Niyo: Steve Yzerman makes his move, on his terms, at his time

Detroit News

Everyone in the NHL knew this was a buyer’s market. And it has been a while since that could be considered good news for the Red Wings.

But to Steve Yzerman’s credit, he wasn’t buying it. He still found a way to sell high amid a depressing year from one of his team’s biggest assets, surprising just about everyone in the league with a trade-deadline blockbuster that sent enigmatic forward Anthony Mantha to the Washington Capitals for an impressive haul that includes forwards Jakub Vrana and Richard Panik, a 2021 first-round pick and a 2022 second-rounder.

It’s the kind of bold move that Yzerman has made throughout his decade-long tenure as an NHL general manager. But it’s easily his biggest move yet with the Red Wings, a week shy of the two-year anniversary marking Yzerman’s front-office return to Detroit.

And for pro sports fans in this town, it’s another sign that the new management in charge here understands patience can be a virtue right up until the price is right.

As it is with Troy Weaver’s roster overhaul of the Pistons, and Brad Holmes’ introductory splash as the Lions’ GM, Yzerman’s latest move — trading away his leading goal-scorer barely five months after signing Mantha to a four-year contract extension — makes it clear nothing should be off the table in a rebuilding effort.

Not that Yzerman’s all that interested in standing on a table and shouting about it, of course. That’s never been his style.

“I don’t know what message I’m sending to anybody,” Yzerman shrugged Monday. “I’m just trying to build a good team.”

And in this case, that meant parting with a good player who may end up in a great spot with Washington, where Mantha’s size (6-foot-5, 235 pounds) and play-driving ability should fit nicely with a Stanley Cup-contending roster.

In Detroit, though, his inconsistent play and production were a maddening reminder of how far the Wings have to go to get back where they used to be among the NHL’s elite.

Anthony Mantha's inconsistent play and production were a maddening reminder of how far the Wings have to go to get back where they used to be.

And all the more reason why Yzerman felt compelled to pull the trigger on this deal, perking up an otherwise sleepy hockey holiday event.

With a flat salary cap of $81.5 million the past two seasons — and perhaps “for the immediate future,” according to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman — due to the pandemic, things are tight around the league. More than half of NHL teams, and nearly all the playoff-bound buyers, had either zero cap space or less than $1 million in wiggle room at the deadline, which forced teams to get creative to make a deal.

In Yzerman’s case, that meant picking up half of David Savard’s salary to help facilitate a trade between Columbus and Tampa Bay over the weekend, essentially paying about $250,000 to add a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft. The Red Wings also retained half of defenseman Patrik Nemeth’s $3 million cap charge to add a 2022 fourth-rounder from Colorado.

But as he engaged in similar talks with Capitals GM Brian MacLellan over the last week or two, Yzerman also explored a more substantial “hockey deal” involving Mantha, a player MacLellan said the Capitals have “really liked for quite a while now.” And one the Red Wings haven’t always loved, at times, if we’re being honest.

Yzerman said he’d quietly gauged the market for Mantha ahead of the deadline, and engaged in “legitimate talks” about a possible deal with a “very small group of teams.” He also had to weigh the pros and cons of making a move now or waiting to see if there might be more suitors prior to the draft in July, which was really the only question — or criticism — I had with this deal.

“We sit here and wonder, ‘OK, do we want to do this now? If we’re gonna do it, shouldn’t we wait for the draft? Should we wait a year from now?’” Yzerman admitted Monday. “You don’t know the answers to those questions.”

But knowing what he knows now, and given the likelihood that the financial constraints aren’t going to be much different this summer — there’s also the Seattle expansion draft to factor in for teams — Yzerman said he felt the return would’ve been similar even if he’d waited. And more to the point, this is a move he’s obviously comfortable making, now or later.

“I think Anthony Mantha is a very talented hockey player and I hope he does well, and I expect him to do well, in Washington,” Yzerman said. “But ultimately, we thought this trade made sense for us in the near-term and moving forward.”

Washington Capitals left wing Jakub Vrana (13), from the Czech Republic, shoots the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Carolina Hurricanes, on Monday, Jan. 13, 2020, in Washington.

That’s because in Vrana, he’s adding a former first-round pick who is two years younger than Mantha and actually has been a better 5-on-5 scorer the last few seasons, albeit with a much better team around him. Both players have frustrated with their erratic performance, and on a much more talented roster, Vrana had fallen out of the lineup of late. At 6-foot and 200 pounds, he lacks Mantha’s size, but the Czech adds an element of speed the Wings certainly could use. And notably, he also adds even more roster flexibility, since he’s due to be a restricted free agent this summer.

So while the Capitals liked the cost-certainty they get with Mantha, who is signed for a reasonable $5.7 million cap for three more seasons, the Wings get another player with potential they can evaluate before deciding whether to make a long-term commitment. And by taking on the 30-year-old Panik’s contract — at $2.75 million the next two years — they were able to sweeten the deal with more future assets.

The Red Wings have made more draft picks the last four years (44) than any other NHL team. And that trend will continue, because these deadline deals now give them a dozen selections in this year’s draft, including five in the first two rounds and nine over the first four rounds. They also own 10 picks in the 2022 draft now, which further underscores the rationale behind this trade.

More than likely, the Red Wings aren’t going to be a legitimate playoff team for at least a few more seasons. Which meant Mantha’s prime years — and whatever production that comes with them — really weren’t going to match up with the franchise’s timeline.

A smart GM sees that and finds a way to strike a deal that maximizes his assets. Whether or not Yzerman did that fully here, it’s impossible to say. But at least he didn’t sit around waiting and wondering. The front offices have done too much of that here until recently, and so have the fans.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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