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Yzerman puts onus on young Red Wings to 'figure it out' during layoff

GM challenges players to stay motivated to keep rebuild on track

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

The Detroit Red Wings face a huge test.

They haven't played since the NHL paused the season March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, and their season ended officially Tuesday when Commissioner Gary Bettman unveiled the Return to Play Plan with a 24-team format.

Like the Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres, Los Angeles Kings, New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators and San Jose Sharks, they won't be involved if and when the other teams return to training camp and competition.

They don't know when they'll play again. November? December? January?

"We'll learn who really wants to be a hockey player," general manager Steve Yzerman said Wednesday. "Guys that want to train are going to figure it out, guys that want to get better and improve are going to figure it out, and we're going to provide the resources to do that.

"The ones who truly don't are going to find way [not to], and they've got as good a reason as they're ever going to have of not being able to train right now.

"So a lot of the onus is on the kids' motivation."

Video: TBL@DET: Mantha finds twine with PPG from in close

The situation is particularly acute for the Red Wings, who are rebuilding and coming off the worst season (.275 points percentage) since the NHL introduced the salary cap in 2005-06. Though they need to improve their personnel, they need the players and prospects they have already to develop.

Nothing can replace the lost practices and games -- goalies reading the play, fighting to see through traffic; skaters taking a hit, knowing what to do with the puck before they get it so they can make the proper play.

"Hockey's played with people at an incredible pace," coach Jeff Blashill said Thursday. "It's a chaotic game. There's lot of things going on around you. And if you don't experience that for a long period of time, you're not training your body to make those decisions.

"Really what hockey comes down to more than anything else is making a whole bunch of good decisions very, very quickly, and you've got to be forced into those positions to make sure that you're trained and ready to make those decisions."

There is a lot of uncertainty, too, about what players and teams will be able to do and when because of the pandemic.

But all they can control is how they handle the situation, and the Red Wings must view this as something of which to take advantage.

"I think it also gives us a great opportunity to have more time than ever to maximize our bodies and to maximize our games," Blashill said. "That's what we're going to have to look at, and that's what's going to be really important for our young players."

The Red Wings hope to open their training facility for players in the Detroit area when the NHL allows voluntary small-group workouts.

Video: CHI@DET: Bertuzzi buries Larkin one-timer from slot

The coaching, player development and training staffs have been and will be in contact with players to the extent they're allowed under the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NHL and the NHL Players' Association.

Blashill talked about identifying each player's strengths, weaknesses and "firestarter" -- the trait or skill that will elevate his game to greatness or maintain it -- so he can work on it.

He also talked about being creative. Once players are able to skate, if they don't have enough numbers, maybe they play 3-on-3 games in tight areas to mimic the speed and physicality of a real game as best they can.

Dylan Larkin, a 23-year-old center five seasons into his NHL career, and Mike Barwis, the Red Wings director of sports science and human performance, have come up with a few different plans depending on what happens. While healing from lingering injuries, Larkin has been in the gym.

"This is a valuable time for myself to make sure my body's 100-percent healthy coming into next season and making sure that I'm getting ahead of everyone else while either guys are playing and getting banged-up or guys are sitting at home because they think they don't want to train yet or whatever it may be," Larkin said.

"I started early, but I'm looking forward to this time, where I can change my body and change into a stronger, more explosive athlete. There's obviously the downside that we're not playing, but there's also a positive where you can do some serious changes in the body during this time."

Video: TBL@DET: Larkin nets Mantha centering feed in front

Who's with him?

"I'm a huge believer in, players have to want it," Blashill said. "They have to have that inner drive, that extra, that unbelievable motivation. That's what the best players do.

"Well, this is going to test and show which guys do and which guys don't more than ever before, because we'll be able to, for lack of a better word, kind of hold their hand less than ever, and they're going to be creative with how they attack getting better here, and the guys that really want it will find ways."

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