It finally happened. Steve Yzerman is talking about the Detroit Red Wings making the playoffs.
OK, I sort of had to pester him about it during Wednesday’s news conference on the eve of training camp. But the Wings’ general manager did speak about the possibility — however remote — that his team might make the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons.
The Wings were six points out of a wild-card spot in mid-February, so I asked Yzerman if it would be crazy to think they might be able to at least make a late-season push for a playoff spot this year.
After all, they were somewhat close last season, and that was under Jeff Blashill. Now they have what we could presume is a better coach in Derek Lalonde, plus an upgraded roster via free agents and draft picks and youngsters coming up the ranks.
So, with all that? What about it, Steve? Can we start planning our Stanley Cup playoff parties?
“I’m not prepared to say that,” Yzerman said.
Yzerman at least admitted he saw progress from the team last season through its competitiveness against non-elite teams. But the key to making the playoffs is being competitive against better teams, which the Wings were not in the second half of the season. Surely no one has to be reminded of that 11-2 loss at Pittsburgh in late March.
“All the indicators of us were I don’t think we were ready to contend last year,” he said. “In the second half, it kind of brought us back down to earth.
“So, you know, I go into this season (and) we’ll see how we progress, if we can be more competitive on the road, match up a little bit better against the top teams when we go into their building. If we can win on back-to-back nights. That would give me some optimism that hey, maybe we can push for it.”
Then Yzerman said something that surprised me, something that indicated he’s clearly thinking about a path, however difficult, to the playoffs — he’s already thinking about the elite teams in the Atlantic Division.
“Today, not knowing what’s going to happen, but today you’d say, you know, probably Toronto, Tampa and Florida,” he said. “There’s the three teams in our division we expect to make the playoffs, and pick whichever three in the Metro.
“Then the rest of us are competing for two wild-card spots. And it’s a real challenge. So I’m hoping we’re there but time will tell on if I’ll be able to give you a better answer.”
Of course it’s difficult. Yzerman knows the Wings will be one of 10 teams fighting for those two wild-card spots. But it’s time for Yzerman and the Wings at least start talking about the playoffs as a goal. Because before I pestered — OK, badgered — Yzerman about the playoffs Wednesday, Moritz Seider had already started the playoff talk, back in late June after he won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie.
“Everyone is preparing themselves to be better next season, to prove more people wrong and to fight for a playoff spot,” Seider said. “I think it’s time for us to give something back, not only for ourselves but also for this city, the fans. We want playoffs at LCA.”
If one of your top young stars begging for the postseason on the national stage isn’t an indication of the urgency this team needs to show, then I don’t know what is.
Without specifically referencing Seider, Yzerman acknowledged there is growing excitement and maybe even raised expectations among his players.
“In talking with some of the players off and on throughout the offseason,” he said, “I think they have some excitement, and new faces coming in, some of the younger players that are going over, maybe one or two of them move into the lineup and make us a better team. So I think there’s some optimism within the ranks of our players.”
Yzerman has been preaching patience since he was hired three years ago. And three years ago, it made a lot of sense. But now there’s enough rising young talent and veteran leadership to guide this team with more consistency.
Yzerman kicked off his meeting with reporters Wednesday by discussing the changes among the coaching staff and new players that will require some adjustment. That’s understandable. But Yzerman also said he was encouraged by what he sees on the team.
“So I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said. “I expect us to be a better hockey team and I hope that translates to more wins.”
Of course, being “better” can mean anything. Yzerman picked a unique way of outlining it when I asked him for his definition of measuring improvement. He chose the eye-test metric, as well as the most literal definition of statistical improvement.
“So if our team can be, you know, a harder team to play against, be more competitive in games, that’s improvement for us, that’s advancing for us,” he said. “I hope it translates into points in the standings.
“We’re all going to look at, I think we had 32 (wins) this year. We can go, whether it’s any number, pick a number above 32, that’s progress. But more importantly as a hockey team, being harder to play against.”
There’s obviously no clear map for the Wings to make the playoffs. We aren’t even sure who’s going to make the team out of training camp. But if the team improves in some key areas like goals against, shots against, chances against and special teams, Yzerman said he would feel encouraged.
“That should translate to wins,” he said. “But even if it doesn’t this year, we’re on the right path.”
Contact Carlos Monarrez: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@cmonarrez.