Niyo: Yzerman, Red Wings finally find their depth — and some light — in rebuild

Detroit News

You have to give a little to get a little in any good relationship. And in a way, that’s exactly what Steve Yzerman has done this offseason.

The Red Wings’ general manager gave away some of that financial flexibility he’d worked so methodically to create the last few years. But in the process, he has given new head coach Derek Lalonde the sort of flexibility his predecessor behind the Wings’ bench, Jeff Blashill, didn’t really have as the organizational rebuild bottomed out in the middle of his tenure.

After Yzerman spent more than two-thirds of his hefty salary-cap space this offseason – including the roughly $20 million for 2022-23 the GM doled out in the first 12 hours of free agency Wednesday – there’s finally a surplus of NHL-ready talent on the roster.

As a result, Lalonde figures to have some decisions to make before the start of the regular season. And for a welcome change, those decisions won’t end once the puck drops for the Oct. 14 home opener against Montreal, either.

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Because while this revamped roster – and a lineup that will feature at least a half-dozen new faces – promises to be more competitive with the rest of the league, it also promises more competition. Right from the start of training camp in Traverse City in September, in fact.

“A lot of guys have something prove here now,” Yzerman said Thursday, following a frenzied start to free agency that saw a handful of deals involving Detroit. “There’s competition for ice time. There’s competition for jobs on the team. So I’m hoping with the change in the coaching staff and the additions of the new players, that all of our guys are coming in ready to go. It’s important that they make a good first impression.

“They’re gonna want that, because the coach is gonna have to make decisions on opening night on who’s in the lineup and who’s playing in all different situations.”

Again, that’s what passes for progress in a program that’s now six full years removed from its last postseason appearance. It’s also a genuine sign of hope for a team that finished 26 points out of the final Eastern Conference playoff berth this past spring.

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And, yes, it’s why everyone was looking for a deeper meaning in Yzerman’s aggressive posture this month, from a draft-day trade for a starting goaltender in Ville Husso to the rapid-fire signings Wednesday when the free-agent marketplace opened, from center Andrew Copp to wingers David Perron and Dominik Kubalik to defensemen Ben Chiarot and Olli Maatta. (In addition to a couple other two-way signings Wednesday, the Wings also announced a deal with veteran defenseman Mark Pysyk early Thursday morning.)

The Wings’ GM summed all of that up as “another step in the process,” and Yzerman downplayed the notion that he was sending any loud message about this franchise turning the corner, unlike his contemporary with the Tigers this past winter.

“I think we’ve improved the team, but we gotta go on the ice in September and then play in October,” Yzerman cautioned. “We’ve addressed some needs. I hope we’re a better team. I think we’re progressing slowly in this rebuilding of the Red Wings. Are we good enough to make the playoffs next year? I don’t know. … Time will tell. But I’m optimistic that we’re progressing.”

If that wasn’t entirely clear a week or two ago, or for much of Yzerman’s first few years here, it seems undeniable today, in the wake of Wednesday’s free-agent windfall.

Up front, there’s a legitimate top six for the first time in years, with the trio of Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi and Lucas Raymond now backed by a second line that could feature Copp centering Perron and Jakub Vrana. Lalonde and his staff can juggle those names however they see fit, and Wednesday’s overlooked signing of winger Dominik Kubalik, who scored 30 goals for Chicago as a rookie a few years ago, adds another scoring-line option and power-play threat as well. (At some point, Robby Fabbri also will be ready to play coming off ACL surgery.)

All of that pushes others down in the lineup, or in some cases out of it altogether. Filip Zadina, a restricted free agent, will have to prove he belongs in the top nine or possibly get shipped out. Pius Suter won’t be asked to play an outsized second-line role anymore. Michael Rasmussen can settle in likewise. And players like Oskar Sundqvist, Adam Erne and Givani Smith will force prospects Joe Veleno and Jonattan Berggren to either earn a roster spot in the preseason or head back to Grand Rapids.

More: Steve Yzerman confident Red Wings addressed needs, holes in lineup

That, in turn, gives the team depth to deal with injuries, something the Wings haven’t had in a while. It also gives Yzerman some protection if he wants to swing another deal this summer or later this fall. (“I don’t have a blockbuster in the works or anything like that for you all,” he said Thursday, with a wry smile.) The Wings still have about $10 million in cap space, too, though some of that likely is earmarked for Larkin’s looming contract extension, and possibly Bertuzzi’s as well. And Yzerman remains open for business if another cap-strapped team needs to unload a problematic contract before the regular season and is willing to attach a draft pick or two.

“I’m pretty content right now to go into training camp with the group that we have,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t exploring if there are any other opportunities out there.”

In the here and now, though, the Wings have gotten quite a bit of work done, by anyone’s measure.

Yzerman knew he needed to shore up the left side of his defense —  a disaster by the end of last season — and he did just that by adding Chiarot, whose four-year term does carry some risk, and Maatta. Those two defensive-minded defensemen – and bigger bodies — should pair up with Calder Trophy winner Moritz Seider and Filip Hronek.

That leaves a handful of others vying for third-pair minutes in Jordan Oesterle, Jake Walman – a restricted free agent coming off shoulder surgery – Gustav Lindstrom, Steven Kampfer and Pysyk. And it means top prospect Simon Edvinsson, the Wings’ 2021 first-round pick, will have to play his way onto the roster in September much like Raymond did a year ago.

Yet the point is, once the roster is set in October, it really won’t be.

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“You’re not gonna play ‘X’ amount of minutes and in all these situations just because the coach looks down the bench and doesn’t have anybody to put out there, or doesn’t feel confident in putting anybody out there,” Yzerman said. “I think with the group that we have, Derek will have a few more options when he looks down the bench in any situation.”

There’s the makings of two legitimate power-play units, finally. There are more options to kill penalties, improved odds in the faceoff circle, and arguably one of the better tandems in net.

Maatta, for one, sees some similarities here with the huge turnaround he was a part of last season in Los Angeles, aided by some significant veteran additions.

” I think the depth was the biggest thing,” said Maatta, 27, who won back-to-back Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh early in his career. “We were a good team before, but we didn’t have that 2-3 lines that could play and I think last year we found that. When you can roll with 3-4 lines and you’ve got three ‘D’ pairs who can play. It’s tough to match up against that.”

As Yzerman met with the media on a Zoom call Thursday, sitting in his office at Little Caesars Arena, where the Wings had just finished up their development camp with a 3-on-3 tournament a few hours earlier, he kept glancing up at the team’s depth chart posted on the wall nearby.

It may not look like a Stanley Cup contender, or even a playoff team at this point. But it sure looks better, all things considered.

“I’m cautionsly — or nervously – optimistic,” Yzerman said. “I think we have more depth, I think we can match up a little bit better against other teams. And I just keep my fingers crossed that it plays out that way.”

The way this past week played out, it doesn’t seem like such wishful thinking anymore.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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