Wojo: Steve Yzerman plays it safe with solid start to draft, but Red Wings aren’t done yet

Detroit News

Detroit — It was quiet, probably too quiet for some. The Red Wings stuck with their picks and their plan and dutifully plucked two more skilled youngsters in the first round Wednesday night. But before Wings fans get antsier, they’ll have to wait and see exactly what’s unfolding.

Steve Yzerman has shown he knows what he’s doing in the draft, and by most accounts, he landed gifted players at picks No. 9 and No. 17 — Canadian center Nate Danielson and Swedish defenseman Axel Sandin Pellikka. They have similar profiles, well-rounded players who move the puck effectively and creatively, and were taken about where they were projected.

There’s a pattern to Yzerman’s top picks in his five seasons as GM here. He likes skill and smarts. He likes two-way players who are defensively responsible. He has three consecutive second-round picks Thursday, as well as loads of salary-cap space and more draft capital next year, with two first-rounders.

For a team that has missed the playoffs seven straight seasons, it’s fair to wonder when the rebuild accelerates. Sometimes choosing safely and soundly is out of necessity, and you play the long game whether you wish to or not. If the Wings had won the lottery instead of Chicago, they’d have a dynamic rising star in Connor Bedard and the plan would shift. Yzerman said he had talks with a few teams about moving up or down, but not a single first-round pick was traded by any team Wednesday night.

Afterward, Yzerman stuck to the script. It sounds repetitive, but he isn’t interested in making dramatic false promises.

“Obviously with the picks we have and moves we made at the deadline, we’re still in a rebuilding phase, still collecting assets through the draft,” Yzerman said. “We’re not at a point where we feel like, hey, we can really start to go for it, so to speak. We’re progressing, and I hope to be there sooner than later.”

Even before the draft, the Wings had stockpiled considerable young talent. Yzerman has shown he’s willing to wait — for the right player, the right price, the right time — before striking. His style as a GM is to be patient and pensive. That doesn’t mean his patience is boundless, and he’s aware fans’ patience is being tested.

So when is it time to strike? As always, when the price is right.

The Wings are interested in Ottawa forward Alex DeBrincat, who’s on the market and seems like an ideal fit. He’s a Farmington Hills guy who’s only 25 and twice has scored 41 goals in a season. Makes sense to me, probably to a lot of fans tired of watching a dreary offense.

But at what price? Yzerman said he was going to keep his two first-rounders and he did, understandably. The free-agent market that opens Saturday is one of the weakest in years. The trade market is chaotic. Meanwhile, the draft pool is considered the deepest and strongest in years, which is why it always made sense for the Wings to keep their picks.

Now, if the Senators want a first-rounder and more for DeBrincat, they also might have to play the waiting game. Perhaps they can pry one of the Wings’ first-rounders next year, or a batch of second-rounders and maybe Filip Zadina and another prospect. Or Ottawa might look elsewhere, opening a tricky game of chicken with the Wings.

DeBrincat supplies something the Wings desperately need, an elite scoring touch. He can be electric, but he also can be lax defensively. He scored 27 goals last season but was minus-31, second-worst on the team. Yzerman hasn’t shown much patience for a gambling style — on the ice or in transactions. He has traded a batch of offensive-minded players such as Andreas Athanasiou, Anthony Mantha, Jakub Vrana and Tyler Bertuzzi. That doesn’t mean he’s right in his assessments. Goal-scorers are valuable, even with defensive deficiencies. But Yzerman has a template that has been successful before, and it’s worth trusting.

Theoretically, DeBrincat could fit perfectly alongside Dylan Larkin. But Yzerman might not be comfortable with a risky leap at a heavy price. DeBrincat is only 5-8 and has a year left on this contract, and would require a new deal. Ottawa doesn’t have much leverage because DeBrincat clearly is looking around and could be an unrestricted free agent next year. The Senators gave up first-, second-, and third-round picks to Chicago a year ago for him, so naturally they want to recoup some assets.

Yzerman will play the long game, which also happens to be the slow game, until he sees an opportunity to leap. After the markets settle and teams assess their salary caps, there could be opportunities for the Wings to strike, considering they have the second-most cap space in the league (approximately $30 million). Just because they can afford DeBrincat doesn’t mean they’re comfortable doing it, especially if he’s seeking something along the lines of an eight-year, $68 million contract, just below Larkin’s deal.

The rebuild isn’t progressing at the pace that fans crave, or even the pace Yzerman expects, and waiting is aggravating. But it can serve a purpose. The Flyers soon might be ready to deal, and forward Travis Konecny is an attractive option for the Wings. Nobody knows exactly how Toronto is going to keep its “Core Four” together, and there’s an outside chance William Nylander or Mitch Marner could be available.

And yes, DeBrincat will be sitting there, until he isn’t. Before the draft began in Nashville, Senators GM Pierre Dorion told reporters he wasn’t feeling pressure to make a move, and he hasn’t given DeBrincat’s agent permission to negotiate with others.

“I’m talking to multiple teams,” Dorion said. “It’s not a big secret, (DeBrincat) is aware of it, and I think we should be up front with it. But at the same time we’re not going to trade him for pennies on the dollar. We feel he’s a really good asset.”

Maybe Yzerman agrees, depending on the price. One bad contract, with too many years or too much money, can do long-term damage and perhaps yield minimal short-term gain. Old, bad contracts are partly the reason the Wings’ rebuild has been sluggish. Yzerman is determined not to make those mistakes.

That doesn’t mean he can dodge risk forever. I still suspect the time to strike is drawing nearer, and Yzerman knows it. He also knows, the more draft picks he and director of amateur scouting Kris Draper nail, the less risk he has to take. No, it doesn’t have to be DeBrincat or bust. But for the playoffs to be a realistic goal next season, it will require more than just another promising draft haul.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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