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3 routes the Red Wings can take after this season: Part 3 - The best of both worlds

Can a solution lie between going all-in and playing it safe?

Nashville Predators v Detroit Red Wings Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images

Note: If you haven’t read them yet, I highly recommend reading Part 1 and Part 2 of this series for a look at an aggressive approach to the rebuild and a more conservative look.

Life is one big balancing act.

As humans, we’re tasked with balancing our finances, health, social lives, happiness, and sense of purpose on a daily basis. As hockey fans, it’s about balancing expectations, patience, and just the right amount of luck.

General manager Steve Yzerman’s balancing act involves trailblazing the Detroit Red Wings’ rebuild. Every answer he provides brings with it a handful of follow-up questions. It’s a difficult, stressful job that involves talent, patience, and timing — three things that Yzerman has in spades.

So far, Detroit’s rebuild has been a slow, steady process, playing it safe and accumulating a multitude of picks. Before the start of the season, many media pundits noted that not a single player he’d drafted had played an NHL game until that point. The rise of Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider has, obviously, assuaged those worries, but their surprising success brings the current state of the rebuild into question.

What happens if the Red Wings continue to punch above their weight — and, more specifically, how should the front office respond in the future?

Scenario 3: The Red Wings miss the playoffs and strike a competitive balance

Scenario 1 and 2 took very different approaches, each portraying two opposing scenarios: an aggressive, all-in strategy, and a conservative, play-it-safe strategy. This hypothetical meets somewhere in the middle. In this potential universe, the Red Wings remain competitive for the remainder of the season, winning a few surprising games against tough teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers. Unfortunately, the slew of one-game losses, coupled with a midseason surge from the Boston Bruins, pushes Detroit just slightly out of the playoff picture.

During the trade deadline, they trade the following players:

Like Scenario 2, these trades give the team 11 picks to work with in the draft. This scenario, however, grants the Red Wings Evgenii Dadonov, a Russian veteran who scored 70 points just a few seasons ago. Dadonov’s contract runs through 2022-23, giving the Red Wings another trade deadline piece they could flip next season.

Losing a top-six winger, offensive defenseman, and a solid depth scorer hurts the Red Wings’ offense. Even with the late-season call-up of Jonatan Berggren, the team isn’t able to muster enough offense to punch their playoff ticket. They end the season in 24th place, but, thanks to some lottery luck, win the second overall pick. Nice!

Fabbri, Namestnikov, and Leddy heading to free agency means the team has just eight contracts to consider on their to-do list. Here’s how I think these deals will shake out:

Who goes: Danny DeKeyser, Carter Rowney, Thomas Greiss, Sam Gagner, Marc Staal, Troy Stecher

Who stays: Filip Zadina, Mitchell Stephens

The last few seasons have been all about shedding salary and clearing house. Darren Helm and Luke Glendening were the last to go. This time around, it’s Danny DeKeyser and Sam Gagner who are on the outs. Despite a strong outing from Marc Staal, the veteran defenseman suffers a late-season injury and decides to retire. The team tries to make efforts to sign Troy Stecher as its seventh defenseman, but he opts to head to free agency.

With that said, the remaining RFAs sign the following contracts:

  • Zadina: 2 years, $2M/year
  • Stephens: 2 years, $850K/year

Stephens takes on Gagner’s old deal and Zadina gets a bump in pay for his performance. If Edvinsson makes the jump to the big leagues, the team will need to find another top-four defenseman to complement him and a seventh defenseman/contingency plan if he isn’t ready. They’ll also need a middle-six center; even if Detroit drafts someone like Brad Lambert or Matthew Savoie, there’s no guarantee they’ll be ready for NHL action right away. Greiss riding off into the sunset also opens the spot for a backup goaltender spot.

If they want to maintain their competitive edge, the Red Wings will make moves simliar to these:

2021-22 offsesaon moves: A balancing act

2020-21’s Alex Nedeljkovic trade brought a hefty helping of chaos to the offseason. This offseason’s additions will come with their own shares of chaos, albeit under slightly differing circumstances. While the team won’t make any big splashes for, say, Filip Forsberg, they won’t slouch the offseason, either. Detroit’s upstart style of play in 2021-22 warrants reward, giving them one of the deepest rosters they’ve had in years.

Searching for centers

Pius Suter has done a decent job as the Red Wings’ second-line center. With 12 points in 25 games, Suter has the sixth-highest point total in Detroit this season. His defensive efforts, including a particularly awful outing against the Nashville Predators, have revealed some cracks in the foundation of his game. Thus, the Red Wings’ solution for a second-line center should be found in free agency.

Even if Brad Lambert has the chance to become a top-line center, putting that burden on the rookie during a year when the team is pushing for the playoffs is an unrealistic expectation. Seider and Raymond’s ability to transition into their respective roles were the exception, not the norm. Having said that, the Red Wings should, in the words of Ken Holland, “kick the tires” on Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Ryan Strome, and Vincent Trocheck.

Kotkaniemi was one of the most-searched names on EliteProspects this summer due to the offer sheet frenzy between the Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes. Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, it appears there was more smoke than there was fire. Since the one-year, $6.1M signing, he’s scored just a point shy of fellow rookie Filip Zadina, pulling together just eight points in 24 games.

