Editor’s note: Contract projections have been changed to better match Evolving Hockey’s
Steve Yzerman is walking the tightrope.
At the other side of his perilous journey sits a coveted treasure — a true Stanley Cup-contending team. In order to get there, he needs to plan his steps carefully. Go too fast, and the team runs the risk of being good, but not great. Take it too slow, and the team may waste the potential of some of its best players.
Indeed, the Detroit Red Wings have officially entered the most difficult phase of the rebuild.
Drafting, developing, and building a team is the foundation. But the part that separates a good team from a great — the timeline — is perhaps the most significant of all. Teams that try to accelerate the rebuild too fast wind up in a state of perpetual mediocrity. Consequently, the teams that play it too conservatively can often waste the prime of their most productive players.
Right now, the Red Wings are 11th in NHL standings. With a 13-9-3 record, they sit squarely in the first wild card position in the Eastern Conference. If the playoffs began today, Detroit would face off against Anthony Mantha and the Washington Capitals. According to Prashanth Iyer, this is the first time the Red Wings have been four games above a .500 winning percentage since 2015-16.
These results are encouraging, to be sure, but are they a sign of a hot start, or the beginning of something much bigger? In order to gauge the “readiness” of the rebuild, what should Yzerman do in order to maintain his balance on the tightrope?
Over the coming days, I’ll be laying out three scenarios based on the results of the season: the Red Wings making the playoffs, narrowly missing the playoffs, and ending the season near the bottom of the standings again. I’ll lay out my thoughts on an aggressive offseason approach, a conservative approach, and somewhere in-between. Stay tuned for a week full of words, content, and plenty of fun!
Scenario 1: The Red Wings make the playoffs and go all-in
In this hypothetical season, Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider continue their incredible seasons, helping to vault the team toward playoff contention. Career years from Dylan Larkin, Robby Fabbri, and Vladislav Namestnikov give the team the depth they need to clinch a wild card berth. In the first round, the team pushes the Capitals to Game 6, but, unfortunately, a late goal due to a Michael Rasmussen penalty sinks the team’s playoff hopes.
Tonight is the fifth straight game that Michael Rasmussen has taken a penalty— Winging It In Motown (@wingingitmotown) December 5, 2021
Rather than let it get their hopes down, the team vows to return next season with a refined sense of purpose. They meet with Yzerman, who agrees that the time to make big moves is now. Thus, the Red Wings head into the offseason with one goal in mind: building a contender as quickly as possible.
The Red Wings have 11 players to sign in the offseason. Without signing a single player, the team will have $41,566,686 in cap space* to dedicate to those 11 players and their corresponding free agents. If the team wants to take the step into win-now mode, they’ll need to part ways with a significant chunk of the current roster. Like Bobby Ryan, there’s a key difference between being effective on the ice and being a good locker room guy. With that said, let’s just cut to the chase:
Who goes: Danny DeKeyser, Troy Stecher, Carter Rowney, Sam Gagner, Thomas Greiss, Marc Staal, Vladislav Namestnikov
Who Stays: Filip Zadina, Nick Leddy, Mitchell Stephens, Robby Fabbri
These moves keep productive players in and ship out roster room where it can be made. While it may hurt to see Namestnikov go, barring an underpayment, it doesn’t seem like he’ll have opportunity with this roster. The forward is having an outstanding year and may look for some stability with a higher pay grade in for his future. With only four names left, Yzerman will tender contracts around this salary range to the players that remain:
- Zadina: 2 years, $2.5M/year
- Fabbri: 2 years, $4M/year
- Leddy: 4 years, $5M/year
- Stephens: 2 years, $1M/year
$15M spent between four forwards puts Detroit’s cap space at $29,066,686M. In order to fill the spots left by departing players, they’ll need a forward, a defenseman, and a backup goalie.
Here’s where the fun part comes in.
2021-22 offseason moves: Time to make a big splash
The 2021-22 upcoming free agent class is chock full of big names. From Evgeni Malkin to P.K. Subban, there’s plenty of star power packed up and down the list. While it’s highly unlikely Detroit locks down, say, a Patrice Bergeron, this scenario sees them fighting with all their might to secure the best talent they can in order to succeed.
