while putting a more competitive team on the ice was imperative, it was also important not to do it in a way that would affect the larger rebuilding effort here.

And those short-term signings are both a sign of the times — a flat-cap world without fans affects the bottom line on multiple fronts — and a welcome departure from some of the moves made by Yzerman’s predecessor, Ken Holland, even after it was painfully clear it was time to chart a new path in Detroit.

“It gives you the flexibility to do a lot of different things,” Yzerman said Monday. “You get into the longer-term contracts, you’re locked into them. Obviously, when you sign players, we all hope that they perform well and justify the signing of the contract.”

But often they don’t, and last week’s buyout of Justin Abdelkader’s contract was a prime example of why it’s a bad idea to give long-term deals to mid-tier players. Or to those that are simply past their prime, which is another mistake the Wings are still paying for here.

You remember the Red Wings’ ill-fated summer of 2016, right? After a second straight first-round playoff exit to Yzerman’s Lightning, Holland lost out again in free agency that summer when star winger Steven Stamkos stayed put in Tampa, forcing Detroit to shift to Plan B. The Wings had already cleared cap space by trading Pavel Datsyuk’s contract to Arizona, and Holland opted to spend a big chunk of it on a 32-year-old center, Frans Nielsen, who now is a buyout candidate himself after putting up nine points in 60 games last season.


Wings GM Steve Yzerman on where Bobby Ryan and Vladislav Namestnikov fit in

Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman talks about where new signing Bobby Ryan and Vladislav Namestnikov can fit into the lineup.

Yzerman has opted not to write that one off the books for now. Instead, though, he’s bringing in a player on the other side of a buyout in 33-year-old Bobby Ryan, a right-winger who still had two years left at a $7.25 million cap hit when Ottawa put him on waivers last month. In Detroit, Ryan sees an opportunity to reboot his career. In Ryan, the Red Wings see a right-handed shot who can help their power play and the right kind of low-risk gamble at a $1 million price tag.

But the same is true for the other free-agent signings. Namestnikov probably slots in as the second-line center, though Yzerman says he’s capable of playing all three forward spots here. Merrill’s a left-shot defenseman who’ll bolster the blue line and provide insurance — along with newly acquired veteran Marc Staal — since Danny DeKeyser is coming off back surgery last winter. Stecher adds another solid two-way defender on the right side, which is notable since top prospect Moritz Seider is on loan playing in Sweden this season, at least until March or April. In goal, Greiss gives the Red Wings a more viable tandem with Jonathan Bernier than what they had last season, given Jimmy Howard’s struggles in net.

Wisdom and youth

 “We’re trying to surround the younger players with high-quality veterans,” Yzerman said. “With guys that can help our team get better, help our young guys improve, make us more competitive, and try and improve our team but buy time to let our young guys develop.”

Along the way, they might buy more than time, too. Assuming Yzerman finds himself a seller at the trade deadline next season, or even perhaps the year after, he might find these free-agent additions are trade chips to flip. Namestnikov was traded twice last season alone, both times netting fourth-round draft picks in return.

In the meantime, Yzerman will turn his attention to signing some of the Red Wings’ restricted free agents, starting with top scorer Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi, who recently filed for arbitration. He said he doesn’t anticipate making any other free-agent signings right away. But sitting $18 million under the salary cap, he does have room to maneuver and time to wait out “some of the teams that are cap-crunched a little bit, to see if they’re looking to do anything.”

If they are, the Red Wings’ GM might decide the price — and the player — is right, while picking up future assets as he did in the Staal trade with the New York Rangers. 

“And if nothing comes to fruition,” he added, “we could potentially circle back and maybe add one more player, a free agent, if they’re still out there. I don’t think we’ll be terribly active.”

But that’s because they already have been this offseason, freeing themselves up to do more in the future. Turnarounds take time, but they also take space. And for once the Red Wings have a bit of both. Best not to waste either.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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