At the end of this season, he’ll be an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent. That means the Carolina Hurricanes will have to sign him at a minimum of $6.1M for another contract. Given the Hurricanes’ incommodious cap situation, it’s highly unlikely they’ll be able to afford retaining him at $6.1M — especially with his current point production. The thing is, Kotkaniemi isn’t a bad player — the Hurricanes are just deploying him in a mostly defensive role.

Table & data courtesy of Left Wing Lock
Table & Data courtesy of Left Wing Lock

Nearly all of Kotkaniemi’s starts are in the defensive zone. While he’s faced lower quality of competition relative to his teammates, his linemates have not necessarily been offensive dynamos. On his left and right wing are Jordan Martinook (career high of 25 points) and Steven Lorentz (11 points in 67 career games). To say Kotkaniemi’s offense has been stymied is putting it lightly. The Finnish forward will be just 22 years old when he reaches free agency. He’s still got plenty of time to grow into his potential and might just turn things around.

Having said that, can Kotkaniemi find a hypothetical fit with a hybrid approach? Sure, he’s young and has a chance to bounce back. But he has yet to reach the career high 34 points he obtained in his rookie season. On a discount deal, Kotkaniemi would be a steal — but his lack of real, tangible production doesn’t make sense for this scenario.

Ryan Strome is having the best season of his NHL career so far. In 20 games with the New York Rangers, he has five goals and 18 points. Strome is the second-line center for the Rangers; on his wings are Dryden Hunt and Artemi Panarin, who is currently fifth in NHL scoring. While Panarin’s production is playing a huge part in Strome’s season, he’s no slouch in his own end. His advanced stats are nothing short of immaculate.

Ryan Strome’s advanced stats
Table & Data courtesy of Evolving Hockey

Simply put, the Red Wings would be monumentally better with Strome on the ice. There’s only one problem: he’s in a very good situation right now. The Rangers are one of the best teams in the NHL. Strome’s current $4.5M/year value is going to increase this offseason, and the Rangers will almost certainly match it. Unless the Red Wings are looking to pony up and pay north of $7M per year, they should steer clear of Strome.

Vying for Vincent

I briefly touched on Trocheck in the second scenario — but I’ll do my best to elaborate a little more here. Trocheck’s had a tumultuous NHL career. He stepped up big during the Panthers’ 2017-18 season, dropping 75 points in 82 games. Since then, he’s been a solid contributor, scoring at nearly a point-per-game pace last season. With 17 points in 24 games, Trocheck is looking to cash in big this offseason — and the Red Wings might be the perfect suitors.

The Hurricanes, as mentioned above, need to offer contract extensions to 12 players, many of whom will earn significant raises. They’ll need to juggle their cap space to pay out Martin Necas, Ethan Bear, Nino Niederreiter, and nearly their entire defensive core. Trocheck might just be one of those casualties, and with the proper deal, the Red Wings can poach the center.

The Red Wings have been searching for a second-line center since Pavel Datsyuk returned to Russia. While Trocheck is no Datsyuk, he’s got the tools needed to elevate the efforts of his linemates. His work this season has helped to propel the breakout of Martin Necas, giving the forward enough space to learn the ins and outs of his skillset. Trocheck would be a match made in heaven for Filip Zadina, a forward that never seems to have luck on his side. With Trocheck’s passing prowess, Zadina could finally blossom into the offensive dynamo he was billed as in his draft year.

As far as contracts go, Trocheck won’t come cheap. Still, his skill and consistency shows he’s worth the price tag. A three-year, $6M/year contract would be just the thing needed to lock down Trocheck. Getting Trocheck to center Zadina and Jakub Vrana creates a dynamic top-six. Dadonov, Suter, and newcomer Jonatan Berggren on the third line adds depth scoring, followed by a checking line of Stephens, Michael Rasmussen, and Adam Erne. Here’s how it would look on paper:

The third scenario for forwards, as described above

Defensive doldrums

The options at defense aren’t nearly as exciting as the offense, but there’s still a lot to like. Two of the Anaheim Ducks’ top-four defensemen are on the market, as well as a handful of long-term, playoff-heavy veterans. The Red Wings need two defensemen in this scenario — a top-four, puck-moving player, and bottom-pairing defender that can serve as a proxy if Edvinsson isn’t ready yet.

The top-four defenseman in question will need to immediately make an impact on the roster. If the team is looking to push for the playoffs, they can’t afford to play it too safe with more Patrik Nemeth-esque deals. This should be a short-term deal that affords Detroit just enough flexibility to work within signing Raymond and Seider in two years. There are three names worth investigating for this role: Brayden McNabb, Travis Dermott, and Hampus Lindholm.

McNabb is one of the most quietly underrated defensemen in the NHL. With teammates like Alex Pietrangelo, Alec Martinez, and Shea Theodore, it can be easy to forget about the towering defenseman. Woe to the player that overlooks him — McNabb’s colossal hits and hard shot make him a massive threat on the ice. Here’s a great example of McNabb’s trademark hit:

Look familiar to you?

I thought so too.

Hits aren’t the only thing McNabb delivers. He also leads the Golden Knights in blocked shots and does the dirty defensive work on a tidy $2.5M/year salary. With 65 playoff games under his belt, McNabb’s leadership and veteran experience would quickly make him a locker room favorite. Having said that, McNabb isn’t much of a scorer; in fact, his career high of 24 points came nearly eight seasons ago. While he’s still a great defenseman at 30 years of age, he’s not a top-four defenseman — however, he might still have a home in Detroit. We’ll get back to that later.

For now, let’s look at Travis Dermott. Dermott has spent his entire career with the Toronto Maple Leafs and appears to be on the outside looking in with their defensive core. Their top-four of TJ Brodie, Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, and Rasmus Sandin are all but locked in. The emergence of Timothy Liljegren and Justin Holl has all but pushed Dermott out of the picture. On paper, this might send off alarms for anyone unfamiliar with the situation.

In practice, however, the picture becomes more clear. Dermott is 24; in his four seasons in the NHL, he’s struggled to make a consistent impact on the lineup. Dermott has often been paired with offense-minded defensemen like Morgan Rielly. While Dermott is more of a defense-first player, many of his past linemates have been complete liabilities in the backend, causing his analytics and performance to suffer as a result.

Still, at 24, is this the best Travis Dermott can get? It’s likely he still has another gear to his game, but finding it with the rising Red Wings might not be the solution. In addition, Dermott is still under contract at $1.5M through 2022-23. The Maple Leafs might not want to part with an affordable depth defenseman on a good deal without a big of an overpayment. That, coupled with Dermott’s lack of legitimate impact, sparks enough red flags to steer clear of the conversation.

Looking at Lindholm

The last name on the list, Hampus Lindholm, might be just what the Red Wings need to spark their offense. The Swedish defenseman (!) will be 28 when free agency starts (!!) and has a bevy of experience mentoring younger defenders (!!!). His puck-movement, vision, and sneaky offensive contributions would make him an immediate asset on any team. In addition, the defenseman has 55 playoff games under his belt — a huge achievement for a player as young as him.

This signing is a no-brainer for so many reasons. His age, contract flexibility, and skillset will make him one of the most coveted defenders during the offseason. It might require a bit of an overpay — especially on a shorter-term deal — but it’s something Detroit should absolutely consider. If Simon Edvinsson is the Moritz Seider of 2021-22, Hampus Lindholm is the Nick Leddy, but younger and far more talented. Lindholm currently makes $5,205,556 a year. If the Red Wings hope to lock down the stalwart defender, they should make a push for a three-year, $6M/year contract.

Building out the bottom pair

The bottom-pairing defenseman will need to bring a dimension to the team that they don’t currently have. He needs to be capable of playing up the lineup in emergencies while still maintaining a certain level of consistency. Remember Brayden McNabb from earlier? He’s the perfect candidate for this scenario. A bit of incentive may entice McNabb into a one-year, $3.75M contract with the Red Wings.

Here’s how the pairings would turn out:

Defensive pairings mentioned above

Getting that goaltender

Finding a good backup in a competitive market can be a struggle. While re-signing Thomas Greiss would be the safest bet, if the Red Wings hope to push for the playoffs, a 36-year-old netminder might not be the answer. With that said, a younger backup should be considered. They should have enough potential to steal a game or two while remaining flexible enough to slowly move to free agency when Sebastian Cossa becomes ready.

Enter Ville Husso. The St. Louis Blues’ backup has had a solid season so far with a 2.46 GAA and a .927 save percentage. Last season was his first stop as an NHL backup, and, while it was a rocky start, he was able to return to form near the end of the season. This time around, he’s compiled a much higher save percentage and appears to be rounding into a confident backup. With a tandem of Alex Nedeljkovic and Ville Husso, the Red Wings should have just enough backstopping power to propel them toward the playoffs.

Husso’s performance this season will earn him a two-year, $1M/year contract.

Plenty of gas left in the tank

The resulting moves should leave the Red Wings with close to $12M in cap space. The remaining funds can net them playoff rentals and give them just enough wiggle room to comfortably re-sign Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, and a bevy of other players. In addition, Dadonov’s contract and McNabb’s deal come off the books at the end of 2022-23. The resulting $8.75M can be used to make a giant splash in the offseason on a player like, say, David Pastrnak.

Pitfalls, downsides and worries

Like I mentioned at the start, getting the best of both worlds is a balancing act. Veer too close to one direction and you risk toppling it all. Here are a few possibilities to consider.

  • What happens if free agents like Trocheck don’t pan out and regress hard?
  • What if Alex Nedeljkovic elects to pursue free agency instead of re-signing at the end of 2022-23 and Sebastian Cossa still isn’t ready?
  • Assuming everything goes according to plan, how will Yzerman account for the cap space needed to extend Seider and Raymond while keeping the team competitive?

There is no set formula to success. Forging your own destiny is the only way to ensure you’ve done things on your term. For Steve Yzerman and the Red Wings, a hybrid approach might just be what they need to start something big.

Thank you for following this fun-filled series. I hope you enjoyed it half as much as I enjoyed writing it.