Wojo: Red Wings, Pistons pick up pieces, still not the prized piece

Detroit News

Detroit — And here we still sit, stuck between the P-words. Detroit fans craving Playoffs, management doubling down on Patience.

All of it requires Perspective, which nobody really wants to hear. The parallels between the Red Wings and Pistons are amazing, considering how different the sports are. The path and the plans are frustratingly similar, and after the NHL’s and NBA’s momentous free-agency/trade weekend, not much has changed.

The Wings and Pistons went shopping with fat checkbooks, fat enough to buy something off the top shelf. Turns out they were mostly window-shopping, collecting pieces but not the Piece. Steve Yzerman loaded up on necessary middle-shelf volume, signing seven free agents but no scoring star.

Pistons GM Troy Weaver played an odd bartering game and ended up with modest pieces. Joe Harris, 31, is an excellent shooter and Monte Morris is a solid veteran guard. But rather than leap for the Nets’ Cam Johnson, Weaver took on Harris’ $20 million salary, which helped Brooklyn retain Johnson. Maybe it was prudent. New Pistons coach Monty Williams was with Johnson in Phoenix and perhaps knew if the 27-year-old wing was unattainable or overpriced (he stayed in Brooklyn for a whopping $27 million per season).

It’s all explainable, even excusable. It’s just so darn repetitive. You don’t have to love this offseason, but you can wince and understand it.

Outside of the top three picks in the NHL draft, there wasn’t a supreme talent. Outside of the top three picks in the NBA draft, there wasn’t a supreme talent, although Weaver was pleased to get defense-minded Ausar Thompson at No. 5. Both leagues’ free-agent markets were considered weak. Both are expected to be stronger next year. Yes, next year, again.

Playing it safe

Bottom line, both teams improved their future outlooks and were salary-cap responsible, but neither got significantly better in the short term. Disappointing? Sure. Surprising? Not really. Out of necessity and circumstance, Yzerman and Weaver keep making moves for a future that remains hazy, and distant.

By nature, I think both would prefer to be aggressive deal-makers. Amid playoff droughts of seven seasons (Wings) and four seasons (Pistons), fans want bigger and bolder, understandably so. Many saw two prime possibilities, and both teams passed.

Yzerman apparently didn’t aggressively pursue Ottawa scoring wing Alex DeBrincat, figuring the cost in trade assets and cap space was too high. DeBrincat, 25, is a two-time 40-goal scorer who would seem to fit on the scoring-starved Wings. He does have defensive deficiencies, and as we’re learning with Yzerman, defensive deficiencies matter. That’s one reason he traded Tyler Bertuzzi, who just signed a one-year, $5.5 million contract with Toronto.

DeBrincat is in limbo, as teams perhaps find his price tag too steep. If it comes down, maybe the Wings revisit it. There hasn’t been a trading-and-signing frenzy around the NHL. No team dealt a single first-round pick. Stars mostly stayed put. Instead of spending upwards of $8 million per season for DeBrincat, Yzerman opted for former Michigan center J.T. Compher at $5.1 annually over five years. Compher, 28, is coming off his best season with the Avalanche and is a good two-way player. He figures to plug in as a second-line center behind Dylan Larkin.

Yzerman loaded up with veteran depth guys, including two goalies, and decent players on one-year prove-it deals, such as Hurricanes defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere ($4.125 million salary). Seattle forward Daniel Sprong, 26, could be an under-the-radar prize with a one-year contract ($2 million) after a career-high 21 goals. Same with forward Klim Kostin, 24, acquired from Edmonton to provide a much-needed physical presence.

Savvy and solid, not spectacular. Same with the Wings’ two first-round picks — center Nate Danielson and defenseman Axel Sandin Pellikka. Same with the Pistons’ two first-round picks — Thompson and Marcus Sasser.

If stars are out of reach, GMs have to be cautious, especially in Detroit. At some point, the Wings and Pistons should be attractive enough to land a star, although not many become available. The weather, the city and the state tax aren’t insurmountable impediments, either. Owners Chris Ilitch and Tom Gores have shown they’ll spend reasonably, for the right piece and the right price. Gores gave Williams the largest coaching contract in NBA history.

Savvy selections

For years, Detroit was a popular destination for hockey’s elite. Historically, The Pistons have landed their share of talent, although usually through the draft and trades.

That’s where savviness becomes the primary tool. Yzerman has a well-established reputation, building a powerhouse in Tampa, and enters his fifth season of a rebuild here. Weaver, is in his fourth season as GM, also inherited a mismatched roster with bad contracts and no stars.

Cade Cunningham could become that guy. So could Jaden Ivey or Jalen Duren. I still think Johnson would’ve been a fine addition, but Weaver wants to know how good his young core can be before spending lavishly or recklessly. Depending on what he does with Harris’ and Bojan Bogdanovic’s expiring contracts, he could have upwards of $60 million in cap space next offseason, double what he had this time. At some point, money talks, right?

Cap space doesn’t win games, and unused cap space can be as wasteful as misused cap space. That’s why fans so desperately want an impact guy, a needle-mover. DeBrincat and Johnson are excellent players, but truly needle-movers?

Both Weaver and Yzerman retained flexibility going forward. The question is, how long before “going forward” becomes “going for it”? They shouldn’t have endless runways to get it right. Incremental improvement on the court and ice are essential, but it does no good to spout hyperbole and bold promises just to stir hope.

When Weaver said he wanted to take a “big swing” and then did little, I think his statement was misconstrued. He was talking about the draft, not free agency, and he did take Thompson, a potentially high-risk, high-reward pick.

Yzerman surprised some when he was bluntly honest about the state of the team.

“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.”

Detroit is suffering through rebuild fatigue, and both GMs feel it. Previous regimes made ill-fated signings and endured bad-contract fatigue. There has to be a middle ground, somewhere between getting pieces and Pieces, between Patience and Playoffs, between sooner and later.

When will Yzerman and Weaver find that sweet spot? So much depends on the development of their young talent, of course. But sooner, please. And preferably, worth the wait.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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