Red Wings rebuild won’t be easy, but Yzerman is right GM choice

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Detroit Red Wings fans are right to rejoice. While the move’s been telegraphed for a while, this is indeed a good Friday for the Red Wings, as Steve Yzerman was officially named as their next GM.

Whether it was convincing Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman to sign team-friendly deals, or identifying the league’s general prejudice against smaller players to unearth draft day bargains, Yzerman* did such a great job with the Tampa Bay Lightning, that I’ve called him a magician and/or wizard on multiple occasions.

Even if you’re a vociferous defender of Ken Holland’s latter, sometimes-rebuild-resistant years, chances are, you’re probably very excited about Yzerman’s hiring. The team announced official titles for both Yzerman and Holland, if you like your updates especially granular.

So, to me and plenty others – not just Red Wings fans – this is a shrewd hire.

Still, if there’s one talking point that stands out as especially valid, it’s this: when Yzerman took over the Lightning, he already had an elite center in Steven Stamkos, and a future Norris-winning defenseman in Victor Hedman.

All due respect to Dylan Larkin (who had a strong season, and is only 22) and some other nice players, but the Red Wings don’t have foundational players at quite that superstar level. They do, however, have a pretty interesting setup. If Yzerman is as bright as he seemed to be in Tampa Bay, the Red Wings could really turn things around. All they need is some luck and patience.

Let’s get an idea of the path ahead for Yzerman.

On a Larkin

Look, there’s no shame in Larkin not being quite what Stamkos was in 2010, when Stevie Y took over in Tampa Bay. It’s easy to forget just how potent Stamkos was (the NHL’s most goals [156] and second-most points [283] from 2009-10 to 2010-11), possibly because a few catastrophic injuries briefly derailed his career.

Larkin is fantastic, and stands as the sort of contract you’d build around: a 22-year-old star with a bargain $6.1 million cap hit running through 2022-23.

Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi showed great chemistry with Larkin late in the season, with Mantha in particular boasting the sort of pedigree that points to continued success. One of Yzerman’s early challenges will be to strike affordable deals with Mantha, Bertuzzi, and Andreas Athanasiou, three useful forwards whose contracts expire after 2019-20. Would the best deals come in earlier extensions, or would the Red Wings be wiser to wait? It’s up to Yzerman & Co. to decide, and getting good deals could be key if they want to build a winning core.

Early fruits of rebuild

While I’d argue that Holland dragged his feet multiple times when it came to the rebuilding process, the good news is that when Holland did act, he landed some nice building blocks. In trading away Gustav Nyquist, Nick Jensen, and especially Tomas Tatar, the Red Wings have really loaded up on draft picks, most of which land in the top three rounds.

The development processes are already underway for a few interesting prospects, particularly 2018 first-rounders Filip Zadina (sixth overall) and Joe Veleno (30th). The Red Wings once again pick sixth overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, so it’s up to Yzerman to land another blue-chipper, even if Detroit doesn’t get the luxury of a more obvious choice like Jack Hughes or Kappo Kakko.

Almost as important is that the Red Wings have loaded up on picks like they’re at Prospect Costco:

  • Last year, they had those two first-rounders, plus: two second-rounders, and three third-rounders to go with their normal set of choices (minus a fifth-rounder).
  • Via Cap Friendly’s handy chart, the Red Wings have two extra second-round picks and one additional fifth-rounder in 2019.
  • In 2020, they have an extra second and third-round pick. (The third-rounder could turn into a second-rounder depending upon the San Jose Sharks’ actions.)
  • They already have an extra third-rounder in 2021.

That’s a fantastic start, eh? Even the best drafting teams would admit that there’s a lot of “dart throwing” involved in drafting, so it makes sense to load up on those darts, especially when you get the added precision of picks in earlier rounds.

The Lightning were adept at finding quality talent off-the-beaten-path under Yzerman,* most notably identifying Brayden Point as a third-rounder (79th in 2014) and Nikita Kucherov in a second round (58th in 2011). If Yzerman can carry that success over to Detroit, even partially, the Red Wings could really make some exciting leaps.

Cleanup duty

Which brings us to the messier part.

For all of Holland’s accomplishments, he left behind a shaggy salary structure. There’s dead money (Stephen Weiss’ buyout lingers through 2020-21), scary contracts (Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Danny DeKeyser), and, erm, maybe too much of a “veteran presence.”

By that I mean this team is old, at least beyond the core. Niklas Kronwall is 38 with a (mercifully) expiring contract, both Jonathan Ericsson and Trevor Daley are 35, and Mike Green is a very banged-up 33. DeKeyser is oft-criticized and not really a spring chicken, either, at 29.

