Steve Yzerman sends message with Anthony Mantha trade — whether he wanted to or not

Detroit Free Press

Few things in sports are as tough to watch as unfulfilled talent, especially when flashes of that talent are so easy to see.

Giving up on that promise might be harder still.

Yet that’s what Steve Yzerman did Monday afternoon shortly before the NHL trade deadline when the Detroit Red Wings general manager shipped off Anthony Mantha, a gifted, two-way forward who didn’t live up to his gifts, at least not consistently enough.

That Yzerman traded Mantha to Washington five months  after signing him to a four-year extension tells you how frustrated the front office must have been with the 26-year-old’s play. The move should also tell you Yzerman isn’t afraid to move on from a player.

NICE JOB! Why Yzerman gets an A-plus for dealing Anthony Mantha at deadline

Not that extending Mantha last offseason was a mistake. It wasn’t.

Yzerman banked on Mantha either becoming the player they’d hoped or at least showing enough that he would remain a solid asset. He also knew that the forward’s uneven play wasn’t only because of his inconsistent motor. He had injuries, too.

Extending his contract gave him — and the Wings — a chance to see what he could produce with full health.

He got that chance this season. Turns out the lack of fire was all him.

Still, he showed enough for Washington to send Jakob Vrana, Richard Panik, a 2021 first-round pick and a 2022 second-round pick. In Vrana, the Wings are getting a speedy goal scorer who is a year younger than Mantha.

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He is not the defensive presence Mantha can be. Nor is he the physical menace around the net. He is, however, a talented skater who attacks the goal full speed, and while his upside isn’t what Mantha’s is, he brings a different kind of juice.

Panik, meanwhile, is a 30-year-old forward who hadn’t played much and was taking too much room against the Capitals’ salary camp. He is, if nothing else, worth a look.

Washington coach Peter Laviolette, recently benched Vrana for a couple of games, and told reporters he wasn’t thrilled with Vrana’s play away from the puck. It’s a complaint previous coaches of Vrana’s have made, that when he’s engaged, he changes the geometry of the ice, but when he’s not, he’s taking up space.

In a Zoom interview last week, Vrana agreed with part of Laviolette’s assessment.

“Me and Peter had some conversations through the year,” he said. “There are some things during the game I need to work on … talking about playing harder on pucks and things like that. Making mistakes.”

Sound familiar?

Yes, it does. But that doesn’t mean the Wings just traded one player struggling to find consistency for another.

Sometimes a switch of organizations can help … both players. And sometimes struggles a player has in one place might not be true in another.

Besides, it’s not that Vrana doesn’t compete. He does, with fearlessness and style. It’s just that he gets lost at times away from the central action. That’s different from playing entire games in second gear, as Mantha too often did.

If Vrana finds himself in the quieter parts of the ice, and becomes more visible in the game’s overall flow, then the Wings may have a piece to keep moving forward with the rebuild — he is a restricted free agent after the season. If not, they have the draft picks, and in the long view, that’s what the trade was about.

Drafting and developing players is a risky business even in normal times, when scouts can scour the world and watch promising prospects in person. It’s even riskier during a pandemic. The more swings you can take, the better the odds.

A LOOK BACK: Counting down top five trade-deadline deals in Wings history

And, as Yzerman said Monday:

“The draft is very unpredictable, hit and miss. You may get really, really lucky. You may get unlucky.”

Yzerman liked the fit of this deal because it replaces Mantha’s production with a player who has a chance to take a step, and because it gives the Wings assets. He knows making the deal now — instead of waiting until closer to the draft this summer — might have cost him a better offer.

Then again, it this might have been as good as the Wings were going to get for Mantha, and Yzerman didn’t want to pass that up. Remember that one of the team’s best trade assets, Bobby Ryan, went down with an injury last week.

In other words, you never know.

So, you take a chance, like Yzerman did Monday, sending arguably the club’s most gifted player out the door. Betting that his ceiling is best reached in another city, and that the return on that promise will better help the franchise move forward.

And even though news of the trade tore the hockey world, Yzerman wasn’t interested in saying he was sending any kind of message. He just wanted a change. And he liked the trade.

“Anthony is a good player,” he said.

But?

“We’re trying to take steps forward,” he said. “The core of our team is still relatively young. We want to surround them with players that help them grow and develop as well.”

Intentional message or not, it’s not hard to hear what’s being said.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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