Detroit — Steve Yzerman was running a little late for his season-ending Zoom news conference, so he apologized.
“Didn’t want to keep everyone waiting,” he said last week. “I appreciate your patience with me.”
Ah, the phrase of the times in Detroit sports. Fans are waiting. Patience is appreciated, but tested.
The Red Wings just finished testing it. No team is testing it more than the Tigers (8-19), who began an eight-game homestand Monday night against Oakland after a miserable four-game sweep in Houston, following a miserable month-long display of hitting that, if it continues, would reach historically awful depths. Last week, Tigers manager AJ Hinch issued a plea similar to Yzerman’s.
“We’re gonna be better,” Hinch said. “I know everybody’s worried. We’re gonna be better.”
Hinch sounded perplexed. So did Yzerman, who fired Jeff Blashill after the Wings staggered to the eighth-worst record in the league with a non-existent defense. No one wants to hear it, but this is the dirty little secret about team rebuilds: They don’t follow a linear path. They almost never go as planned.
Young players don’t automatically get better. (The Tigers just sent Akil Baddoo to Toledo with his .140 batting average). Free agents don’t automatically make an impact. There are so many factors, from luck to lousy decision-making, that progress is choppy, back-sliding is possible. It’s the most-aggravating, unpredictable period of a rebuild.
Al Avila, in his seventh season as Tigers GM, should appreciate any amount of patience, as it’s being stretched to the limits. He had a solid offseason, landing free-agent Javier Báez and others, but so far, the Tigers are defying logic and statistics. Power is down across the majors but the Tigers have 11 home runs in 27 games and scored two runs or fewer 14 times. Their bullpen ERA of 2.67, fourth in baseball, is being wasted. It makes no sense, until you realize you’ve seen versions of it before.
Lousy lottery luck
Yzerman knows the uncertainty as well as anyone. The NHL will hold its draft lottery Tuesday night, an annual event in which the Wings show up to receive the fruits of their labor and instead take a puck to the face. There’s no easy way to accelerate a rebuild, as Yzerman deftly explained last week. But how about a little help here?
The Wings never have moved up in the lottery. Two years ago, they picked fourth after posting the worst record by far. This time, they have a 6% chance of landing No. 1, where the prize is expected to be Canadian forward Shane Wright. He’s not considered a transcendent player but rated the best of the bunch. Even lacking lottery luck, Yzerman has done well with Moritz Seider (sixth overall in 2019) and Lucas Raymond (fourth in 2020), two premier rookies this season.
The NHL recognized its lottery was unfair and goofy, so it was adjusted to be only mildly unfair and goofy. Only two ping-pong balls are drawn for the top two spots. After that, the draft order follows the standings. If the bottom two — Canadiens and Coyotes — stay in the top spots, everyone else remains where they are and the Wings pick eighth. If someone moves up, the Wings drop. No one can move up more than 10 spots, to avoid embarrassing undeserved gifts.
So the Wings have a chance to pick first or second, and a much better chance to pick eighth, ninth or 10th. Wherever they land, the prospect won’t arrive for a few years, which goes back to the first premise. Of course Yzerman warrants patience, lots of it, entering his fourth season as GM. But when you see Seider and Raymond play so well so early, and the Wings hover on the fringe of contention for half a season, you figure, hey, here they go. And then the defense completely collapses, injuries pile up and the depth deficit is revealed.
Yzerman had to fire Blashill after seven seasons, while acknowledging it’s not a quick fix. A great coaching candidate just emerged Monday when Barry Trotz was fired by the Islanders. Trotz guided that team to the Stanley Cup semifinals in 2020 and 2021, and one of his assistants, Lane Lambert, is considered an Yzerman confidante. Looks like a fine fit to me.
Building a foundation
The thing is, it’s not the coach. Just like with the Tigers, it’s not the manager. Hinch is as respected as any in baseball. It’s the foundational talent, and that’s where it’s easy for observers — me, you — to get fooled. I don’t think Yzerman was fooled. I think he’s acutely aware of the size of the task, perhaps larger than he first anticipated.
“The danger becomes when you start to get a little impatient, desperate,” Yzerman said. “Then you do something stupid. Anytime I’ve tried to force something, force a trade, force a signing, I’ve kind of regretted it. … You’re gonna want to see results, and I understand it. I can’t sit here forever saying, hey be patient everybody, we’re gonna get there, we’re gonna get there.”
I asked Yzerman how many foundational pieces are on his roster — players young enough and promising enough to count on being here when the Wings win. He understandably wasn’t offering names. Based on age and talent, I see about five: Seider (21), Raymond (20), Larkin (25), Tyler Bertuzzi (27), Jakub Vrana (26). Maybe: Michael Rasmussen (23), Filip Hronek (24). Soon to arrive: Jonatan Berggren (21), Simon Edvinsson (19). Teetering: Goalie Alex Nedeljkovic (26).
Not a lot at the NHL level. Yzerman says he’ll be aggressive, with the caveat about not doing something he’d regret. Free agents can be over-priced and hard to land. Trades are possible, and Bertuzzi could be on the block.
The Tigers took more aggressive steps and the roster certainly looked bolstered with Baez, pitchers Eduardo Rodriguez and Michael Pineda and catcher Tucker Barnhart. When Avila swung a good deal late in camp to land outfielder Austin Meadows, excitement ratcheted.
The truth is, it takes time for the reality to catch up to the mentality. The Tigers started 9-24 last season, then went 68-61 the rest of the way. Several players had career years and the assumption was that would continue. It’s often a faulty assumption.
So far, none show signs of duplicating it, albeit with the season only 17% complete. Was it wrong to expect Baddoo, 23, to keep rapidly rising? Probably. Was it wrong to expect Eric Haase to approach 22 home runs again? Probably. Was it wrong to think Jeimer Candelario would lead the league in doubles again, or Jonathan Schoop would match his numbers — .278 batting average, 22 home runs? Doesn’t feel like it was wrong, but he’s at .134 with one home run.
Was it premature to think Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal, Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene (injured) would follow the path from top prospects to foundational pieces? Yes, to a certain degree. Nobody is writing any of them off, not even close. But when healthy, three-fifths of the Tigers rotation has a combined 84 career starts. Ideally, Rodriguez and Pineda should be rounding out the rotation, not near the top.
As for the lineup, a lot was expected of Greene, probably too much, and he won’t be back until mid-summer. Torkelson has a strong compact swing, as advertised, and also some holes, as expected.
Most of the Tigers’ best players have yet to reach their primes. The Wings’ top talent is even younger. This is why management hates to put timetables on rebuilds, and why we crave them. It seems the end line gets pushed back, and whether that’s accurate or an illusion, it’s tougher to accept. Every time we think they’ve turned a corner, another corner appears. As history and geometry confirm, take too many wrong turns and you’re back where you began.