Securing a second-line center
Dylan Larkin is showing everyone he is more than capable of shouldering a first-line role role in Detroit. Many have compared this season to the breakout season Ryan O’Reilly had following his trade from the Buffalo Sabres. For those unfamiliar, O’Reilly is the Selke-winning, Conn Smythe-sporting two-way first-line center of the St. Louis Blues. Where many fans look to Connor McDavid-style players as first-line centers, O’Reilly’s defensive play and ability to bolster his linemates makes him a perennial Selke candidate and just the type of player Larkin can become under the right circumstances.
Behind Larkin, however, the center depth falls short. Pius Suter is solid in his own right, but doesn’t have the difference-making skills required of a second-line NHL center. The reason O’Reilly is able to succeed at his level is because of the one-two punch of him and second line center Brayden Schenn. Like O’Reilly, Schenn is a two-way player capable of uplifting his linemates. If the Red Wings can secure a Schenn-type player, they’ll be in luck.
The upcoming UFA market is replete with centers. While a more conservative approach might stick with Suter, the vast amount of centers in this free agent class is almost too good to pass up on. In this hypothetical scenario, if the Red Wings want to contend sooner than later, they’ll need all the help they can get. They’ll look to names like Nazem Kadri, Rickard Rakell, and Tomas Hertl to score their highly-coveted man down the middle. Even players like Ryan Strome of the New York Rangers make for intriguing candidates. While each of these four players brings their own set of strengths, Hertl fits the exact requirements needed for a one-two two-way punch behind Larkin.
Last season, Hertl was one of the biggest drivers of offensive and defensive play in the NHL. For the fans of numbers, here’s his advanced stats card, courtesy of Evolving Hockey:
To put it in layman’s terms, the San Jose Sharks were measurably better on both ends of the ice whenever Hertl played. Hertl would make an immediate impact on Detroit’s top-six and, as such, will command a higher salary. Looking at similar contract projections for Hertl puts him close to $7.5M/year. The competitive market for a player as prolific as Hertl may bring with it an overpayment. Given the inevitable contracts for Seider, Raymond, and Edvinsson, the highest Yzerman should go for Hertl would be $8M/year with a slightly shorter contract term. In this scenario, Hertl signs a five-year, $8M/year contract with the Red Wings, locking down a spot on the team’s second line for years to come.
Hertl gives the team a sizable amount of roster depth. Using CapFriendly’s Armchair GM tool, I mocked up what the roster may look like with Hertl on it:
The top-six alone is lethal, but it only gets deeper as the roster goes on. Jonatan Berggren could hypothetically break his way onto the roster following an injury; in fact, it seems almost inevitable, given the sheer level of his talent.
Finding a top-four defenseman
The Red Wings’ defensive core looks ready to make a big impact. Seider has already come into his own and Edvinsson looks ready to inevitably do the same. Additionally, Filip Hronek and Nick Leddy both make for intriguing options on the team’s top-four. But what if the Red Wings could further bolster their blueline with an All-Star UFA defenseman to put the team’s backend over the top?
Enter John Klingberg. The Dallas Stars have fashioned Klingberg into one of the most prolific offensive defensive weapons of this generation of hockey. Klingberg has had a rough last few seasons, turning out some pretty underwhelming defensive numbers. The Swedish defenseman has scored 334 points in 494 career games. As such, he’ll look for a much higher raise than his current $4.25M/year contract.
With Detroit’s flexibility at the salary cap, and a player like Seider who can cover for Klingberg’s lapses, they could safely afford an seven-year, $7.5M/year deal, securing an incredibly talented top-four defenseman at a solid price.
With Klingberg on the roster, Detroit’s defensive corps will look something like this:
Getting the right goaltender
Last, but absolutely not least, is the backup goaltender. This is one of the most important pieces of the contending puzzle. On one hand, the backup should be strong enough to challenge a starter’s role, but flexible enough to make way if Sebastian Cossa becomes ready at a quicker rate. With Greiss off to free agency, Alex Nedeljkovic takes the reins as the de facto starter.
