Detroit — The core problem for Steve Yzerman was exactly that: At some point, he was going to have to pick one.
And now that the Red Wings’ general manager officially has, well, it didn’t take long to see how that reality would hit home in Detroit.
Dylan Larkin’s voice was choked with emotion Thursday morning as he talked about seeing his entire adult life flash before his eyes in less than 24 hours. A day after securing his future by signing an eight-year contract worth nearly $70 million to stay with his hometown hockey club, the Red Wings’ captain was fighting back tears over a trade-deadline deal that sent one of his best friends, Tyler Bertuzzi, off to chase a Stanley Cup in Boston.
Larkin said it was his fiancée, Kenzy Wolfe, who broke the news to him with a phone call on his way to the rink Thursday morning. And while he didn’t care to share all the details about the conversation he had with Bertuzzi once he got to Little Caesars Arena, where the Wings had a game with Seattle later that night, the pained look on his face said plenty.
“Sorry,” Larkin said, after a long pause to compose himself. “But, it hurts.”
The truth often does in this business of professional sports. And, particularly at times like this, when a team is caught between eras — and errors, in some cases — and a general manager is ultimately forced to choose sides, as Yzerman has done again this week by becoming a trade-deadline seller for the fourth year in a row.
Only this time, it came with his team still ostensibly in the playoff hunt. And the players sent packing were once viewed as core pieces of a rebuild that began here even before Yzerman returned as GM in 2019.
Wednesday night, it was 25-year-old Filip Hronek, the Wings’ top-scoring defenseman, who was dealt to Vancouver in exchange for a first- and second-round pick in this year’s draft. (The first-rounder, which carries a top-12 protection from the Islanders, could slide into 2024.) Then came Thursday’s trade that shipped Bertuzzi, a top-six winger who scored 30 goals last year but has just four in 29 games this season, to the Bruins in a deal that brought back a 2024 first-round pick (top-10 protected) and a 2025 fourth-rounder.
In terms of trade value, both deals look like strong ones for the Red Wings. As head coach Derek Lalonde put it, “I think those are both in the ‘Offers you simply can’t refuse’” category.
Hronek, a right-shot defenseman in the midst of a career-best offensive season, has one more year left, at a $4.4 million salary-cap figure, before his price tag jumps as a restricted free agent. Yzerman surely feels as if he’s selling high here, and he’s probably right about that.
In Bertuzzi’s case, he’s getting something — quite a bit, actually — rather than getting left with nothing, as the 28-year-old is a pending UFA with a history of contentious negotiations in Detroit. Talks on an extension never really went anywhere in recent months, mostly because the two sides were never going to agree on terms. Given his age and injury history — not to mention his defensive shortcomings — Bertuzzi simply wasn’t going to get a deal that stretched into his mid-30s from Yzerman. So, instead, he’ll get a chance to prove himself in the playoffs with the league’s best team.
“He’s going to a team where they’re loading up for war,” Larkin said, a bit wistfully. “And there’s no one I’d rather have on my team than Tyler Bertuzzi in that situation.”
A slow build
But, his situation is different, he knows, even after the Wings came out of the All-Star break and won seven of eight, determined to force Yzerman’s hand and give themselves a chance.
The Wings entered Thursday’s play five points out of the final wild-card slot in the Eastern Conference, but also with five teams in front of them vying for that same spot. One of those teams just clobbered Detroit by lopsided tennis scores of 6-2 and 6-1 in Ottawa earlier this week. And then to add insult to injury — the Wings also lost forward Michael Rasmussen for the season last week — those same Senators turned around and traded for one of the best young defensemen on the market in Jakob Chychrun. (Arizona’s return on that deal only highlights the value Yzerman got for Hronek, by the way.)
So, though he found the Hronek trade “surprising,” Larkin said, “the one with Tyler, truthfully, (was) not as surprising.” It was the timing of it — and the way he heard about it — that caught him off guard as much as anything.
“It’s just kind of the way it happened this morning,” he said. “But, if you look at what we got, you could say it’s for the future. We have a lot of draft picks now. So, you just hope that they go to doing the right thing.”
Yet, if this was the news he’d hoped to avoid, this was the fork in the road Yzerman probably always knew he’d reach. That doesn’t make the whiplash any easier to take. Not for the team’s 26-year-old leader — “Well, I’m not gonna lie to you guys. You can see, it’s really difficult right now,” Larkin said — and not for a fan base that’s now staring at a franchise-record seventh straight spring without playoff hockey.
But, it is the right thing to do, pivoting to build around the younger core that Yzerman has brought in here the last few years: If all goes well, the next Cup contender in Detroit still will have Larkin in the middle of it all, wearing the ‘C.’ But it’ll be driven by Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond, Marco Kasper and Jake Walman, Jonatan Berggren and Albert Johansson, Elmer Soderblom and William Wallinder, and so on.
There are plenty more prospects in the pipeline — including last year’s first-round pick, goalie Sebastian Cossa — along with all that draft capital Yzerman has stockpiled. Detroit now owns five first-round selections and five second-round picks in the next three drafts, and with the cap space he’s sitting on, that gives the Wings’ GM all kinds of trade options as well.
And if it gives the fans pause, that’s probably because they read too much into Yzerman’s moves in free agency last July, ignoring his cautionary comments at the time. He’d added some veterans to make the Wings a more competitive team, sure, and to give Lalonde something to work with as the rookie head coach implemented his new systems.
“But, the plan really hasn’t changed,” Yzerman insisted then. “I’m kind of sticking with what I intended to do: Keep our younger guys and be patient with him. Keep our draft picks and continue to build this way.”
And in that way, you could understand what Larkin was talking about Thursday, when he said, “You know, with signing an eight-year extension, I’m putting a lot of trust into Steve and the people that I believe in that are running our organization.”
One day, you’re jumping for joy. The next, you realize you’re taking a leap of faith.