Two bad nights in Ottawa forced Detroit Red Wings to pack it in now, look to future

Detroit Free Press

Steve Yzerman didn’t get to see the team he thought he’d see this season. Then again, neither did you. Though you aren’t the one who had to decide whether to buy, sell or stand pat this week heading into today’s NHL trade deadline.

Perhaps you wish you were.

Maybe you’d have held on to Tyler Bertuzzi and Filip Hronek. Or maybe you watched what Yzerman watched earlier this week in Ottawa when the Detroit Red Wings scored three goals in two games and gave up 12.

It’s hard to say that Yzerman made the decision to sell — at least for now — based solely on the carnage in Canada’s capitol. But it makes sense if we do the math:

Four teams sit between the Red Wings and the last wild card spot, five if you count Ottawa, who is tied with Detroit in points but ahead in tiebreakers. Little more than a week ago, the Wings were sitting in that coveted spot.

DYLAN LARKIN:Happy for contract, but ‘upset’ over Tyler Bertuzzi trade

They’d just beaten the New York Rangers and had won seven of eight and the coach and players were talking about “maturity” and “sacrifice” and “patience.” They were contending. Not for the Cup, but for a spot in the tournament, and in hockey it’s often about getting in.

No one was suggesting the Red Wings were going to scare the Boston Bruins, the Eastern Conference’s best team and No. 1 seed by a mile. But as the buzz started to vibrate, it wasn’t hard to overhear:

“Who wants to see these guys in the playoffs?”

After a shutout loss to Tampa and beatdowns in Ottawa?

Everyone and anyone, probably. Or not. That’d be arrogant on those teams’ part, and let’s not put words in their mouths, OK?

How about we play a little game instead?

Let’s say the Wings beat Tampa last Saturday night at Little Caesars Arena — hey, it’s not impossible, they beat Tampa twice in December and hadn’t lost to the Lightning this season. That’s two points.

Let’s also say the Wings swept the Senators in Ottawa, also possible, though less likely as they split with Ottawa in late December. Still, the way the Wings were playing, it wasn’t unfathomable.

Derek Lalonde, the Wings’ coach, was seeing what he’d been teaching all along: smart, patient, unselfish hockey. He was also seeing growing confidence.

The Wings were starting to believe they could make a push to the playoffs, so much that when they took the ice against the Rangers, they were nervous and even a little tight. Lalonde liked that his team felt the pressure, the rising stakes, that’s how young teams learn.

Let’s say that the Wings won those aforementioned three games. That they had 70 points. That those 70 points would be good enough for fourth in the Atlantic Division as of Thursday afternoon and good enough for a tie with the New York Islanders for the No. 7 spot in the Eastern Conference.

Does Yzerman trade Bertuzzi and Hronek then?

He might say he would, and maybe he will say that the next time he speaks to the media. But it sure would’ve been a lot harder to break up the gang if they hadn’t gotten rolled in Ottawa.

Heck, just consider Dylan Larkin, the Wings’ captain who just signed an eight-year, $69.6 million contract and still had to hold back tears when talking about his buddy Bertuzzi: 

“I saw him this morning and he was upset and I am, too. It’s difficult.”

He was talking about watching a friend leave, but also an on-ice mate, one with whom he clicked, even if it didn’t always show in the numbers. That was in part, especially this season, because of Bertuzzi’s hand injuries that forced him out for two chunks of the year.

And while Larkin understands the business, there must be a part of him who wanted to see this season through with the players in the locker room. In fact, he hinted at this Thursday:

“It’s pretty clear we have traded guys to get draft picks for the future. It’s something that hopefully could pay for us in the long run and build a sustainable winner. It’s for the future, we understand that. But there’s 22-23 guys in that room there that we’ve put a lot of work in this year. We don’t want to go out (for the) last 22 games just to throw our sticks and skates out there. We want to play meaningful hockey down the stretch here.”

Yzerman understands this, both as a general manager and as a former player. He knew the message it would send if he traded Hronek and Bertuzzi.

He also knows that this year’s team hasn’t enjoyed a lot of pixie dust. Not only did Bertuzzi only play in 29 games before the trade, Jakub Vrana was placed in the players assistance program two games into the season.

Bertuzzi and Vrana are former 30-goal scorers. Had the Wings had both all season, the standings might look different, and the trades might look different, too.

This is what Yzerman didn’t get to see. He missed out on the best version of the team he assembled last offseason. That team made a playoff push in February despite missing scoring and other injuries.

That had to be heartening, and probably a bit surprising. It also had to make the decision of whether to sell even tougher. Like Larkin said, he and his teammates crave meaningful hockey games.

This got a lot harder Thursday morning, when the GM pulled the plug and made moves for the future. A couple of nights in Ottawa made sure of that.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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