[Editor’s Note: SB Nation is doing a “What If” theme week and I wanted to bring this piece that Mike wrote last August back because it fits in perfectly]
On July 4th, 2012, Ryan Suter signed a 13-year contract with the Minnesota Wild that holds a cap hit a touch over 7.5 million dollars per year. Red Wings fans were… not happy, to say the least. There was a lot of disdain for Ryan Suter and Zach Parise from a lot of off-season powerhouses like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and the New York Rangers. How could they go to Minnesota, of all places? Didn’t they know Detroit had a very shiny future ahead of itself?
Seven years later, the Minnesota Wild are going through a bit of a crisis. Owner Craig Leipold fired General Manager Paul Fenton after only fourteen months on the job, and the position is still vacant two weeks later. Need I remind you that the Wild have not won a Stanley Cup yet, so the Wild fanbase is coming to a greater consensus on the Parise-Suter gamble; most would take it again (how could you not?) but what does the franchise do now that it seemingly hasn’t paid off? It’s the type of question that haunts a fanbase.
But what if Ryan Suter never signed in Minnesota at all? Many people thought, after Nick Lidstrom’s retirement, Ryan Suter was sure to be the next big free-agency splash in Detroit. He wanted out of Shea Weber’s shadow in Nashville, and he’d had a close-up look at Detroit many times throughout his career, being in the same division and all. What if, just maybe, he actually did sign with Detroit? While the team wasn’t quite as glamorous as it had been in the past, Detroit was still the Big Red Machine. Maybe Ryan Suter signs, thinking he wants to win a cup, and who better to sign with than the most consistently good team over the last two decades?
To calculate this little thought experiment, I primarily relied upon Corsica’s WAR/82 value. This imperfect measurement tries to determine how many wins an individual player is worth over the course of an 82-game season. This way, we can make an educated guess as to how Ryan Suter’s play would have affected Detroit in the standings (it is also factored into the seasons for various players that Detroit could not sign, who are many.) So this is all in good fun, like the way you watch Nightmare on Elm Street because it’s “fun.”
The summer of 2012 is a tough off-season for Wings’ fans because of Nick Lidstrom’s retirement, but Red Wings’ nation rejoices when Ken Holland does it again and brings in one of the two free agency prizes, Ryan Suter, into the organization. Many fans and members of the media worry about the cap hit and contract length (7.58m cap hit through 2025,) but Ryan Suter gives the Red Wings a chance to keep winning while Zetterberg and Datsyuk are still on the team, so it’s got to be worth it. Right?
Suter is instantly on Detroit’s top pairing with Niklas Kronwall at the start of the lockout-shortened season. As a minor sidenote, Carlo Coliacovo is not signed, which hardly affects this divergent timeline because Coliacovo barely played for the Wings anyway, due to injuries. And since Suter has been such an ironman throughout his career, Detroit doesn’t have to make an emergency signing with Kent Huskins mid-season to have a functioning blue line. Sorry to all the Kent Huskins fans out there.
Maybe the Red Wings beat Chicago in the 2013 playoffs, but maybe not, because asking Suter to make up for every bad and blown call in Game 6 is asking a lot. But let’s just say they do, because it’s Chicago and I really haven’t felt as good about being a Wings’ fan since May 23rd, 2013, when the Wings were up 3-1 on the series. So the Wings eliminate Chicago in six, but they exit in seven in a drop-down-drag-out series to the Kings, who go on to lose to the Bruins. There is only ever so much magic in the bottle during a playoff run, and I think Detroit uses all of it to dispatch Chicago, but hey, Detroit makes it to a Conference Final again and life is good. We’re all vindicated for Holland signing Suter. (You may want to go back and re-read this very happy paragraph one more time before continuing, just for the feels. You’ve been warned.)
Fast forward to the 2013 Draft. The Wings are now picking 27th overall, so they can’t trade back with San Jose to take Anthony Mantha at 20th. Instead he’s taken by the Maple Leafs. Oh, and the other pick from that trade got Detroit Tyler Bertuzzi. Instead, all other things being equal, Detroit would have ended up with Marko Dano, a player who has shuttled between the AHL and NHL for the past for seasons.
2013-14 season, Suter likely gives Detroit at least one more win because his WAR value over 82 games is 1.32. This moves them ahead of Columbus in the standings. They get a first-round date with Pittsburgh, but I don’t think this makes much of a difference. Pittsburgh beat Columbus in six that year, and honestly, Detroit probably wouldn’t have fared any better. Also, the media coverage would be filled with 09 flashbacks, and then Detroit loses, and we all hate everything forever as this series lives on as a sort of tiebreaker for 08 and 09.
Oh, and here’s the worst part: how would Dylan Larkin look with a big ol’ cannon slapped across his chest? Because Detroit has traded spots with Columbus in the draft. We can never know for sure if Columbus would have taken Larkin, but note that Detroit didn’t trade back this year like they did for Mantha the previous year. Detroit would have ended up with Sonny Milano, although David Pastrnak was still on the board, so depending on Detroit’s depth chart Pastrnak could be wearing the Winged Wheel. But probably not. There’s still more misery to come.
If this world is too dark and scary for you, the 2014-2015 season might be the caveat. While Ryan Suter wouldn’t have made much a difference in the standings, this was Mike Babcock’s final year, and the year where a fluke injury to Luke Glendening lost the Wings a playoff series against the Lightning. But hey, maybe with Suter on the ice he can make up the difference against Tyler Johnson in game six and Detroit advances to the second round. But again, Suter isn’t the difference maker for this Wings team, and whether you want to believe Detroit would have made it past the Habs in round two or not depends on how you feel about drafting Evgeny Svechnikov. If you like him, they win and move down the draft board. If you aren’t sold on him anymore, they still lose to the Habs and draft him. Pick whichever sounds worse. This is the darkest timeline, after all.
