Niyo: Yzerman can’t predict future, but time to find some goals

Detroit News

Detroit – Honesty isn’t always the best policy in professional sports. But it is right now for Steve Yzerman, even if it makes him sound a bit sheepish, at times, as a general manager.

Because when you’re on the outside looking in at the playoffs, as the Red Wings are again for a seventh straight season − tying the franchise-record drought from the Dead Wings Era of the 1970s – it serves no purpose to lie to yourself, or to your fans.

And a day after his fourth season as GM in Detroit ended with a 5-0 loss to the behemoth he helped build in Tampa, Yzerman wasn’t about to make any promises he couldn’t keep. Nor was he offering any apologies for keeping everyone waiting while he goes about the tedious business of trying to build another Cup contender here.

Asked to assess the progress on that front Friday, Yzerman struggled to find the right words initially, before settling on this, “Well … it has gone OK.”

“I’d love to be further ahead in the process,” he added. “Again, as I started out saying four years ago, it’s going to take time, we’re going to have to be patient.”

And this, of course, is where your patience is being tested on multiple fronts if you’re a Red Wings fan. Or a fan of the Tigers or Pistons, for that matter. (The Lions? Check back in October.) Either the goalposts keep moving, or they’re still so far off it hardly matters.

“I’m not disappointed at where we’re at: I guess I’m OK with it,” Yzerman continued. “But I intend to stick with the process, the plan. Nothing’s going to dramatically change. And we’ll continue to look for opportunities, as I say repeatedly, to expedite the process.”

More: Wings GM Yzerman sees progress in his fourth year of rebuild: ‘It’s a slow process’

But how do you expedite the process when you’re periodically delaying it? That’s the question GMs often find themselves answering in situations like the one Yzerman inherited in Detroit, where a playoff push that lasted a quarter-century finally faced its reckoning.

And as Yzerman is well aware, some of the pressure he’ll be feeling this offseason he cooked up for himself at the NHL trade deadline last month, selling off four key players – including arguably the team’s best goal-scorers in Jakub Vrana and Tyler Bertuzzi – to acquire more draft capital.

It made sense at the time, and still does in the abstract. As rookie head coach Derek Lalonde admitted Friday, he didn’t think this was a playoff team at the start of the season and neither he nor his GM really were fooled into thinking it was even during a February surge that had the fans feeling it.

“And right, wrong or indifferent, we’re probably exactly where we belong,” said Lalonde, who finished the season with a patchwork lineup that limped to the finish line with a sub-.500 record (35-37-10) and 80 points in 82 games.

Final wild-card spot

Florida claimed the final wild-card spot in the East this season with 92 points. So it’s going to take more than just a few more wins next season for the Wings to stay in the playoff chase to the end. And that’s no easy task considering the division they’re in, with Boston, Toronto and Tampa Bay at the top, a couple of rebuilds that appear to be ahead of Detroit’s right now in Ottawa and Buffalo.

The Sabres have been at this for even longer, of course, with 10 consecutive years drafting in the top 10, including four top-two selections. As a result, Buffalo has a pair of No. 1 overall picks anchoring the blue line in Owen Power and Rasmus Dahlin and a talented lineup that’s finally coming of age. The Senators landed three top-five picks in a three-year span from 2018-20 – one of the via trade – to jump start their rebuild with the likes of Brady Tkachuk, Jake Sanderson and Tim Stutzle.

The Wings have restocked their farm system with plenty of promise since Yzerman returned to Detroit four years ago. But only near the very end of his hourlong media session Friday did he even mention next month’s draft lottery, where the Red Wings have the ninth-best odds – a 5-percent chance – at landing the No. 1 overall pick and the right to select 17-year-old Canadian junior phenom Connor Bedard this summer.

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“Maybe we get some luck in the lottery, maybe not,” shrugged Yzerman, who knows better than to put any eggs in that basket at this point.

He’s 0-for-4 in the lottery thus far, with the Wings staying put in each of the last two lotteries after falling two spots to sixth in 2019 and three spots to fourth in 2020. And despite piling up the most losses of any NHL team over the last seven seasons, Detroit has yet to land even a top-three pick, let alone the No. 1 slot.

Still, even if that trend continues this spring, the Wings have enough prospects either in the pipeline or on the roster already to expect something more than promises next season. And while Yzerman’s right when he says many of those young players – and most notably Lucas Raymond – will need to take on more responsibility and fill bigger roles for this team to make the next step.

But so was Lalonde after the final loss in Tampa on Thursday night, when he noted the one area where his team failed to make any real progress this season. The Red Wings were better defensively and on special teams, yes, but they still struggled mightily to generate scoring chances or goals in even-strength situations.

“We can be realistic,” Lalonde said, “a lot of that is personnel-driven.”

High-end finishing talent

And Yzerman admitted as much Friday, when asked about replacing some of the high-end finishing talent he shipped out at the deadline.

“Obviously, I knew at that time that there were going to be holes in our roster and prepared to deal with that,” he said. “And truthfully, I may not be able to address all of those in this offseason. It might not be possible. Some of our young guys might not be ready, and players in free agency might not be available. But it’s still things that had to be done, whether it was at the deadline or this coming offseason.”

Fair enough. The Wings weren’t likely to reach a deal on a contract extension with Bertuzzi, who’ll test free agency when he’s done trying to help the Bruins win a Cup. The Vrana situation was obviously much more complicated, but his post-deadline scoring binge – 10 goals in 20 games for St. Louis – only underscores Yzerman’s challenge.

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There aren’t many elite goal scorers available in this summer’s thin free-agent class, and most of the ones that will hit the market are over the age of 30. And while the Wings did well for themselves with the additions of David Perron and Dominik Kubalik last July, it’s too early to predict whether they can do that again.

Same goes for the trade market that’ll heat up after the playoffs around the draft. But that’s another avenue Yzerman will need to try. Can he swing a deal to upgrade his top-six forward group like Ottawa did last summer in landing Alex DeBrincat from Chicago?

“I’ll be active,” Yzerman said. “How much I can actually accomplish, I don’t know.”

And while that may not be the answer fans want to hear, at least it’s the honest truth.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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