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Blunder on the Backend: How can Steve Yzerman right the ship?

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As the team bottoms out, GM Steve Yzerman will need to get creative to get out of the rebuild rut

2019 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

Somehow, we have reached December, but for the Red Wings, it hasn’t been an easy road. Through 30 games, the team has managed to throw together 17 points, which is good for worst in the NHL. The organization is now staring down the reality of another dive into the Draft Lottery, with perhaps the best chance at clinching 1st overall in the 2020 NHL Draft. But is that enough to be excited for? I say no. It’s been like this for a few offseason now, and even the prospect of getting Alexis Lafrenière doesn’t move the needle for me.

There’s no doubt that Steve Yzerman has his work cut out for him, and I believe that he knows it won’t come solely come through drafting and developing. What will fix this team is a carefully calculated series of transactions through trade, and meticulous research of the free agency market not only this offseason, but the ones ahead. The Red Wings sit in a very unique position, as they have a handful of albatross contracts coming off the books in the next couple of years, which opens up a lot of money for Yzerman to work with — but should he try and make an immediate splash in the free agency market? It’s complicated.

Sure, he could go out and pony-up the dough for a top free agent like Taylor Hall, should he make it to free agency, but I don’t think that’s the right move — not yet, at least. In his young stint as GM in Detroit, Yzerman has made a series of small moves, which has been a welcomed approach to assembling a competent roster. The team has been very top-heavy in offense, and we all know that can’t be a sustainable approach. Yzerman has made small movies, like picking up players like Alex Biega, Brendan Perlini, and of course, the crown jewel so far, Robby Fabbri. I call these ‘micro-transactions’ — small moves that could potentially have a long-lasting affect on architecting a roster that can compete. Biega was more of a depth move, while picking up Perlini and Fabbri were moves that will help in the long-run with secondary, and even primary scoring.

The big fat elephant in the room, though, remains to be the backend. Detroit is staring down the barrel of a very ugly reality — not having an NHL-caliber starting goaltender. Jimmy Howard is fine, but we all know he’s not getting any younger, and his numbers aren’t going to be ascending like they need anytime soon, especially with injury issues. There’s also concern with the defense — as always. Mike Green, Trevor Daley, and Jonathan Ericsson are UFA at the end of the season, so that could potentially free up big minutes for someone.. But who?

Filip Hronek is quickly emerging as Detroit’s best defenseman, so he’s going to get his minutes, Dennis Cholowski has his moments, so he is clearly developing into a solid mid-pairing defenseman, and there’s a lot of potential in the minors. Moritz Seider looks to be the real deal with the way he’s been dominating at the AHL level. When you throw in Jared McIsaac, Oliwer Kaski (who is due to get a surge in minutes now that Vili Saarijarvi has been traded), there’s some promise, but still, is it enough to move the needle? Not entirely. I think Yzerman will approach the offseason with defense and goaltending in mind. That opens up the idea of signing an aging star like Torey Krug, who has been rumored to have interest in coming back to his hometown to play hockey. At 29 years old, I think Krug is a fine player to anchor the PP and provide offense, but at what cost? The only way I can get on board with signing him is if Yzerman can swing some sort of true ‘hometown bargain’ out of him. I think if the three aforementioned roster defensemen on this team aren’t coming back, you have the capital to sign Krug, and put him with Seider, should he continue to trend upward.

Switching attention to goaltending — the free agent market isn’t promising. As it stands now, some pretty big names on the list, but none that I think are worth dumping out multiple years over. With Howard potentially not coming back (purely speculative), that will leave a gaping hole in the starter position. Jonathan Bernier is fine, but not a starter, newly-acquired Eric Comrie has only had a handful of starts at the NHL level, so it’s unclear what the 24-year-old net minder will pan out to be, and I can’t be convinced that anyone at the AHL level or below will be ready for a full-time job in the NHL in the next year or so. So, this is potentially a big issue. If Comrie doesn’t come by your proverbial ‘lightning in a bottle,’ you’re stuck with an ugly situation.

While talking with Prashanth about this issue, he suspects that if Yzerman were to look toward free agency to supplement goaltending, the team might be looking at someone along the lines of Cam Talbot, or Thomas Greiss — two goalies that you could get for cheap, say, to the tune of about $3m AAV.

However you boil it down, Steve Yzerman faces a tall task in getting this team back on the rails, and it isn’t going to be an easy fix. The team is in a unique position where it should focus on acquiring the best available players, but also need to address what’s happening on the backend of the ice. Yzerman is still young in his tenure as Red Wings GM, so I suspect there will be more trades in the near future. If he can stay on the same path as he did with the Fabbri trade, there’s no doubting that he has the resources to get it done. But things could get worse before they get better.