Wojo: Red Wings' stockpiling picks is prudent path under 'Yzerplan'

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — At this stage in an historically dreadful season, small victories are all you can expect. The Red Wings will take them, however small they may seem.

Steve Yzerman wasn’t touting anything Monday, as the Wings finished trade-deadline day with a handful of picks — a couple second-rounders and a fourth-rounder — while giving up one-time prime prospect Andreas Athanasiou. Yzerman sounded satisfied, all things considered, and he should be, despite the price. He sounded pretty much like he’s sounded since taking over nearly a year ago — like someone who doesn’t want to belabor the enormity of the task, but recognizes it more and more each day.

Detroit Red Wings executive vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman addresses the media Monday about the trade deadline at Little Caesars Arena.

NHL trade-deadline day used to be a holiday around here. Now it’s a hollow day. Hollow, but necessary. The Wings bailed on Athanasiou, 25, who always tantalized with speed and offensive skill, and is due to be an unrestricted free agent. But with his injuries and defensive deficiencies — a league-worst minus-45 — it made sense for the Wings to trade tangible hope for unknown hope, and send him to Edmonton.

Yzerman also dealt defenseman Mike Green for a conditional third- or-fourth-round pick, and grabbed Dmytro Timashov, a former first-round pick, off the waiver wire from Toronto. Veteran forward Sam Gagner came over as part of the Athanasiou deal. The trades with the Oilers were win-win, as they needed forward help for their playoff push, and the Wings need more picks and potential prospects.

It’s no surprise Edmonton GM Ken Holland, who guided the Wings for 22 years, agreed to the deals. He knew what he was getting, having signed Athanasiou and Green, and he knew what Yzerman was seeking. In a way, Holland’s rebuild of the Wings continues from a distance, and I’m sure he was happy to land a former 30-goal scorer in Athanasiou and a veteran in Green.

Swindle-free dealing

Yzerman didn’t fleece Holland and Holland didn’t fleece Yzerman. They’re in different places with different goals and different timetables. Yzerman isn’t dishing false promises, and neither did Holland. But with the worst record in the league, out of the playoffs for the fourth straight season, the Wings needed to collect more assets.

 “Along the way, we need some of these picks to pan out for us,” Yzerman said. “To simply sit there and hope our first-rounder is gonna work out every year, we need to do better than that. We need the picks and need to keep adding them where we can, for the time being.”

That “time being” might be a while, with the Wings at least 2-3 years from contention. But Yzerman won’t be trapped into a timetable, and won’t say whether the job is tougher than he anticipated.

 “I knew what I was getting into, and I think I had a general idea what it takes to build a team,” he said. “(Patience) is very difficult to sell, and we gotta show progress. I’m hoping the progress shows next year in wins and losses, but it will show in prospects and their development.”

This was not the time for a big-splash move, as Yzerman methodically directs the Yzerplan that isn’t much different than many NHL rebuilding plans. Because he’s done it before in Tampa Bay, and because he’s a Wings legend, his credibility is unblemished, and that’s important to note.

Yzerman doesn’t have to win the public over with bold moves and brash talk. He didn’t have to shake up his roster core — Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi, Filip Hronek, Filip Zadina — just to make a point, with a blockbuster deal that could’ve netted a first-round pick. That time will come, and the pressure will mount next season on the core, whose development has been stunted by injuries and other factors.

Athanasiou fell into the sweet spot between expendability for the Wings and desirability for another team. And he could blossom alongside Oilers great Connor McDavid.

“Several teams inquired and expressed interest, and this deal seemed like it made sense for the Detroit Red Wings in the short term and in the future,” Yzerman said. “You can decide for yourself what the core is, but we weren’t necessarily looking to do anything with them, unless it was a real good return. We’re trying to acquire more draft picks, turn picks into prospects and develop prospects into NHL players.”

All pain, some gain

Suffering along the way generally is unavoidable, unless a team gets lucky with a generational superstar draft pick. But if you’re going to be bad, there has to be a method to the badness.

Yzerman’s method is to be rational and realistic, and then aggressive when warranted. For instance, Larkin can’t slide through next season like this, with 17 goals after scoring 32 the previous year. Yzerman said he expects to finally name a captain, and it appears Larkin remains the favorite, but there’s a reason it has to be earned.

Jeff Blashill apparently will be back for his sixth season, an incredibly long run in a league that hastily lops off coaches. But again, progress will be demanded soon enough.

“It’s unfair to judge Jeff on our team’s record, really it is,” Yzerman said. “Jeff has done a very good job under very difficult circumstances. I’m not gonna make any decisions on anything until the season is over. I think Jeff’s done a really good job, and as of right now, I don’t plan to make a change.”

Nothing changes, for now. The Wings have 10 picks this year, six in the top three rounds. It began with Holland’s moves a couple years ago, and it continues unabated. The Wings have started to pile up enough prospects, Yzerman is content to leave them in Grand Rapids for the Griffins’ playoff run.

It’s not big-splash time for the big club, which is why Monday’s moves were palatable.

“We were hoping to get the highest picks we could, and in general, I think we accomplished what we wanted,” Yzerman said. “Did we get everything we wanted? Not necessarily. We would’ve liked to acquire another first, but we weren’t able to do that.”

Small victories must become bigger ones, eventually. For now, the Wings will take what they can get, until it’s time to shop for what they need.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski