Detroit — Steve Yzerman finally came up for air Thursday after a frenetic period for the Red Wings and the rest of the NHL.
A flurry of trades, the expansion draft, the NHL Entry Draft and the start of unrestricted free agency all occurred over approximately two weeks.
The Wings were involved in all of it. Now, about eight weeks from the start of training camp, Yzerman feels his team can be better than last season.
“I hope we’re better,” Yzerman said Thursday during a Zoom call. “It’s the day after the first day of free agency. For the most part, every team sits back and you look at your board and you think you’re a better hockey team.
“We’ll have some younger players playing bigger roles and sometimes that can be a challenge. Our back end is a little stronger. It’s a little more mobile and maybe we’ll get a little more offense out of it.”
The Wings acquired defenseman Nick Leddy and goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic in trades (dealing forward Richard Panik, the rights to free agent goalie Jonathan Bernier and draft picks). They lost defenseman Dennis Cholowski to Seattle in the expansion draft, then picked eight prospects in the entry draft, including two first-rounders (defenseman Simon Edvinsson and goaltender Sebastian Cossa) with huge potential.
And in the first two days of free agency, the Wings re-signed forward Sam Gagner, signed defenseman Jordan Oesterle (Dearborn Heights/Dearborn Divine Child) and locked up forward Pius Suter.
Signing Suter, 25, late Wednesday to a two-year contract worth $6.5 million ($3.25 million cap hit, per season) solidified the Wings at the center position. It potentially makes this a better offensive team.
“Having Suter there with a (healthy) Tyler Bertuzzi, and we get a little more offensive output from everyone, I hope that translates to wins,” Yzerman said.
Suter wasn’t qualified by Chicago, making him an unrestricted free agent. The Wings were intrigued by Suter’s potential and age, seeing him as a natural fit.
“He fits into the same group as all of our core,” Yzerman said. “As we try to transition young players onto the team in a year, or two or three, potentially he still fits in with the core group, with Dylan (Larkin), Tyler and Robby Fabbri, all these guys.
“And the other obvious thing is he’s a centerman and offensive-minded center which was a real need for our team. He’s a skilled guy, has good hands, good hockey sense.”
Yzerman touched on a variety of issues:
►On re-signing Gagner to a one-year, $850,000 contract: Yzerman viewed Gagner’s versatility and experience as ingredients the Wings needed to retain. “He came into the NHL as a high draft pick who was a real offensive player and he has remade himself into a real versatile player,” he said. “He did a great job killing penalties last year, very responsible defensively, and he does have that versatility where he can play on the power play on a lot different spots. He’s not going to hurt you on left wing or right wing and you can throw him into the middle.
“He’s a great pro and he’s got a great attitude and he’s comfortable in the role he has on the team as a veteran player. He’s a good example for our younger players. He’s been through it all, so he can relay that.”
►Yzerman was pleased with signing Oesterle, who can fill different roles, and also strengthens the Wings’ defense: “He’s versatile, He was used (in Arizona) in all situations, really, power play, penalty killing, even strength,” he said. “He’s a good skater. We think that’s particularly important with getting to 4-on-4 and 3-on-3 in overtime. But we like his versatility. He’s a useful player, and he complements our left side well and can fill in anywhere there.
“With everyone healthy, we look at it as we have eight defensemen, including (rookie) Moritz Seider. We have experience, we have some depth and we’re in a better position than a year ago.”
►There are one or two spots open among the forwards, but Yzerman wouldn’t say those spots are being held for rookies Lucas Raymond and Jonatan Berggren: “If our younger players come into training camp and do well, and they earn a spot, that’s great,” he said. “(But) I’m not necessarily going to leave spots open just to hand it to them, or to get it by default. It’s important at this stage if they’re ready to go, great, we’ll find a spot and find a solution for it.”
►Yzerman is still looking at some free agents: “I’m not going to sign a player that we don’t think is a fit or we think can’t help us,” he said.
►The NHL’s wild week slightly surprised Yzerman: “Probably a little more active and more movement than really I kind of anticipated, initially,” he said. “It was entertaining, the trades going on and Seattle coming in, which throws a kink into a normal offseason.”
►The Wings signed UFA forward/defenseman Luke Witkowski on Thursday, bringing back the Holland native and former Western Michigan player on a two-way contract. Witkowski’s ability to play both up front and defense, and his physical style of play were major plusses: “He can go up on the right wing, and he did that in Detroit and Tampa (the last two seasons),” Yzerman said. “He’s rugged, hard nosed, and a great person, a great leader. He gives us some depth to play here and in Grand Rapids and he gives us flexibility to play, and he’s tough as nails.”
►Yzerman said forward Joe Veleno, who made his NHL debut last season, will have to win a lineup spot in camp: “He’s a young prospect competing for a job,” Yzerman said. “Going over to Sweden (last season) was great. He got to play and he’s gotten much stronger (physically) over the last 18 months. We got a little bit of a view of him at the end of the season in Detroit and he looked pretty good. He’ not penciled onto the roster. He’ll be an interesting player to watch in the preseason to see if he can hold his own. I don’t want him to just be on the roster, I want him to play well.”
►On the health of Dylan Larkin, who had a neck injury late last season, ending his season early: “He’s progressing and we expect him ready to go in September for the start of training camp,” Yzerman said.