Steve Yzerman has 'no regrets' about Red Wings' free agency splurge

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Life comes at you fast in the NHL, even as fortunes shift slowly. A week ago, the Red Wings were chasing their first playoff berth in seven years. Six straight losses and several trades later, they're back in the running for an all-too-familiar consolation prize: higher lottery odds.

In a division stuffed with stars, Steve Yzerman and the Red Wings are still searching for theirs.

"I look at Montreal, ourselves, Buffalo and Ottawa, we’re all rebuilding. Buffalo and Ottawa have been doing it a little bit longer than us, they’ve done a very good job," Yzerman said on 97.1 The Ticket. "I’m not making any excuses, we need to be better, but we’re not there yet. I look at their nucleuses of young players and what they have coming, they’re just ahead of us.

"So we gotta stick with it and we have to draft well. We have to get lucky on some occasions, maybe at some point here, maybe this year, get lucky in the lottery and that’ll speed it up a little bit."

Lottery luck has eluded the Red Wings since they first entered it in 2017, at the outset of their rebuild. They've never moved up in six tries and on four occasions they've dropped, including from first to fourth in 2020 after one of the worst seasons in franchise history. The Wings had the most losses in the NHL from 2016-17 to 2021-22 and the best they had to show for it was the fourth overall pick. Their average top draft pick over that span was outside the top six.

Compare that to the Sabres, who had the second most losses from 2016-17 to 2021-22 and wound up with two first overall picks, amid a stretch in which they picked in the top 10 for 10 straight years.

"But that’s the way it goes," said Yzerman. "I don’t have control over what happens with the draft lottery. We haven’t had much luck as an organization there, and that’s OK. We still have to find players where we’re picking, and we expect to and should expect to find players, it just takes a little longer."

After playing for the future again at last week's trade deadline where Detroit dealt Filip Hronek and Tyler Bertuzzi for a haul of high picks, the organization is still staring up in the division and crossing its fingers in the lottery -- and then again in the draft, where as Yzerman knows, "There's no guarantees." Which raises the question: did Yzerman jump the gun last summer in free agency? If the Wings were headed here all along, why shell out money to veterans like Andrew Copp, Ben Chiarot and David Perron? In other words, why not continue to tank?

Because, in Yzerman's view, what good did all that tanking do them?

"I don't have any regrets," Yzerman said about his splurge last summer.

"I wanted to bring in players that were good people and good players to be partners for Moritz Seider, to help our team," he said. "For us to get one of those high, high picks, we’re not just trading Bertuzzi. We’re trading Larkin, we’re trading everybody to get one of those picks. You look at the teams that are at the bottom and what they did to get there, there’s like five of them that are trying to get to the bottom. For us to do it, it wasn’t going to happen.

"My first three years, what did we end up picking? We picked fourth, sixth and sixth. And trust me, that was the plan. Like, ‘Hey, we’re not going to sign good players, we’re not going to take it to another level, we’re not going to sign a bunch of free agents. We’re going to be at the bottom, we’re going to suck this up for a few years and get high picks.’ Unfortunately in our system, the best pick we could get was fourth overall. And we’re OK with it because we like the players we got."

Indeed, Yzerman turned the sixth overall pick in 2019 into reigning Rookie of the Year Moritz Seider, he turned the fourth overall pick in 2020 into top-six winger Lucas Raymond and he turned the sixth overall pick in 2021 into one of the top defensive prospects in hockey Simon Edvinsson, who may well make his Red Wings debut before the end of this season. And Yzerman wants those players, along with others on the way like Marco Kasper, the 8th overall pick in 2022, to come of age in a competitive environment.

"The moves I made last year, really, it was like, I don’t want to get beat 10-0 every night, OK?" said Yzerman. "We’re building, we’re building, we’re going to be patient. ... I just felt like where we’re at, in free agency last year, we need to get some players that are going to help our (younger) players evolve. I don’t want to be terrible forever. What happens? Your good players start to go backwards and regress, and I didn’t want that for our guys."

The way Yzerman sees it, the Red Wings aren't chasing the powers-that-be in the Atlantic Division. The Lightning, Bruins, Maple Leafs and Panthers are at different stages of the NHL life cycle. The Wings are aiming to peak in the East around the same time as the Sabres and Senators and even the Canadiens: "That’s the group of teams that we gotta be watching because when they’re good, we’re hoping to be good as well," Yzerman said.

The Sabres have two emerging superstars in Tage Thompson and Rasmus Dahlin, and two more rising stars in Dylan Cozens and Owen Power, all of whom are 25 or younger. The Senators have two emerging superstars in Brady Tkachuk and Tim Stutzle, and two more rising stars in Jake Sanderson and Drake Batherson, all of whom are 24 or younger.

Ottawa also traded for 25-year-old star Alex DeBrincat at last year's draft at the expense of three picks, including No. 7 overall. With his own stash of picks, including four first-rounders over the next two years, Yzerman could attempt a similar move to expedite Detroit's rebuild and close the gap on Buffalo and Ottawa.

What he probably can't do is trade those picks to make a giant leap up the draft board. Only once in the NHL's salary cap era has a top-six pick been traded after that year's lottery; it's never happened with a pick in the top four.

"I’m not sure how many superstars there are in this draft. I don’t really want to share my thoughts on that, although it’d be highly unlikely that we can get up there (via trade) anyway," Yzerman said. "Very rarely in hockey do you see top-three picks get traded at the draft. I don’t know if or when the last time that has happened. So whoever has those picks, I don’t really see anybody, including ourselves, wherever we end up, being able to move up there.

"Last year we saw Ottawa and Chicago make a trade ... Ottawa coming into the next phase of their development trades a high pick for a young player. It will be interesting now, DeBrincat has one year to go on his contract, what they do with that. But that was a bold move by both teams."

In a perfect world, Yzerman would have inherited a better young core from Ken Holland. (In a perfect world, Holland would have drafted Quinn Hughes over Filip Zadina No. 6 overall in 2018.) In a perfect world, the Wings would had better luck by now in the lottery and wouldn't be paying for one of the NHL's longest playoff streaks ever with one of its longest active droughts.

"In a perfect world," said Yzerman, "you’re trading draft picks for really good young players because you know what they are. It just doesn’t happen very often, but I’m certainly open to it."

But life is far from perfect in the NHL, especially for rebuilding teams. You keep drafting, keep developing and keep improving your team where you can. And above all else, you keep hoping.

"It just takes years to build a team," said Yzerman. "In our league, we got 32 teams, everybody for the most part locks up their top players. The top players don’t get to free agency, so that’s a tough way to go. And teams very rarely are trading their top guys, so it just takes you time."

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