Niyo: A Sabre’s rattling could provide Red Wings an opportunity to energize rebuild

Detroit News

For those who like to play fantasy sports, the allure isn’t just the money involved.

It’s also the action, which is a big part of what’s missing in a slow-rolling rebuilding effort like the one Tigers fans are enduring in Detroit.

Sure, there was a brief spark generated by the arrival of Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal late last summer, and even more so with the AJ Hinch hiring last fall. But for the most part, watching general manager Al Avila work has been like watching paint dry. Or watching his team hit for most ofthis spring.

The other GM on Chris Ilitch’s payroll has been a different story, though, which is why it’ll be interesting to watch what Steve Yzerman does next with the Red Wings.

Not just with a coaching decision that was still pending as of Tuesday afternoon, with Jeff Blashill’s fate behind the Wings’ bench unannounced, though likely not undecided at this point.

But also with a lineup that’s poised for a significant overhaul, if Yzerman chooses, considering only nine players on Detroit’s current roster are under contract for next season. Eight more are scheduled for unrestricted free agency in July, while 10 will be restricted free agents.

Figuring out who’ll stay and who’ll go is just part of Yzerman’s lengthy to-do list this offseason. There’s also a draft lottery, an expansion draft and then the NHL Entry Draft where Detroit owns a dozen draft picks, including five in the first two rounds. And even before we get to free agency, there’s also the offseason trade market, where Yzerman’s track record — both here and in Tampa Bay — suggests he’ll be a serious player.

And he wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t at least make a call to check on the situation in Buffalo, where the plume of black smoke can be seen all the way from the other end of Lake Erie.

Bummed in Buffalo

Jack Eichel, the Sabres’ star center, threw a giant-size Uniroyal on the smoldering tire fire there this week, the loudest voice in a disgruntled chorus of players speaking out after Buffalo’s last-place finish.

Eichel’s frustration with Buffalo runs much deeper than all the organizational dysfunction and losing that he has seen in his six seasons there. A year ago, the Sabres’ captain made it clear he wasn’t happy with where things were at, telling reporters “I’m fed up with the losing and I’m frustrated” after the team missed the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season. The year before that, he watched his former teammate, Ryan O’Reilly, hoist the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy only 11 months after Buffalo traded him away to St. Louis.

But things reached a tipping point this past winter with Eichel and the team at odds over the handling of his injuries, most notably a herniated disk in his neck that forced him to miss the final 35 games of the season. Eichel consulted with specialists and reportedly wants to have disk replacement surgery, but the Sabres’ medical staff and front office haven’t signed off on it yet. Or at least that’s his version of the story.

“There’s been a bit of a disconnect between myself and the organization,” Eichel said Monday. “It’s been tough at times. Right now, for me, the most important thing now is to try to get healthy and figure out a way to be available to play hockey next year, wherever that might be.”

It’s that last phrase, of course, that’s a siren song for the rest of the league. It sounds like Eichel’s way of demanding a trade publicly without saying so explicitly, a la Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. More than once in his season-ending “exit” interview with the media, Eichel added, “I’ve got to do what’s best for me,” or something along those lines.

What’s best for Eichel probably is a trade, though the Sabres’ front office may not agree. His health obviously will be a prohibitive factor in any such scenario as well. But if there’s a deal to be made, teams should be lining up with offers. The New York Rangers seem like an obvious suitor. The Bruins, Flyers and Kings, too.

An imperfect match

And the Wings? Well, no team has more salary-cap space heading into the summer than Detroit, and Yzerman does have the kind of prospects and future assets to make a viable offer for Eichel, an elite No. 1 pivot who’s only 24 and under contract for five more seasons at $10 million per year.

I’m not sure there’s a great match here on either side, really. If the Sabres are ultimately forced to deal their captain, they’d undoubtedly look to move him out of their division, if not the conference. And while Eichel’s no-movement clause doesn’t kick in until next summer, it seems unlikely he’d be keen on jumping from one rebuild to another, anyway.

Still, the point remains, Yzerman needs to be proactive in the same way Troy Weaver has been with the Pistons, completely turning over that roster in his first year on the job.

It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, obviously, because these pro sports leagues are all different animals. Hockey’s more like baseball when it comes to prospects and real progress. But that doesn’t mean the philosophy can’t be shared. The “aggressive” mindset Weaver talked about earlier this winter, vowing to “attack everything” from the draft to free agency to trades can still be applied. You can’t just sit around waiting to hit the lottery.

Yzerman certainly hasn’t been shy himself, something he proved again last month when he shipped Anthony Mantha to Washington in a deal for Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik and first- and second-round picks. And when asked that salary-cap flexibility he has a month ago, the Wings’ GM left the door open for more wheeling and dealing.

“It gives us certainly an opportunity to do things,” Yzerman said. “We have the ability to do it in free agency, we have the ability to take on players through trades, we have draft picks and prospects and are prepared to use those in the right trade (for) players that fit the age group moving forward. And there are teams around the league that might have to move guys for cap reasons, so we’re in a position to do that as well.”

They are in a position to do just about anything, really. And that’s all the fans in this town are asking for, at this point, is something to get excited about.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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