Niyo: Time is right for Steve Yzerman, Red Wings to take a big shot in trade market

Detroit News

Detroit — Steve Yzerman has more salary-cap space than all but two other NHL teams heading into free agency this weekend. The Red Wings’ general manager presides over a prospect pool that’s as deep as almost any in the league right now.

And while Yzerman heads to the NHL Entry Draft in Nashville with a pocket full of draft picks, he also has a pressing need: Finding players who can put the puck in the net.

Convenient, eh?

“It does give you options for sure,” Yzerman said last week, when asked about all that draft capital he’d piled up, including two first-round picks (Nos. 9 and 17) and five of the first 43 selections overall in a deep 2023 class. “They’re all some form of currency, whether you’re using them to move up in the draft, back in the draft, acquire more picks, or acquire players. You know, in the position we’re in, it’s nice to have a lot of draft picks.”

Still, the best option would be to parlay one or more of those picks — and probably one of those prospects as well — into a top-line forward. Someone like Alex DeBrincat, the 25-year-old winger and Farmington Hills native who is on the block in Ottawa — “Right now, we’re talking to teams about possibly moving him,” Senators GM Pierre Dorion confirmed Tuesday — and eager for a return home.

There’s a fit with the Red Wings that goes beyond family ties or personal preferences, though it doesn’t hurt that DeBrincat and his wife, Lyndsey, have roots here. Detroit was one of a handful of teams the two-time 40-goal scorer reportedly had on his initial list of preferred destinations to facilitate a sign-and-trade deal. (Not coincidentally, it’s the only one in a state that levies income taxes.)

The Senators have some leverage here, having filed for team arbitration “just to protect ourselves,” Dorion told reporters Tuesday, likely lowering DeBrincat’s $9 million option-year salary in 2023-24 while prohibiting other teams from forcing their hand with an offer sheet.

But DeBrincat can stand his ground as well, by opting to play out his final season in Ottawa and become an unrestricted free agent next summer. And Dorion all but confirmed that’s the impasse the Senators have reached.

“At the end of the year, their camp indicated to us that free agency only comes once probably for Alex in his career and they weren’t ready to sign long-term with us,” said Dorion, who paid a steep price — first- and second-round picks (Nos. 7 and 39) and a 2024 third-rounder — to acquire DeBrincat from Chicago last summer. “He hasn’t asked for a trade, but at the same time we have to do what’s best for the organization, and if he’s not willing to sign a long-term contract with us, I think it’s our duty to do what’s best for us at this point in time.”

A deal that fits

That’s where the Red Wings come in, perhaps. And the solution here seems obvious, if not easy, given Detroit is an Atlantic Division rival and Yzerman is a notoriously tough negotiator. He’s not keen on handing on long-term premium deals — even Dylan Larkin can attest to that — and he drives a hard bargain with other GMs as well. (Yzerman and Dorion have yet to make a trade since the latter succeeded Bryan Murray as Ottawa’s GM in 2016.)

But at age 25, with a proven track record as an elite sniper, DeBrincat’s worth the gamble for the Red Wings. Paying him $8 million-plus annually for the next seven or eight years is a risk, to be sure, considering DeBrincat’s career-best numbers came while he was skating on a line with Patrick Kane in Chicago. The Red Wings do not, as we all know, have a player like that on the current roster.

But with the salary cap expected to make a considerable jump in the next 2-3 years, the Wings can afford it, even with extensions looming for Moritz Seider, Lucas Raymond and Michael Rasmussen, among others. And Yzerman certainly can afford to part with some of those draft assets the Wings have piled up. Detroit owns a pair of first-round picks next season as well, though the 2024 first-rounder acquired from Boston in the Tyler Bertuzzi trade back in March is top-10 protected.

Dorion told reporters Tuesday he didn’t think he’d be able to add a first-round pick in this year’s draft, so it’s possible neither of the Wings’ first-rounders this year are in play for DeBrincat. Maybe it’s one of those 2024 picks, or a Day 2 pick — Detroit owns three consecutive second-rounders (Nos. 41-43) this year — and a player like Filip Zadina or Joe Veleno. Keep in mind, Dorion and the Senators — a franchise under new ownership — currently don’t have a pick until the fourth round in this year’s draft, and their pipeline is thin on high-end prospects.

Detroit’s is not, but the bottom line is Yzerman knows he must add some finishing talent up front after dealing away a pair of 30-goal scorers at the trade deadline in Bertuzzi and Jakub Vrana.

Other possibilities

There are other possibilities out there, and the Flyers’ Travis Konecny is another player linked to Detroit in trade chatter who would fit the criteria Yzerman has laid out. As the Wings’ GM explained again last week, he’s not interested in giving up future assets for short-term gains at this stage of what has been a painful rebuild.

“What I’m trying to do is build a nucleus of young players that’s going to be the core of the team for a significant period of time or for the future,” Yzerman said. “So if we give up those pieces … we have to feel the player that we would be acquiring is going to be a part of that core for a long period of time.”

That doesn’t mean he won’t consider adding older veterans in free agency, and the Wings do have some other areas to address this summer:  a right-shot defenseman, a backup goalie and probably another middle-six forward. But via trade, Yzerman says he’s targeting players that are “27ish” — Larkin turns 27 next month — or preferably younger.

“Doesn’t make sense to acquire a player, give up pieces that we need to build the core, and in three or four years that player is retired or moved on, and we still don’t have that core in place,” he said. “So I try to balance the two and we weigh, ‘Is it a young player? Does he fit into the timeline for us? What’s the cost to acquire him? And then what’s the cost to sign him?’ It all goes into that.”

But if all goes well, the Wings might find an answer they can bring home from Nashville. At the very least, it’s time to take a shot.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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