Even now, after the biggest spending spree in years, Steve Yzerman won’t commit to the goal of making the playoffs. Which isn’t to say it’s not his goal for the Detroit Red Wings team he manages.
He just won’t say it publicly. He’d rather his team learn how to win first. His moves in free agency this week should help that.
It’s not an accident five of the six players Yzerman signed this week have playoff experience. Three of them — Ben Chiarot, David Perron and Olli Määtä —have played in the Stanley Cup Finals. The other two, Andrew Copp and Dominik Kubalik, won a playoff series this spring; Copp played in the conference finals.
Though the newcomers aren’t here as tutors. They can play, too, and give the Wings depth, savvy, offense and, most critically, defense.
ON THE BLUELINE: Red Wings’ Steve Yzerman stocks up on defense with Ben Chiarot
“I think we improved the team,” Yzerman said Thursday. “I’m optimistic.”
“The plan hasn’t changed,” he said.
He intends to keep the youngsters, develop them, be patient with them, and hope the veteran additions improve scoring, defense, power plays, penalty kills and, God willing, the team’s place in the standings.
“Our expectation is to be better,” he said.
So, now, should yours. Yzerman spent some money.
He just isn’t going to let that influence anyone else’s timetable. So he will keep talking about competition and process and rebuilding. And that makes sense; why add external pressure to the internal pressure he is applying?
But let’s not mistake the pivot the Wings just made in their “rebuilding process” this week. Yzerman wants to start piling up wins. He may not be willing to put a number on how many, but the number of dollars he just spent says: A lot more than 32.
So he can keep talking about how he wants his team to learn how to compete and how he wants them to be hard to play against — a phrase we heard often when he introduced new head coach Derek Lalonde earlier this month.
He isn’t making these moves though, unless he expects more wins.
Chiarot and Copp should help with that immediately. So should Määtä. All have size. And while Copp slots into the second-line center spot, Yzerman coveted him for his two-way ability.
In fact, everyone he signed offers a degree of versatility. Copp can play center and wing, which should help if the Wings’ 2022 first-round pick, center Marco Kasper, rockets to the NHL like Moritz Seider (2019) and Lucas Raymond (2020).
Chiarot, meanwhile, isn’t just big and difficult to move off the puck, he can channel his 6-foot-3, 234-pound frame into one of the nastier slapshots in the league. He also passes and reads the ice well.
If there was a theme to these signings — other than all the experience with winning — it is versatility, whether it’s a combination of size and toughness, size and skill, skill and toughness or size and savvy.
“I’m expecting our players to come into training camp a little bit … ready to go,” he said, after stopping mid-sentence and redirecting to the kind of competitive environment he is trying to create.
Before this week, the Wings were not bereft of talent. They just didn’t have enough, obviously. What’s been harder to quantify is a team’s spirit, its collective will, so to speak.
Yzerman talks a lot about competition, about learning how to dig deep, say, on a Tuesday night in February when the crowd is thin and the snow is falling hard. It’s a grind, the NHL season. Learning to grind through “the grind” is what he wants to see from his team this season, which is another way of saying professional.
The guys he just signed?
“They’ve learned to be pros,” he said.
And now he wants the pros to pass on what they’ve learned in their time in the NHL, in their postseason runs, and he wants them to do it while giving the team quality time on the ice.
No signee represents that ideal more than Perron, who scored 23, 25, 19 and 27 goals his last four seasons in St. Louis — in his 30s. And while he is 34, his production has been consistent enough to take a chance on a two-year contract.
He will help the Wings’ power play — one of the worst in the league — immediately. Like the rest of his free agent class, he can play on the other end of the ice, too.
Copp was the only free agent to get more than two years from Yzerman. In fact, he’s the first free agent to sign a five-year deal since Yzerman took over. But he’s 28, rugged, and dogged, and plays the kind of hockey that should age well as he crosses into his 30s; he should stay relevant as the youngsters enter their primes.
That Yzerman was able to convince this group of productive and established players to join a team that finished last just two years ago says plenty about Yzerman’s reputation around the game.
“The moment you get a call from Steve Yzerman, it catches your attention right away,” Perron told reporters. “I think they are ready to take the next step, and I want to be part of that.”
What that next step is, Yzerman wouldn’t say. He did say the team is better now than it was a week ago — deeper, too.
He isn’t going to be rushed or pressured into chasing even bigger names on the market just yet. It’s a process, he likes to say. And he’s sticking to it.
The deals he just made, however, show the process is beginning to speed up. And whether he wants to admit it, the expectations will change this season. And they should.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.