Niyo: Red Wings’ future looks younger, brighter and more distant

Detroit News

There are a dozen games left in this Red Wings season. There are a dozen draft picks waiting this summer.

But two days after the trade-deadline deal that uprooted Jakub Vrana from Stanley Cup contention and planted him in the middle of a demolition site in Detroit, the 25-year-old sniper understandably was more concerned with first impressions than long-range plans.

And to be honest, after his first skate in a Red Wings practice jersey, Vrana was still sifting through what he described as “mixed emotions” following Monday’s blockbuster trade between Washington and Detroit. It was a deal that sent Vrana, veteran forward Richard Panik and a pair of draft picks to the Red Wings in exchange for Anthony Mantha, a player whom general manager Steve Yzerman had signed to a four-year contract extension only five months ago.

“Obviously, I was drafted to that club and I had a relationship to that city and with the guys there,” said Vrana, a former first-round pick who’d fallen out of favor with Capitals coach Peter Laviolette this season. “At the moment, I was shocked. But once Steve called me, it was just … when somebody wants to give you a chance and wants you in their organization, wants you to play for their team, it gives you excitement. It gives me excitement to come here and do my best to help this group to build something here.”

That’s the plan, certainly. Yzerman is trying to build something here, just as he did previously in Tampa Bay, where his fingerprints were all over the Lightning roster that finally won a Stanley Cup last season.

But what this trade signals, as much as anything, is just how far away that kind of success might be for the Red Wings. Dealing Mantha, who’ll turn 27 in September, so soon after re-signing him says something about the enigmatic winger’s true value in management’s eyes, to be sure. But it also highlights the fact that the franchise’s so-called “core” is skewing much younger than some fans initially suspected, or hoped.

More: Red Wings receive high marks from analysts in Anthony Mantha trade

Dylan Larkin may be here to stay as the 24-year-old captain with a contract that runs through 2023. But Mantha’s gone now, and Tyler Bertuzzi — the other member of the Wings’ top line the last two seasons — is due to be a restricted free agent again this summer after going to arbitration last offseason. And when Yzerman talks about the future these days, he’ll mention the names of Filip Hronek, Filip Zadina and Michael Rasmussen, along with the expected arrival next season of defenseman Moritz Seider, Yzerman’s first draft pick as GM.

That’s the core of this rebuild, along with last year’s top pick, Lucas Raymond, and some of the other prospects from recent draft classes such as Jonatan Berggren, Joe Veleno and William Wallinder — all of them 21 or younger.

Where Vrana, selected two slots ahead of Larkin in the 2014 draft, fits in that mix remains to be seen. He’ll get a chance for a brief audition in Detroit over the next few weeks, beginning Thursday night against Chicago playing on a second line with Rasmussen and Valtteri Filppula, the veteran who is filling in for an injured Robby Fabbri.

That’s a far cry from the soft landing Mantha found Tuesday night in his debut in Washington, skating on Nicklas Backstrom’s line with T.J. Oshie and finishing with a goal and an assist in a 6-1 rout of Philadelphia. But Vrana will see some power-play time on the Wings’ second unit, coach Jeff Blashill said, and he’ll almost certainly see more ice time than he did with the Capitals, which was part of the “tug-of-war” that his former GM Brian MacLellan cited Monday in discussing how the trade came together.

“I think he was a little frustrated with where he was at here within the organization, MacLellan said, “and he probably wants a little more ice time, wants more responsibility.”

Blashill made it clear Wednesday he’ll have to earn that with his new team, through his effort and defensive responsibility. But the coach also pointed to Vrana’s “impressive” offensive skills and elite skating ability as he looks to replace Mantha’s production in the lineup.

“I think it can be a great marriage,” Blashill said. “I think he can be a guy that can be part of the core that’s hopefully gonna build this organization to a better tomorrow, and I think he can be a big part of that. But he’s gotta make sure he makes that decision on a shift-by-shift basis.”

And then it’ll be up to Yzerman and his front-office staff to make the decisions that’ll shift this rebuild into its next phase.

That starts with Blashill’s expiring contract, of course, a topic Yzerman politely tabled until after the season when asked about it Monday.

But like Bertuzzi, Vrana is scheduled for restricted free agency this summer as well, giving Detroit the option of re-signing him to a short-term contract before deciding whether to extend him on a deal similar to the one Mantha signed last November.

Detroit also took on Panik’s remaining contract in the trade, giving Washington salary-cap relief in exchange for more draft compensation. But that also helps the Wings in this summer’s NHL expansion draft for the new Seattle franchise. Now Yzerman can leave Panik exposed along with Frans Nielsen, if he chooses, and protect a player like Vladislav Namestnikov instead.

As for all those draft picks? With a dozen in his pocket, including two first-rounders and seven over the first three rounds, Yzerman has more to work with than any of his peers heading into this summer’s entry draft, whether he gets lucky in the lottery or not. That could add more leverage in a year where the class of prospects is more of a mystery than usual, thanks to a pandemic that wreaked havoc with junior hockey in North America and Europe this season.

“It probably is more unpredictable this year,” said Yzerman, who also owns 10 picks in the 2022 draft at the moment. “You can look at it two ways: You may get really lucky, or you may get really unlucky.”

But with all that draft capital, the Wings will be in a position to move up to grab a prospect they really like who’s sliding, whether that’s in the middle of the first round or early on Day 2.

“I would probably think the markets might be a little inefficient this year because people don’t have the depth of knowledge,” MacLellan said. “There might be opportunities to find a really good player with a later pick.”

There will be other opportunities for Yzerman, too, which is something he alluded to Monday when he met with the media.

The Red Wings will be flush with salary-cap space again this summer, thanks to a roster that’s loaded with pending free agents. The younger RFAs will sign shorter deals to stay, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Yzerman bring back some veterans like goalie Jonathan Bernier and forward Bobby Ryan or even defenseman Jon Merill, who was just traded to Montreal for a draft pick at the deadline.

All that roster flexibility is “really not by design,” Yzerman says, but he plans to use it to his advantage, regardless.

“We have the ability to do it in free agency, we have the ability to take on players through trades,” he said.  “There are teams around the league that might have to move guys for cap reasons, and we are in a position to do that as well.”

And considering the position the Red Wings find themselves in at the moment, that’s an encouraging thought, no matter how distant it seems.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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