It’s a buyer’s market for backup goaltenders. Names like Jack Campbell, Braden Holtby, Alexander Georgiev, and Marc-Andre Fleury will all be up for grabs when the free agent clock starts. Campbell and Georgiev will likely re-sign with their old teams, albeit for different reasons. Fleury, despite his recent Vezina trophy, has looked lost on an absolutely destitute Chicago roster. If the team wants to go all-in and wants to do it right away, there isn’t a better candidate for a backup role than Holtby.
If you’re thinking to yourself “Holtby? The guy who was bought out by the Vancouver Canucks? You sure?”, I offer you this:
BRADEN HOLTBY WITH THE TRIPLE SAVE— The Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) December 1, 2021
The former Stanley Cup-winning backstop has had an outstanding start to his season, compiling a .927 save percentage for the Dallas Stars. He’s effectively pushed both Jake Oettinger and Anton Khudobin from the starter’s role, keeping the Stars alive in a highly competitive Central division. As the backup for Nedeljkovic, he can provide the stability the Red Wings have needed in the backup role for years.
Holtby gives the team a one-two punch, and at a team-friendly $2.5M/year, the team can rest easy with reliability in mind.
Another alternative: the offer sheet
If you’re as sneaky as I am, you’ll recall a secret weapon that the Red Wings haven’t ever used in the history of the organization: the offer sheet. This double-edged sword, depending on its use, can put a team over the top or completely ruin their future at drafting. Due to its controversial nature, general managers rarely use it. If the Red Wings can’t find what they’re looking for in UFA, why not use what they have to make a play at other teams’ assets?
The upcoming RFA list is full of intriguing options. Sure, bigger names like Matthew Tkachuk might catch a few eyes here and there. But it’s the depth that shines in the RFA market. Names like Ethan Bear and Kevin Fiala would immediately slot into important roles with the Red Wings. A case could even be made for Kirby Dach, who has the potential to take over as the Chicago Blackhawks’ first-line center once Jonathan Toews retires or fades into obscurity.
Martin Necas, a player the Red Wings looked at briefly in the 2017 NHL Draft, has begun to really make an impact for the Carolina Hurricanes. The center, who is on the verge of his first big breakout, has 13 points in 21 games this season. He’s one of 11 players the Hurricanes will need to sign this upcoming season. Given their lack of room with the salary cap, it might be prudent for the Red Wings to poach Necas with an offer he just can’t refuse. If the Hertl Sweepstakes go south, Necas is the next best thing — and with age and salary term in mind, he might just be what the Red Wings are looking for.
Flexibility for the future
Spending $17.5M on free agents leaves the Red Wings with $11,566,686M left for the salary cap, which is almost certain to increase next season, giving them further flexibility. They can use this salary to keep Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Alex Nedeljkovic on the payroll without breaking the bank for Seider and Raymond. In addition, more depth money will continue to pour in as Richard Panik’s dead salary comes off the books and Justin Abdelkader’s buyout fades into oblivion.
There’s a lot to like about this roster — and plenty more to love when you consider the current state of the prospect pool. If the Red Wings choose to keep their prospects, they’ll have players like Jonatan Berggren, Albert Johansson, Sebastian Cossa, and more just waiting for their shot in the NHL.
Pitfalls, downsides, and worries
There’s a lot to be excited about with this hypothetical; unfortunately, it also brings with it a fair share of anxieties and “what if” worries. Here are just a few to think about when considering this approach:
- What happens if a top-line player like Tyler Bertuzzi decides to leave?
- Could the all-in approach be jumping the gun and missing out on top-tier draft talent?
- What happens if the playoff appearance was a fluke and the team isn’t actually at the level it’s playing at right now?
These worries and more could deter would-be Stanley Cups from making their way to the trophy case. Still, the team as it stands is more competitive now than it has been at any point in Dylan Larkin’s career. This season can be seen as the blueprint of what the future may hold. How the team and Yzerman react based on that will chart the course of the team’s fate for years to come.
Stay tuned for Part 2, a much more conservative approach to the coming seasons.
*This number includes the $3.75M that returns to the books after the first year of Frans Nielsen’s buyout.