The Red Wings and Pistons sit at dangerous intersections, pretty much where they’ve sat for nearly a decade. And they can’t keep making the same turn toward uncertainty.
Arguably the best player on each team is in quasi-limbo. Dylan Larkin, 26, is due to become an unrestricted free agent after the season. By most accounts, he and the Wings are at an impasse in contract talks, although the gap seems relatively modest. Steve Yzerman doesn’t lose many negotiations, one of the reasons he’s a highly successful GM. In this case, he doesn’t need the win. He needs to keep Larkin, a valuable player in his prime.
Bojan Bogdanovic leads the Pistons in scoring (21.4) and is second in 3-point shooting (42%). At 33, he’s having a career year, which makes him an enticing trade candidate at Thursday’s deadline. Troy Weaver has proven to be an active and shrewd dealer. In this case, he doesn’t need to make a shrewd deal. He needs to keep Bogdanovic, a valuable player perhaps finding a new prime.
Is all this counter-intuitive to standard rebuilding practices? I suppose it is. But, neither team’s plan is showing enough progress to stick blindly to it. Both Larkin and Bogdanovic are important pieces who have expressed strong desires to stay in Detroit. Weaver seems intent on keeping his 6-foot-7 shooter, reportedly asking for plenty in any possible trade, including an unprotected first-round pick. He already showed his commitment by signing Bogdanovic to a two-year, $39-million extension. Yzerman hasn’t revealed much and rarely does, but it’s difficult to imagine him letting Larkin walk.
The Wings have the 24th-best record in the NHL; the Pistons have the second-worst record in the NBA. Lottery picks help, and the Pistons have been more fortunate in that regard. Lotteries can turn around franchises, but also can turn in unfortunate ways, as No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham’s season-ending shin injury shows.
You build foundations and stir hope with draft picks. You don’t contend for anything anytime soon just with picks and young players. Yzerman and Weaver have stellar drafting reputations, but gradually, they need to lean on a little experience. Everything can’t be about reaching for a future that seems to slip further away. The Wings haven’t made the playoffs in six years; the Pistons not since 2019.
There are two perfect examples in our town of what can go right and what can go wrong. The Tigers have gone horribly wrong, craving high picks and stockpiling prospects that don’t pan out. Al Avila is gone and Scott Harris is here, and the nearly decade-long rebuild is starting over. It’s a painful illustration of what happens when you’re determined to stick to a plan that isn’t working.
Then look at the Lions, the only team here with a decent array of top-level players. GM Brad Holmes has drafted brilliantly and stocked young talent, from Amon-Ra St. Brown to Aidan Hutchinson to Penei Sewell to James Houston to Kirby Joseph to (theoretically) Jameson Williams. But, the main reason the Lions closed the season on an 8-2 run was veteran quarterback Jared Goff, who didn’t throw an interception in the final nine games.
Goff, 28, is like Larkin, 26, both high draft picks — Goff went No. 1 overall in 2016; Larkin went No. 15 in 2014 — who have been very good, but not consistently at star levels. Goff had a terrific season, and it makes no sense for the Lions to draft a replacement in the first round this year. Why spend a huge asset gambling on the unknown when you already have a proven asset in Goff?
Working with numbers
Same thing with the Wings. Just as it’s hard to replace a starting quarterback, it’s hard to replace a top-line center. Larkin changed agents last year and is believed to be seeking an eight-year deal in excess of $68 million. Yzerman reportedly is offering eight years and $64 million. The Wings have ample cap space, which doesn’t mean Yzerman should spend it indiscriminately. He built a Stanley Cup-winner in Tampa Bay partly by drawing hard lines with top players, such as captain Steven Stamkos, who re-signed at the final hour in 2016 for precisely $68 million over eight years.
Larkin isn’t Stamkos. He might not even be a No. 1 center on many teams. It took Yzerman more than a year of evaluation before awarding Larkin the captaincy in 2021. Yzerman’s prove-it approach is legendary, and Larkin’s production is tantalizing, but not elite. He has two 30-goal seasons and is a reliable leader. He’s tied for the team lead in goals (15) and tops in points (44) while playing with wingers who are young (Lucas Raymond, 20), oft-injured (Tyler Bertuzzi, Robby Fabbri) or absent (Jakub Vrana).
Investing heavily in the best player on a mediocre team is a dubious practice. But, this is not a line worth drawing for Yzerman. It’s also not a line worth drawing for Larkin, a local guy who grew up in Waterford and went to Michigan. He isn’t required to give a hometown discount, and he might not even be asked to do it. The Wings can offer one more year than any other team to their own free agent, and when Larkin hits that eighth season, he’ll be 34 and probably happy with the salary.
Right now, he isn’t enjoying the speculation, and cautiously fielded questions during All-Star weekend, where he scored five goals. The trade deadline is March 3, although Larkin has a no-trade clause that provides him some leverage.
There are valid reasons Yzerman may hold firm. The handy comparable is center Bo Horvat, recently dealt by the Canucks to the Islanders. Horvat, 27, is in the midst of a career season, with 32 goals, and signed an eight-year contract averaging $8.5 million. If the Wings are offering Larkin $8 million and his agent is angling for closer to $9 million, there appears to be a simple compromise.
Is Larkin a franchise center who should command $9 million annually? No, but he’s the only franchise center the Wings have. The market sets the price, and if he hits free agency, he’d likely land a bigger deal than Horvat’s. He might get his asking price, but at the cost of leaving the only place he’s played.
The Wings don’t have many top-level players and their best ones are young — Raymond, Moritz Seider, Filip Hronek — or not ready for the NHL. Derek Lalonde has done a solid job, in his first season as coach, boosting the defense. But, the scoring woes won’t improve by moving on from Larkin.
The Pistons are in more dire straits, but with more possibilities. Dwane Casey, in his fifth season, hasn’t elevated the team’s horrendous defense, and that’s a concern. He also hasn’t had his best player, Cunningham, most of the season. The quick fix is to win the lottery again and nab 7-2 French phenom Victor Wembanyama, although hoping for prayers and players isn’t the soundest plan.
Trading Bogdanovic doesn’t get the Pistons closer to Wembanyama, since they’re already likely to finish among the bottom three teams, each getting a 14% chance to win the lottery. The primary return on the Jerami Grant trade last summer was a 2025 first-round pick. In other words, nothing for now.
Letting Larkin go would only help the Wings if they replaced him with a big-time free agent, and those are scarcely available. As astutely as Yzerman drafts, hockey prospects progress at a notoriously slow pace.
For the Wings and Pistons, these are basic issues disguised as vexing dilemmas. At some point, both teams have to commit to retaining talent, not just pining for it elsewhere.