Steve Yzerman scored and made a big save at the same time by trading for Alex DeBrincat

Detroit Free Press

Steve Yzerman never played goalie, but maybe the Detroit Red Wings general manager should have, because he sure made some big saves this week with his trade for Ottawa Senators forward — and Farmington Hills product —Alex DeBrincat.

He saved what was shaping up to be another ho-hum, borderline-meh offseason of free agency.

He saved Wings fans from having to lie to themselves about their faith in “the Yzerplan” as they winced and pushed the “renew season tickets” button on their accounts.

And he just might have saved himself, because if you can park your trade euphoria long enough, just imagine the fallout if Yzerman had whiffed on his attempt to acquire DeBrincat. Imagine what kind of indictment this would have been on Yzerman and his rebuild if DeBrincat had balked at signing an extension with the Wings, nixing the deal.

IN HIS OWN WORDS: How Alex DeBrincat plans to grow Detroit Red Wings into a competitive team

GM SPEAK: Steve Yzerman says Alex DeBrincat ‘fits that bill’ of goal scorer Red Wings needed

Instead, Yzerman saved himself and any hope the Wings and their fans have of being more than playoff pipe dreamers this season. He did it by using what got him to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a player: his vision. And so he scored the Wings’ biggest acquisition since he took over in 2019.

Yes, Yzerman finally found the net. But before we get carried away, let’s not equate this to a Game 7 overtime winner from the blue line. DeBrincat is a good player and an elite sniper with one of the best one-timers in the game (though Leon Draisaitl currently wears the one-timer crown).

DeBrincat should either be the Wings’ best offensive weapon or take a lot of the offensive load off Dylan Larkin. He should shuttle between the first and second lines while being a fixture on the power play. And his added talent should improve the whole team, the way a rising tide lifts all boats.

“We talked, I think right around free agency opening there, about potentially adding more goal-scoring ability to the team and I think Alex definitely fits that bill,” Yzerman told reporters Monday. “I think he’s a very, very intelligent hockey player, has shown he can score goals at every level, at the junior level, at the NHL level.”

When my colleague Helene St. James asked if adding DeBrincat makes the roster more capable of competing for a playoff spot, Yzerman refused to take the bait and discuss the dreaded “P” word.

“Well, I would say I think we’re a better team today with Alex DeBrincat in the lineup,” he said. “I hope all the changes we’ve made, additions we’ve made to the roster, make us a more competitive team.”

The sentiment behind this statement is important. The most obvious is Yzerman’s steadfast approach to staying clear of raising expectations, because he knows once playoffs become the expectation and the standard, then the clock truly starts on his tenure.

The second sentiment, and most important, is as literal as it is truthful. Yes, DeBrincat makes the Wings more competitive, but his addition doesn’t solve everything. No single signing does, even if the Wings were adding a superstar like Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews or Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Adding players of the highest caliber isn’t enough. It only signals a team’s intent to add more elite players, the way the Wings so easily and so often used to pick up the NHL’s best talent — like a thoughtless child yanking leaves off a tree.

But that tree died awhile ago, killed off by a seven-year drought. Four years ago, Yzerman took over duties from a gardener, Ken Holland, whose thumb had grown black while he tried to coax one last bloom from fallow ground.

At long last, this feels like the start of something. Like an inflection point after so many fits and starts under Yzerman. For every find such as Moritz Seider and Ville Husso, there has been a whiff such as Jakub Vrana, Anthony Mantha or Filip Zadina — every step forward has been accompanied by a corresponding stumble.

Yzerman’s saving grace through it all has been his willingness to cut bait and move on from players — even his own decisions, such as the extensions for Mantha and Zadina.

Now DeBrincat gets a chance to be Yzerman’s first resounding success, and I like his chances. I’ve always loved DeBrincat’s game. His gifted hands and nose for the net are obvious, but I’ve always been a sucker for his gritty style of play, especially for a guy listed at 5 feet 8. (In the generous lingo of team media guides, that probably means 5-7, but could be 5-6.)

Every time I’ve seen DeBrincat finish a hard check or give as good as he gets in the corners, my heart leapt, buoyed by memories of Pat Verbeek, Theo Fleury and Brian Gionta. Of Terrible Ted Lindsay. Show me some grit, little men, and you have my whole heart.

“I try not to back down from anyone,” said DeBrincat, whose 45 penalty minutes would have tied for third on the Wings last season. “I think being a smaller forward in the league, people try to bully you around. But that’s something I try to not let get too out of hand. I think I can hold my own.”

The Wings can use more of DeBrincat’s feistiness. If they’re lucky, his gritty style will rub off on other offensively talented players who get pushed around too much, such as Lucas Raymond.

Of course, nothing is guaranteed, and the biggest question hanging over DeBrincat’s head is whether he can return to being a 40-goal scorer, as he was in Chicago when he played with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Last season, with limited talent around him in Ottawa, DeBrincat still put up respectable numbers: 27 goals, including 11 on the power play, and 39 assists in 82 games.

Naturally, Yzerman thinks DeBrincat still has 40-goal potential, though he sees more in his new player than one statistical benchmark.

“I think he’s more than a goal-scorer, though,” Yzerman said. “I’d say he’s a very smart hockey player, passes the puck and really manages puck extremely well.

“I think he’s a good linemate to play with. He’s not just a shooter, but he can make plays. He’s valuable on the power play and does a good job 5-on-5.”

But it’s more than that. It’s more than even strength and man advantages. It’s about the legion of diehard fans. It’s about these residents of Hockeytown who have lived far too long in rebuild limbo. It’s about the one person they’ve been waiting for to save them by finally making the first bold move of his tenure.

Contact Carlos Monarrez: cmonarrez@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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