The goalie duo is also creaky. Jimmy Howard was fantastic in 2018-19, but at 35, it’s still surprising that the Red Wings didn’t trade him, even with the understanding that they’d come calling during free agency time in July. Jonathan Bernier is 30 and his $3M cap hit doesn’t expire until after the 2020-21 season.

Most of those trends are disturbing, and while the Red Wings need more talent basically everywhere, the defense and goaltending likely need the most strenuous surgery.

The good news is that a significant chunk of those contracts aren’t lingering too long after Yzerman takes the reins. Kronwall is headed to free agency (or retirement?), while Ericsson, Green, and Daley come off the books after 2019-20. Howard’s extension only lasts through 2019-20, so maybe Yzerman will get trade value out of the veteran where Holland could or would not.

In the short term, and in the case of a few lengthier deals, there’s a significant mess to clean up. The light at the end of the tunnel isn’t too dim, however.

Some pain for future gains

I’ve seen at least mild arguments to try to win now, with at least a portion of The Athletic’s Craig Custance piece (sub required) mentioning certain surprise stories in the NHL. And, sure, if the goal were only to make it back to the playoffs (and maybe even win a series), then speeding up the rebuild would make sense.

My guess is that mega-winner Stevie Y wants his best chance at a Stanley Cup, not merely getting the Red Wings to the playoff bubble.

The free agent market dries up pretty quickly when you realize that Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky likely wouldn’t find much of a lure to join a rebuilding team in a cold weather city (heck, “Detroiters” even got canceled).

So, instead of chasing mid-tier free agents and settling for mid-tier expectations, Yzerman should use his clout to absorb another rebuild year or two. Doing so would raise the ceiling on this rebuild, for a few reasons:

  • Most directly and obviously, tanking for an even better pick in 2020. If you look at the teams who regularly contend, virtually all of them required high-end talent found early in drafts.
  • Rather than giving valuable playing time to long-in-the-tooth veterans, why not let younger players learn on the job? You might just get an idea of what you have in, say, Michael Rasmussen. Difference-making players are hitting the NHL earlier and earlier, so why not find out which players can actually make a difference?
  • Allow the Red Wings to be a short-term receptacle to clear cap space, with Detroit taking a bribe, whether that means quality draft picks or useful players. See: the Coyotes landing an important scorer in Vinnie Hinostroza in exchange for keeping Marian Hossa‘s contract warm. Yzerman could even call up his buddies in Tampa Bay and offer to absorb the final year of Ryan Callahan‘s contract ($5.8M cap hit). Boy, Anthony Cirelli and/or Mathieu Joseph would look nice with a winged wheel …
  • Going further, getting more cap space means that the Red Wings could position themselves to land better players in trades than they’d likely entice in free agency. Perhaps teams would ready for the expansion draft by sending good, would-be-exposed players to Detroit for something? Maybe the Hurricanes would sour on Dougie Hamilton, or something similar would happen with P.K. Subban, considering his hefty $9M price tag? Could the Red Wings echo former exec Jim Nill in being the next team to say “Why, yes, we’d love to take Tyler Seguin for 25 cents on the dollar, thank you.”

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This isn’t an easy job, and again, some of this comes down to luck. Still, it’s easy to see why Red Wings fans are excited.

Make no mistake about it, though: Yzerman has his work cut out for him. It could be the fun sort of work that you’d get from tinkering with a car in the garage, and it should be fascinating for those of us who are dorks when it comes to studying how teams are put together.

* – And his staff, including current GM Julien BriseBois. We could have a lengthy, basically impossible-to-resolve discussion about who was most responsible for the great building in Tampa Bay, but it would be pretty fruitless. And, really, wouldn’t all smart GMs want to surround themselves with other smart people?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Rebuilding Red Wings counting on Larkin, Mantha, Bertuzzi

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DETROIT — The Detroit Red Wings ended a third straight season without a postseason bid, counting on a core of players 24 years old and younger to end the postseason drought next year.

Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, and Tyler Bertuzzi each set career highs for scoring and Anthony Mantha matched his highest point total.

Even though Detroit had more points in the standings than just three teams in the NHL, the quartet is generating hope for the future.

”It’s extremely satisfying to see what these young guys can do,” 38-year-old defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. ”I think if people can stay patient with this process, Larkin is going to lead the way to bring the franchise back to where we all want it to be.”

Thomas Vanek, a 35-year-old wing, saw the young group grow collectively and individually late in the season.

