Wojo: Amid Wings' pain and pandemic, Steve Yzerman has lots to consider

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit – The tone is slightly different, and so is the look. Steve Yzerman has a beard, a sparse, scruffy one, definitely not a playoff beard.

A year ago, he took over as Red Wings GM in a celebrated move that stirred expectations, even as he tried mightily to dampen them. Now, after one of the worst seasons in franchise history, Yzerman’s task hasn’t changed, and neither has the timetable. But the message has been updated — how could it not be? — with the Wings stuck in a pandemic pause while 24 teams make plans for a possible postseason.

Zoom screen capture: Detroit Red Wings General Manager Steve Yzerman talks with the media on Wednesday.

Yzerman confirmed Wednesday he’s bringing back coach Jeff Blashill for a sixth season, while acknowledging there’s no tangible area of improvement to cite. It was an endorsement and an admission at the same time, that the roster wasn’t remotely good enough to compete. To his credit, Yzerman didn’t take the easy path and blame the coach or blame injuries, and also didn’t absolve himself.

He praised Blashill’s work during tough times. He praised Dylan Larkin — “excellent player, very important player, great leader” — and made it sound like the 23-year-old center is a strong captain candidate for next season. Beyond that, there wasn’t much positive to offer, and Yzerman didn’t pretend there was.

“Jeff held his head high and worked diligently and has done a good job in a difficult situation,” Yzerman said on a teleconference after the Wings season officially ended. “Quite frankly, we need help in every area. We need to score more goals, we need to improve defensively, we need to improve in net. It’s going to take time, and I’m confident we’ll see improvement next season. I can’t tell you what that translates to in wins and losses.”

Listen. Will Yzerman get the job done here? Yes, his record, resolve and resources say he will.

Should it be this numbingly painful for another year? No it should not.

The Wings’ 17-49-5 record, a staggering 23 points behind the next-worst team, was years in the making. It was the fourth straight season without a playoff berth, after 25 consecutive appearances. Ken Holland tried to delay the rebuild, and when it became inevitable, it became ugly. In his first season after nine successful years as GM in Tampa Bay, Yzerman didn’t change much, preferring to observe and assess.

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It was the fair thing to do, just as retaining Blashill is the fair thing to do. But when a team is so bereft of talent that it scores the fewest goals in the league and allows the most, staying the course going forward is less palatable.

I asked Yzerman if this season made him realize he’ll have to get more aggressive in shaping his roster, whether through trades or free-agency.

“I’d say maybe, slightly,” he said. “Ultimately the plan is to hopefully draft well, hopefully run a good development program. We want to have as competitive a team as we can at this time, to help the Dylan Larkins, Anthony Manthas, Tyler Bertuzzis, the young core get better. But I don’t want to go into free-agency to make a splash. We’re gonna look to make sensible signings.”

It’s not as simple as it used to be around here. When the Wings were rolling, they picked their free-agents and just peeled off the dollars. Hockeytown was a destination. Now it’s a closed chapter.

Finally emerging from oppressive contract issues, the Wings have plenty of salary-cap space, depending on what becomes of the cap after the shortened season. But they still have to lock up restricted free-agents Mantha and Bertuzzi, to which Yzerman said, “We’re not gonna let them go anywhere, we’ll get deals done.” Another unrestricted free-agent, Robby Fabbri, was an excellent pickup from the Blues and needs to be retained.

Other deals will be tougher to pull off. The Wings could be interested in 29-year-old Bruins defenseman Torey Krug, who’s from Livonia, or 28-year-old Toronto defenseman Tyson Barrie, or perhaps a top free-agent goalie in Las Vegas’ 28-year-old Robbie Lehner. But who knows if they’d be interested in the Wings, who have decent young players and lots of draft picks, but few guaranteed stars. Larkin scored 19 goals in 71 games (32 the year before) and has Yzerman’s strong support, but is one of the few foundational pieces.

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“We’re prepared to do anything we can in free-agency, but it’s not get a player at all cost, that’s not the plan,” Yzerman said. “We’re not trying to do everything overnight because that can really handcuff you. The reality is, I think it’s very difficult to do that with free-agency, to get those elite players. You’ve got to spend a lot of money for a long time, and I don’t know if we’re a market for those type of players at this time. That’s the reality.”

The reality is far more real than it was a year ago, although Yzerman had a good idea what he was stepping into. The defense is barren, and the Wings have to hope Danny DeKeyser is healthy and 2019 first-round pick Mortiz Seider is ready. Jonathan Bernier was OK in net, but Jimmy Howard clearly, unfortunately, is finished.

Immediate contention is not a requirement from owner Chris Ilitch, who has pushed the patience angle. Obviously, this will take considerable time. But because the season was so awful, there’s some pressure to kickstart something, even if it just buys time for the young guys. And yes, it would help for the Wings to get a little lottery luck for a change.

Alexis Lafreniere

Yzerman seemed mildly disappointed the NHL didn’t alter its draft lottery June 26. Despite posting the worst record, by far, the Wings have only an 18.5-percent chance of landing the top pick. The prize is expected to be forward Alexis Lafreniere, and although the Wings have picked sixth, sixth and ninth the past three drafts, they haven’t gotten a shot at a generational talent. They do have 10 picks, including seven in the first three rounds.

Ultimately, that’s where the future lies, in the uncertainty of youth and the unknown of draft picks. Sprinkling in a capable veteran or two with modest contracts makes sense. With the Wings idled perhaps for months, and training arrangements unclear, young players won’t necessarily get the on-hand guidance they need. In that regard, it’s a bad time to be a bad team.

“The young guys that are motivated are gonna figure out a way to get it done,” Yzerman said. “And part of it is, we’re gonna learn who really wants to be a hockey player. The ones who truly don’t, they’ve got as a good a reason as ever to not train right now. A lot of the onus is on the kids’ motivation.”

That sounds like a warning shot, different than the warming shot a year ago. Yzerman has watched and surely winced. I suspect the next step, whenever the pandemic allows, will be a bit more forceful.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski