Three years after being on the scrap heap of the NHL, the Detroit Red Wings have created an appealing quandary for their general manager.
The NHL trade deadline is less than a week away, and the Wings are flirting with making the playoffs for the first time since 2016. They’re among a handful of teams battling for the two wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference, and stack up well enough against those competitors to warrant being taken seriously. The run has come just as the clock ticks down on Friday’s deadline for general manager Steve Yzerman to decide whether to sell or stand pat. Sure, the Wings could end up missing the postseason — but why not see if this group can introduce Little Caesars Arena to an NHL playoff atmosphere and excite the fanbase?
The timing isn’t lost on the players behind the surge.
“If you have any sort of social media at all, you see everybody that is trade bait,” forward Andrew Copp said. “We know the teams that are in the playoffs are adding players and the teams that are out are subtracting guys.
“Basically you play until the trade deadline, and the GM or your owner gives you a direction one way or the other. You try to make that decision as easy as possible for him to keep the team together.”
Pending unrestricted free agents are in prime play this time of year, as teams gauge whether to keep or trade them while they have maximum value. Of those, the Wings have several: Forwards Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, Pius Suter and Oskar Sundqvist; defensemen Jake Walman, Jordan Oesterle and Robert Hägg, and goaltender Magnus Hellberg (plus, in the AHL: forward Adam Erne and goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic). Larkin and Walman top the list to be re-signed, if not by Friday, then ahead of reaching free agency this summer.
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The Wings’ rise in the standings since the start of February may persuade Yzerman to hold onto Bertuzzi, with whom contract negotiations have been hampered by the significant time he has missed over the past two years. But holding onto him isn’t without a risk: If Yzerman doesn’t think he can get Bertuzzi signed to a contract, his trade value is higher now, when contenders are looking for help, than potentially being faced with trading Bertuzzi’s rights this summer.
Then there is Jakub Vrana. Teams don’t put 26-year-old potential 40-goal scorers on waivers without reason, as Yzerman did with Vrana back in January. Vrana is signed through next season, with a $5.25 million salary cap hit, but the Wings have the flexibility to retain 50% of Vrana’s salary if Yzerman really wants to move Vrana and gets an offer. When Vrana landed on waivers, the season was barely at the midpoint, and he was two weeks removed from spending two months in the NHL/NHLPA players assistance program. Now there are seven weeks left in the season, and he showed through this stint in the minors that he is focused on playing hockey.
Since being named GM four years ago, Yzerman has overseen the Wings’ emergence from a rebuild that had stalled. When the pandemic shut down the 2019-20 season that March, the Wings had won just 17 games, worst in the NHL by a lot. He was a seller then, in his first full season, as he was in 2021 and 2022.
If Yzerman decides not to sell this week, the logical course is to stand pat. The Wings were hoping to be buyers when it came to Bo Horvat, but the Vancouver Canucks traded him to the New York Islanders on Jan. 30, and a week later Horvat signed an eight-year extension. But Horvat was an exceptional opportunity, as it had become clear the No. 1 center wasn’t going to remain with the Canucks.
The Wings aren’t locked into a playoff spot, so acquiring players would be a huge risk for Yzerman. Teams that are sellers are looking for future assets, and other than potentially having been able to land a player like Horvat, it doesn’t make sense for Yzerman to trade an early pick or a promising prospect.
This can be a disruptive time of year in a locker room, and the Wings are used to saying goodbye to teammates: The list includes Nick Leddy and Vladislav Namestnikov in 2022, Anthony Mantha in 2021 and Andreas Athanasiou and Mike Green in 2020. The best way to keep Yzerman from trading a player this week is to keep showing him the playoffs are a realistic possibility.
“It’s the business side of it,” coach Derek Lalonde said. “We’re in the middle of it ourselves. There’s names getting thrown around and it’s all part of it. It’s exactly why you have the manager-coach layer. Everyone knows it’s the invisible hand, if you will, and it’s out there. But we just go about our business.”
Her latest book, “On the Clock: Behind the Scenes with the Detroit Red Wings at the NHL Draft,” is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.