”Confidence is never given,” Vanek said. ”Confidence has to be earned. They earned it in a game or two, then all the sudden Mantha goes from 6-5 to 6-8 and he’s a different player.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The 22-year-old Larkin took a step toward living up to the $30.5 million, five-year deal last summer, scoring a career-high 32 goals and having 73 points to lead the team. He also played with some toughness, becoming the first player in franchise history to lead the team in goals, points and penalty minutes in same season since 1927.

Larkin, though, was not happy with the team’s performance in a 7-1 loss to Buffalo at home on Saturday to close with two straight losses after winning a season-high six games.

”It’s tough, especially with the way we’ve been playing in the past couple of weeks, to finish like this,” he said.

Mantha, likewise, was not ready his development and production because of the year the Red Wings had as a team.

”Our team’s almost dead last in the league and we’re not even close to playoffs so that’s the big picture,” he said. ”Personally, I think I took strides. I think a lot of guys in here took strides and hopefully we can bring it on a different level next year.”

The Red Wings ended talk about who would be their coach next season, giving coach Jeff Blashill a two-year contract extension earlier this month. They also decided to stick with goaltender Jimmy Howard, signing him to a one-year deal last month to keep him under contract next year.

It may take longer to know if former Red Wings great Steve Yzerman is going to come back to lead the front office.

General manager Ken Holland, who made the decision to keep Blashill, has one year left on his contract. Yzerman could potentially come back to work for the Red Wings after Tampa Bay’s season ends, nearly a year after he stepped down as the Lightning’s general manager.

No matter who is coaching or running the franchise, the Red Wings desperately need Larkin, Athanasiou, Bertuzzi and Mantha to lead the way on the ice.

”Can they carry a hockey team to wins? That’s a big question they’ll answer on a nightly basis next year,” Blashill said. ”It’s a heck of a responsibility. I don’t think there’s very many young players throughout the league that are able to carry their team. We’re going to ask that group of four up front to be a huge piece to carrying this team and they’re going to have to spend the summer getting way better.”

The Red Wings are likely not ready to be major players in free agency because they’re more than a player or two away from contending for a championship. They will have some decisions to make with their own players eligible to be unrestricted free agents, including Kronwall, who played 79 games for a second straight year to show he can stay healthy and be productive.

Kronwall said he hasn’t decided if he wants to play another season or retire.

”He’s made a huge argument that he can for sure play one more season and good for him,” Blashill said. ”He’s put himself in a spot where he can make that decision. He’s not being forced in that decision. The decision, I think, ultimately, will be his.”

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Red Wings give Blashill two-year extension to continue developing youth

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Another playoff-less spring means the Detroit Red Wings have already begun working on the 2019-20 NHL season. First, they extended goaltender Jimmy Howard and now they’re bringing back head coach Jeff Blashill.

The Red Wings announced on Thursday that Blashill has agreed to a two-year extension through the 2020-21 season. He was hired in June 2015 and has headed up a rebuild that is still on-going, but has some bright spots to it.

Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou each hit the 30-goal mark for the first time during career years, while Anthony Mantha hit 20 goals for the second straight season, and Tyler Bertuzzi took a big step forward as part of a developing Red Wing core. There’s still plenty of age on the roster beyond this season — Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Jonathan Ericcsson, Trevor Daley, and likely Niklas Kronwall, whose contract expires this summer — but a youth movement is afoot. In general manager Ken Holland’s eyes Blashill is the right choice to continue to lead this transition phase.

“Jeff has done a tremendous job developing our young talent as we continue to rebuild our organization,” said Holland in a statement. “Our young players have made significant strides during his time as head coach and are playing important minutes in key situations. As we continue to build towards the future, we have the utmost confidence that Jeff is the coach best suited to help our prospects become impactful NHL players. He has gained valuable experience as an NHL coach in each of his four years in Detroit and has instilled a work ethic in our current team that makes us hard to play against every night and competitive in every game, which is the identity we want our team to have as we move forward.”

The one solution the Red Wings have yet to find is a goaltender of the future who can step in in a year or two. With Howard’s extension and Jonathan Bernier still under contract through the end of next season, Holland has $7.25M invested between the pipes for 2019-20.

A two-year extension is a short enough leash that a change could be made if things aren’t trending in the right direction. There’s plenty of speculation about Holland’s future as well. He signed two-year deal last April, but his name has been constantly brought up in rumors surrounding the GM position for the Seattle franchise, which isn’t entering the NHL until the 2020-21 season.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Bobrovsky and Blue Jackets are on fire

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Three Stars

1. Anthony Mantha

What a game by the big Red Wings winger.