I’d argue the Big Red Machine finally ended formally (even if it was de facto over for a few years now) in the 2015-16 season, even though they made the playoffs. Historically, Detroit finished with 93 points, worst in the East, to get a first-round matchup once again with Tampa Bay. The Lightning mercifully dispatched the Wings in five. The Flyers finished 3 points ahead of Detroit with the same number of wins. Think Suter garners Detroit 3 more points in the standings? His WAR value for that year suggests otherwise, garnering Detroit only two more points, but just for the sake of the thought experiment, he helps push Detroit from a loss to an OTL at some point in the season. This gives Detroit a date with Washington, who manhandled Philadelphia despite only winning the series 4-2.
But a 96 point finish would move Detroit up two spots in the standings (ahead of Nashville in addition to Philadelphia.) Pavel Datsyuk may still stick around with Suter on the team because they become best buds or something, but I kind of doubt he sticks it out in Detroit for another season or two. Datsyuk wore his love for his family on his sleeve. And on top of that, Suter has been rumored to be causing divides in Minnesota’s locker room for years. So let’s assume that Pavel Datsyuk goes back to Russia, because otherwise this timeline would be a little happier, and nothing can be happy in the Ryan-Suter-in-Red universe.
So remember how Philadelphia and Nashville both finish behind Detroit in the standings now, because of Ryan Suter? Well, this is the off-season where Holland managed to get back into many folks’ good graces by trading Datsyuk’s contract for the Stamkos sweepstakes. He was able to do this only because Chychyrun was available. But Nashville and Winnipeg (who held the Flyer’s pick) both hold picks in front of Detroit, and they both took defensemen, meaning they likely would have taken Chychyrun, had they been given the opportunity. Because if one of those two teams take him, there’s no deal with Arizona, meaning Detroit doesn’t end up with an extra second-round pick, so Detroit doesn’t end up with Hronek and they’re stuck with Datsyuk’s contract. They likely still take Cholowski with the 18th overall pick, since it was considered a bit of a reach at the time. Hronek slides a few slots back in the draft to none other than the Toronto Maple Leafs.
And then we get to free agency, which is a total mess. The Wings ended up with about 7.25m in cap space when the dust settled on the off-season, but that includes shipping out Datsyuk’s contract, extending Abdelkader and Helm, and adding Frans Nielsen. In this universe, with Datyuk’s contract still on the books in addition to Suter’s cap hit, Detroit would be going about 7.75m over the cap. So how would Detroit have gotten out of this bind? First, they couldn’t have signed Nielsen. Second, they would have to let one of Abdelkader or Helm walk. Which one, you ask? Oh come on, you know it’s Helm. There’s no way Abdelkader goes while Helm stays. Oh, and Riley Sheahan is your second line center.
Oh, and Babcock still leaves to go coach the Maple Leafs, because Detroit’s prospect cupboard is incredibly bare.
Ryan Suter’s WAR/82 value was 2.28 this year, netting the Wings about 4 more points and two positions in the standings, but still missing the playoffs. And honestly, not much else changes, because Michael Rasmussen was considered a bit of a reach for Detroit at 9th overall, and he probably would have still been there at 11th overall. Detroit also signs Nick Bonino, Martin Hanzal, or Sam Gagner to be the 2C because the Riley Sheahan experiment fails.
Ryan Suter nets Detroit 4 more points in the standings, and Detroit moves up one spot, takes Evan Bouchard as they had planned because Filip Zadina is now a Vancouver Canuck. Not much else to say here, as it’s still a miserable season and Wings fans start to lament that the Ryan Suter gamble has not paid off and probably won’t, but their team is saddled with his contract for another seven years.
Ryan Suter’s WAR/82 regressed hard last season, earning the Wild only 0.2 wins. Detroit still takes Moritz Seider in the draft, unless they take Dylan Cozens or Trevor Zegras because of the desperate need for a center at this point, because who the hell is centering this team by now? Nick Bonino, Andreas Athanasiou, Sonny Milano, and Marko Dano? It seems the most likely scenario is Detroit manages to pick up another Wild player, Eric Staal in free agency or through a trade at some point.
So after all the misery, all the tears that Suter would have led to in Detroit, the Red Wings end up exactly where they are now, except without Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Filip Hronek, Filip Zadina, and maybe Tyler Bertuzzi. The most exciting prospects are Dennis Cholowski, Joe, Veleno, Michael Rasmussen, and Evan Bouchard, all fine young players, but the four of them are simply not enough to turn the franchise around. Meanwhile, Dylan Larkin is in Columbus and Mike Babcock in Toronto is coaching Anthony Mantha, Filip Hronek, and let’s be honest, somehow he’s got Tyler Bertuzzi, too. Toronto also wins the cup this year with those guys as one final bird to every Detroit fan reading this post.
Ken Holland is asked to take a walk upstairs while GM duties are given over to Steve Yzerman, who is tasked with the unthinkable in Detroit: actually blowing up the team. It’s clear that the Ryan Suter experiment was a last gasp to preserve Detroit’s mediocrity in the NHL. That Western Conference Finals appearance against the Kings feels like a lifetime ago, and Winging it in Motown, instead of Hockey Wilderness, is covered in debates about free agency gambles. However, the signing is given less slack than in our reality because Ryan Suter and Zach Parise never paired together to make the Wild a relevant free agency destination; instead, Suter was the last gasp of an ending era in Detroit.
Have a great day, everybody!