Detroit — It used to be pretty darn busy around here this time of year, in case you forgot. The Red Wings and Pistons were preparing for long playoff runs, the Tigers were stocking optimism and beer for opening day, and the Lions were debating which unfortunate soul to draft in the top 10.
Anyone feeling a little nostalgic? I’m not here to stir false hope, truly I’m not. But you don’t need to be frightened by the Lions draft anymore. And you might want to poke around the garage for that tattered Wings car flag, and double-check the cooler for a stinky octopus carcass.
The Wings just returned from one of their most successful road trips in recent history, have won six of seven, and are threatening playoff contention for the first time in seven years. Steve Yzerman probably doesn’t want to hear it, and no one wants to say it too loudly. With 26 games remaining, the Wings are two points out of a wild-card spot and have played four fewer games than the Panthers and Islanders, who are just ahead of them.
After beating the Capitals 3-1 Tuesday night to finish a 4-1 road trip, they face the New York Rangers on Thursday night at Little Caesars Arena. It’s the Wings’ first home game in two weeks and I assume fans are getting seriously curious. Or even curiously serious.
The NHL trade deadline is next Friday, and the hope is, Yzerman will face a real conundrum. The Wings aren’t guaranteed to be buyers or sellers, but they’re definitely lurkers. With five games in the next week, plenty can change, but if Yzerman has a chance for immediate help, he should take it. Problem is, the deadline market can be costly. Trade a first-round pick for an expensive veteran? Uh, probably not. That type of bold move — trade or free-agent signing — should come this summer or next year, but his hand could be forced sooner.
The Wings need help, but they’re playing like they deserve it. Captain Dylan Larkin is scorching, Ville Husso is rising as a true No. 1 goalie and second-year defenseman Moritz Seider is a bona fide star. Veteran forwards are blending with youngsters to become defensively responsible. At this stage a year ago, the Wings were 24-26-6 (56 points) and had allowed 203 goals. Now they’re 27-21-8 (62 points) and have allowed 180.
Playing for keeps?
Larkin, 26, and Tyler Bertuzzi, who turns 28 Thursday, can become unrestricted free agents after the season, so the sign-‘em-or-trade-‘em issue is real. I’m fairly certain Yzerman would like to keep both, for the right price. The Larkin negotiations don’t seem that difficult to me. He leads the team in points (56) and goals (22) — seven goals in the past seven games — and is a first-line center who warrants a salary a tad higher than $8 million. If he wants to stay (as it appears) and Yzerman wants to keep him (as it appears), a deal gets done.
Bertuzzi, who missed a month with a hand injury, is more of a wild card, with a value that’s harder to determine. He has three goals in 25 games but tallied 30 a year ago. He’s an ideal winger for Larkin and skates with playoff-type feistiness. One report out of Canada suggested Bertuzzi was off the trade market, but obviously all speculation is fluid.
Yzerman is famously silent right before he strikes. He’s also immune to sudden whims, and has said the deals he most regrets are when he gets overly aggressive. In his biggest trade as Wings GM, he sent Anthony Mantha to the Capitals for Jakub Vrana, a first-round pick and a few other pieces two years ago. Mantha has only 22 goals in 105 games with Washington. Vrana also has 22 goals, but in only 40 games with the Wings. He just returned after missing all but two games while in the league’s player-assistance program.
Beyond that, it’s been quiet on the trade front, by design. Yzerman has drafted shrewdly, and his initial first-rounder, Seider, is a cornerstone. Many of his mid-priced acquisitions — David Perron, Dominik Kubalik, Pius Suter, Andrew Copp, Robby Fabbri, Olli Maatta, Jake Walman — have fared well, and the boosted depth is a significant part of the turnaround. So is first-year coach Derek Lalonde, and you can see why Yzerman tabbed him to replace Jeff Blashill. Lalonde, like Yzerman, is deliberate and patient and not prone to hyperbole, nor negativity.
The next step
Gradually, the Wings are showing some of the ol’ grind and discipline that’s mandatory in big games. In the victory at Washington, they protected Husso superbly, blocking 28 shots compared to the Caps’ 13.
“Great road trip, you can’t ask for much better,” Lalonde said. “I just love our commitment to the defensive side of the game. Ton of credit to our guys. Should give us confidence, but it doesn’t get any easier.”
It won’t get any easier no matter what happens at the March 3 deadline. The step from curiosity to legitimate commodity is a big one, but not insurmountable. The Wings have a 32% chance of reaching the playoffs, according to the number-crunchers at hockey-reference.com. That’s slightly higher than their loosely estimated .0003% chance the past several springs.
After making the playoffs an historic 25 consecutive seasons, they’ve missed the past six years and haven’t won a single series since 2013. Whether they’re teasing or actually contending right now, no sense hiding from it. The roster is getting healthy and the pending return of Lucas Raymond, the dynamic second-year winger, is huge.
It’s easy to get fooled by hot streaks, and my guess is, the Wings won’t do anything rash or risky. Is it too early to call this a playoff push? Maybe. But if Yzerman feels compelled to push a few buttons, maybe not.