It was all about five in Detroit on Sunday. That’s how many games the Red Wings have now won in a row, and that’s how many points Mantha collected. Mantha generated the first hat trick of his NHL career, and added two assists for his first five-point game.

Mantha came into Sunday with 19 goals, so he also crossed the 20-goal barrier, finishing the night with 22 goals and 45 points on the season. He has a solid chance to meet or exceed last season’s career-highs of 24 goals and 48 points.

2. Darcy Kuemper

There were three impressive shutouts on Sunday, so we’ll just go in order of who got the most saves, so apologies to Rangers’ netminder Alexandar Georgiev, who finished the afternoon with 29 saves to blank the Flyers.

Kuemper generated a 39-save shutout in gaining an absolutely crucial win for the Arizona Coyotes on Sunday, and he’s really been dragging Arizona through a lot of low-margin-of-error games lately. Really, Kuemper has been one of the best netminders in the NHL since the calendar turned 2019, and he’s giving Arizona a decent chance to beat some enormous odds.

Kuemper now has five shutouts in 2018-19, and has generated two in his last three games, only allowing two goals overall during that span.

3. Sergei Bobrovsky

It’s been a bumpy season for Bob, to say the least, but he’s coming up big in some absolutely clutch moments for the Blue Jackets.

Bobrovsky generated a 38-save shutout on Sunday, just one behind Kuemper. Like his Coyotes colleague, Bobrovsky has been red hot lately. Bobrovsky now has three shutouts in his last five games, and four in his last seven. He’s only allowed seven goals overall in his last seven games.

Bobrovsky’s won five games in a row, and also seven of his last eight. The Blue Jackets’ prospects have risen from possibly missing the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs after going all-in, to maybe avoiding the Lightning in the first round, and possibly going into the postseason with some swagger.

Things tend to change when “Vezina Bob” comes back into the picture, eh?

Highlights of the Night

From Anthony Mantha’s five points to that sweet Patrice Bergeron to Brad Marchand shorthanded goal, the Red Wings – Bruins game had some of Sunday’s best action, so enjoy the full highlights:

Factoids

  • More on this in a future post, but the Calgary Flames clinched both the Pacific Division and top seed in the West by beating the Sharks on Sunday. So, the Lightning get home-ice throughout the postseason, while the Flames get that edge through the West playoffs.
  • This means that the Sharks and Golden Knights will face each other in what could be a fierce Pacific second vs. third seed series in the first round.
  • That sweet Brad Marchand shorthanded goal was his 26th, setting a new Bruins record, so watch it in isolation if you’d prefer:

Scores

New York Rangers 3, Philadelphia Flyers 0
Arizona Coyotes 4, Minnesota Wild 0
Pittsburgh Penguins 3, Carolina Hurricanes 1
Columbus Blue Jackets 4, Buffalo Sabres 0
Detroit Red Wings 6, Boston Bruins 3
Calgary Flames 5, San Jose Sharks 3

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Mantha shows Bruins that Red Wings aren’t exactly tanking

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The good news is that the Detroit Red Wings really might have something in the top line of Anthony Mantha, Dylan Larkin, and Tyler Bertuzzi. In fact, that top line actually outshone Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak on Sunday, the best line in the NHL according to plenty.

The bad news is that that trio has been so good, they might mess up Detroit’s draft lottery odds.

By beating the Bruins 6-3 on Sunday, the Red Wings have now rattled off a five-game winning streak. They’ve already been mathematically eliminated from the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, so it’s all about building for next year. With this winning streak in mind, they’re building up confidence more so than building up their draft lottery odds.

With the Sabres sprawling (1-8-1 in their last 10 games, including another humbling loss on Sunday), Detroit may eventually pass Buffalo, as both teams have 72 points with three games remaining. Actually, the Red Wings take the ROW (regulation/overtime win) advantage 28-26, so Buffalo would finish below them if the season ended on Sunday.

That said, even the Red Wings fans who were gritting their teeth likely found their mouths forming to a smile by the end of Sunday’s game, especially when they were watching Anthony Mantha. The promising forward generated the first hat trick of his career, and by adding two assists, also generated his first five-point game in the NHL.

The Bruins had more immediate stakes in this one, although they seem virtually assured of holding onto the second seed in the Atlantic. Maybe that thought was on enough players’ minds on Sunday, as they didn’t exactly play Boston’s typical brand of strong defense.

There were some nice moments for Boston, though, with this play from Patrice Bergeron to Brad Marchand for a shorthanded goal standing out.

The Red Wings ultimately came out on top of a seesaw game where they scored two goals in the first period, allowed three Bruins tallies in the second, and then ran away with four goals in the third to win 6-3.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.