When Steve Yzerman sent Anthony Mantha to the Washington Capitals at the NHL trade deadline Monday, the move was widely described as a blockbuster throughout the league.
And it was, but not for the reasons most people might think.
Yzerman’s move was the boldest of his two-year tenure as the Wings’ general manager and said a lot about the path he’s prepared to take as the team closes in on the fifth year of a rebuild that hasn’t made significant progress or offered fans much hope.
That Yzerman was willing to cut bait on Mantha, a talented and promising scorer who checks in at Mario Lemieux-esque 6 feet 5 and 234 pounds and whom Yzerman signed to a four-year deal five months ago, tells us no one is safe or sacred enough to be spared if he doesn’t perform to Yzerman’s expectations.
Reporters aren’t allowed inside dressing rooms because of COVID-19 safety rules, but I’ll bet there was a chill in the air that wafted from stall to stall as the Wings suited up Monday in Carolina after the trade, wondering who might be next.
And that chill likely extended to the coaches’ office as well, where expiring contracts could make it easy for Yzerman to swing his hatchet in May. Because there’s no way Mantha failing to play up to his contract and expectations is not an indictment of coach Jeff Blashill and his staff.
By all accounts, Blashill and Yzerman have worked well together over two seasons. There have been glimmers of hope. The development of Tyler Bertuzzi, Filip Zadina and Filip Hronek, plus three straight wins against the Hurricanes, and seven points in five games in mid-March are highlights. But there hasn’t been enough significant improvement under Blashill.
Over the past two seasons, since Yzerman decided to keep Blashill, through Monday the Wings ranked last in nearly every meaningful category: fewest wins, most losses, fewest goals scored, most goals allowed and worst penalty kill. The power play was the lone bright spot: It ranked second-worst.
This doesn’t all fall on Blashill. But it’s up to Yzerman to decide whether Blashill failing to produce because he doesn’t have enough roster talent, or if Blashill failing to get the most out of the talent? No one expected a Stanley Cup run these past two seasons, but something more than basement finishes would have been nice.
So far, Yzerman has pushed back at every turn to put a timetable on his rebuild. But trading a player of Mantha’s caliber tells us Yzerman might not be as patient as he has let on. Moving on from Blashill, or giving him a short extension, would tell us more.
“We’re trying to add draft picks or prospects to expedite the rebuild that we’re under,” Yzerman said Monday. “This was an opportunity to acquire picks but still try to keep as competitive as possible.”
Getting better in the future, but also showing signs of life now, is what led Yzerman to make the swap with his old teammate Brian MacLellan, Washington’s GM who had to keep pace with the moves his East Division rivals were making.
And it was a fine trade, if you consider Mantha for Jakub Vrana an even swap of two talented but under-performing scorers. The fact the Wings also got forward Richard Panik, plus a first-round pick this year and a second-rounder next year, made it a clear win for Yzerman – unless Mantha catches fire in the playoffs and becomes a 50-goal scorer the next few years.
What comes of those draft picks is impossible to tell and Yzerman admitted as much Monday when he said, “You may get really, really lucky. You may get unlucky.”
But this is the way it should be. When you don’t see a player panning out and there’s an opportunity to move on, you should take it. Mantha didn’t work out, but signing him did because it ultimately netted the Wings more personnel and draft capital.
We’ll see what Yzerman does with that capital and Blashill. But Yzerman knows he needs to start hurrying this rebuild, because a GM, a fan base and an owner can only wait so long for a team to produce.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.