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.”

***

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 sign Dylan Larkin to five-year, $30.5 million deal

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The Detroit Red Wings leading point-producer is now their highest paid player.

The Red Wings locked up 22-year-old center Dylan Larkin on a five-year deal worth $30.5 million on Friday. The deal has an annual average value of $6.1 million, some $16,667 more than Henrik Zetterberg makes to take the average annual value title.

Larkin had 16 goals and 47 assists last year, doubling his point total from the year previous after getting a nearly four-minute bump in ice time per game. Larkin is the best player on a team that came into the 2017-18 season as the oldest team in the NHL.

Larkin foreshadowed Friday’s signing earlier in the week.

“Something’s coming,” Larkin told Sportsnet. “I’ve told everyone I think it’ll be before training camp. It’s right there. I’m just waiting to iron out the details.”

Larkin will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the deal in 2023.

Larkin is a player the Red Wings can build around as they work on rebuilding and leaving Jurassic Park behind. Larkin moved from the wing to center this past season, excelling in his new role as the team’s franchise center.

Larkin had 2.24 points/60 last season and had his best season in terms of Rel CF% at 2.25.

“His best years are ahead of him. Dylan brings a lot of determination and passion,” general manager Ken Holland told reporters on Friday.

The move leaves the Red Wings counting $3.2 million over the salary cap, which is set at $79.5 million for this coming season. A roster move will be necessary before the season begins. Teams are allowed to be over the cap by 10 percent during the offseason.

Johan Franzen is an LTIR candidate, however. He has a cap hit of nearly $4 million and hasn’t played in two years. Shedding his salary would put the Red Wings under, and they’ve made all their offseason signings with Larkin’s signature.

If not, the Red Wings will have to shed salary through a trade.

Larkin’s deal should make things interesting across the border in Toronto. William Nylander has yet to sign with the Maple Leafs. He’s a restricted free agent and compares well with Larkin.

The Leafs are facing a massive cap crunch next season and Nylander now has a template for his next deal.

Sam Reinhart, also an unsigned RFA, will also benefit from Larkin’s deal.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Mrazek, Mantha help Red Wings down Blackhawks

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You kind of get the feeling that teams heading onto their mandatory week off would like to start forgoing that last game before the break.

The Winnipeg Jets lost 4-1 in the game they failed to show up to on Saturday. On Friday, the Columbus Blue Jackets got trounced 5-2 in the game before they got a break.

And on Sunday, the Chicago Blackhawks seemed checked out in a 4-0 loss to the Detroit Red Wings, a team who played 24 hours earlier and lost handily 4-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Hell, even Jeff Glass couldn’t save the Blackhawks, who got outworked from what seemed like the opening puck drop.

Dylan Larkin gave the Red Wings a 1-0 lead just over four minutes into the first period.

Andreas Athanasiou showed his speed as he worked past Blackhawks’ defenders down low, before sliding a pass out to Larkin, who was perched in the slot.

Larkin made no mistake, given the opportunity, as he notched his seventh of the season.

Mike Green showed why he was named an NHL all-star this past week for the Red Wings second goal, which doubled their advantage just over two minutes later.

Gustav Nyquist gained the Blackhawks’ zone and dropped a pass to Anthony Mantha, who took one look to Green and fed him a cross-ice pass that Green one-timed past and outstretched Glass.

It was Green’s 25th point of the season, and couple with his all-star nod, Green, who is set to become a free agent in the offseason, keeps building a case for himself to be traded to a contender when the deadline comes around.

Mantha grabbed his second point of the game in the third period as he joined the rush off the bench.

Mantha let Henrik Zetterberg know he was flying into the zone starting from the time he jumped onto the ice, and Zetterberg dropped the puck to Mantha, allowing for a nice wrist shot that beat Glass high for a 3-0 lead.

Tyler Bertuzzi, the nephew of Todd who came into the game without his first-career NHL goal, checked that item off his to-do list later in the period.

Bertuzzi parked himself in front of Glass’s doorstep and whacked home a rebound after Nick Jensen‘s shot from the slot was saved.

Meanwhile, Petr Mrazek kept things tidy in the crease for the Red Wings, stopping all 27 shots he faced.

The Blackhawks didn’t test him all that much, but Mrazek, who has struggled this season, turned aside 12 third-period shots en route to the win.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: Senators win, Subban from center, Lehtonen notches 300th win

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Players of the Night: 

Bobby Ryan, Ottawa Senators: It’s been a struggle for Ryan this season. He came into the game with just as single goal in 21 games but left with two in 22 while also adding an assist to help the Senators avoid a six-game losing streak.

Tyler Pitlick, Dallas Stars: Pitlick scored twice, bookending Dallas’s five goals in a 5-2 win against the New York Islanders.

P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators: If you continue reading (and you should) you will see Subban’s goal that came from quite a distance. The defenseman notched two in a ___ win against the Vancouver Canucks, powering the Preds to their ninth win in their past 12 games.

Highlights of the Night: 

Brad Marchand fought off Mike Green, and then did this to win in overtime:

Dylan Larkin. Breakway. Shorthanded. Backhand.

Blunder of the Night: 

Yikes, Anders Nilsson. Bravo, P.K.

Factoids of the Night: 

Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen killed two birds with one stone on Wednesday:

Filip Forsberg accomplished an impressive feat for the second time in his career.

MISC: 

Scores: 

Senators 3, Rangers 2

Stars 5, Islanders 2

Bruins 3, Red Wings 2 (OT)

Predators 7, Canucks 1


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck