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‘You might not like them’: Red Wings free agency candidates

Don’t expect any big splashes this offseason.

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Rangers - Game Seven Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

During his end-of-the-season press conference, Steve Yzerman was asked if he planned on approaching free agency with an all-in mindset. These were his thoughts:

“You have to remain disciplined and wait for the right opportunities...you might get five [free agents]. You might not like any of them, but you’ve got five.”

Obviously, his quote isn’t a direct indication of anything. Within the context of the question, Yzerman mentions that depending on free agency to improve a team is a gamble. Putting all your proverbial chips on a big-ticket free agent runs the risk of the player seeking a higher-paying or longer-term gig somewhere else. Additionally, there’s just no telling whether or not that deal will age well.

By all accounts, Yzerman and the Red Wings plan to stay the course this offseason. No, there likely won’t be any big deals for John Klingberg or Tomas Hertl. If anything, you’ll see more of the Jordan Oesterle and Pius Suter-type deals — younger players in need of a fresh start or veterans looking for team-friendly deals. You might even see another deal for Marc Staal. Who knows? As far as free agency goes, these fresh faces are more than likely on Yzerman’s radar.

Candidate #1: Will Butcher - D

Will Butcher — no, not the British guy from The Boys — fits the Yzerman free agent candidate to a T. He’s younger, coming off a very disappointing season, and in need of yet another fresh start. Butcher’s prepared to hit free agency for the first time in his career. The once highly-touted defenseman for the New Jersey Devils is a far cry from what he was projected to be, but, every once in a while, you get a glimpse of that promising 2017-18 season.

“But wait”, you might say. “Disappointing season? Why do the Wings need a guy like this?” Think of Butcher as a Diet Filip Hronek. Throughout his career, he’s been asked to punch well above his weight. This season, the Sabres threw Butcher headfirst into the fire, pairing him with Rasmus Dahlin on the team’s top pairing. This would prove to be a less than fruitful strategy. In an injury-shortened 37-game season, Butcher strung together just eight points. On the Red Wings, Butcher could slot in on the bottom pairing with Gustav Lindstrom — or, if Oesterle outplays him, as the team’s subbed-in 7D. This is as low-risk as signings get.

Other notable names: Calvin de Haan, Olli Maatta, Connor Murphy

Candidate #2: Victor Rask - C

If the Red Wings decide to part with Sam Gagner, they’ll need another fourth-line center to take over. Enter Victor Rask, owner of one of the most hilarious goal celebrations I’ve ever seen. Rask was involved in one of the worst hindsight trades in recent memory, going to the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Nino Niederriter. Since the deal, Niederriter has produced 137 points in 234 games for the Carolina Hurricanes. Rask, on the other hand, pulled together just 52 points in 149 games for the Wild before his trade to the Seattle Kraken this season. The deal was a classic example of the grass being greener on the other side.

But that deal’s in the past, and Rask is a free agent now. He struggled mightily on a stacked Wild roster before carving out a role for himself with Seattle. What could he add to the table for Detroit? Two words: defensive responsibility.

Victor Rask’s advanced stats chart courtesy of Evolving Hockey
Table & Data courtesy of Evolving Hockey

Rask is one of the better defensive forwards in the league. While he won’t make much of an impact on the offensive end, he can back up his skillset with smart, sound defensive play — something the Wings have craved since the departure of their more defensive-minded forwards. He’d make a great depth add on a cheap deal.

Other notable names: Cody Eakin, Zach Aston-Reese, Calle Jarnkrok

Candidate #3: Max Domi - C

Sure, Max Domi didn’t really work out for Arizona, Montreal, Columbus, or Carolina. But he could work out for the Red Wings. Why? Because the pressure’s off. Nobody’s expecting him to put up 55+ points anymore. He has the potential to reach those numbers, but the expectations are no longer there. Domi is, by all accounts, another low-risk, possible reward player. After all, he’s just a few seasons removed from a 72-point campaign with Montreal. Who’s to say he can’t pull something together for the Wings?

Domi came up huge for the Hurricanes this playoff series. In Game 7 against the Boston Bruins, Domi factored in on all three goals for their series-clinching 3-2 win. That kind of clutch play is what teams are looking for in the playoffs. Given his history with inconsistency and struggle with discipline, Domi won’t likely cash in on a very large deal this offseason. Having said that, he could serve as excellent trade bait down the line while playing alongside a rebuilding team like the Red Wings. Plus, he’s still a competent 35-45-point guy when placed in the right situations. The potential is certainly there.

Other notable names: Noel Acciari, Mattias Janmark, Derek Stepan

Candidate #4: Rickard Rakell - RW

“Alright, enough with the small fry,” you say. “Give me something bigger to work with!” There’s just one problem: who among the “big fish” are going to sign with a rebuilding roster? Are you really expecting a big deal for Vincent Trocheck, or any of the aging vets looking for one last run at the Stanley Cup? What about the younger players who still have something to prove? The team needs to look at players who still have something to prove. Rickard Rakell is one of those guys.

Rakell’s played for just two teams his entire career: the Anaheim Ducks and Pittsburgh Penguins. He’s experienced all the ups and downs of an NHL career with the Ducks, hitting a nice career high of 69 points in 2017-18. Since then, he’s fallen off a bit, keeping up a 35-45-point pace between rosters. With the Penguins looking to re-sign Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and a handful of other free agents, Rakell seems to be the odd man out.

With the Red Wings, he gets a fresh start on an underdog team looking to make a name for themselves. Robby Fabbri’s injury has opened up a spot on the team’s second-line. Playing alongside guys like Jakub Vrana should help him juice up his point totals. This could be a great resurgence for Rakell — and a potential deadline deal for the Wings.

Other notable names: Vladislav Namestnikov, Ilya Mikheyev, Ryan Dzingel

Candidate #5: Casey DeSmith - G

Speaking of the Penguins, Casey DeSmith looks poised to enter free agency, as well. When starting goaltender Tristian Jarry went down with an injury, DeSmith did an adequate job filling in, posting a .914 save percentage across the season. His 11-6-5 record was far from mediocre, placing him in the upper tier of backup goaltenders in the league. He made just $1.25M this last season and will likely look for a raise. The Red Wings need to hit the salary cap floor. This could be a big payday for the backup — and a great deal for the Wings.

He’s the exact type of backup goaltender an NHL squad needs. If Alex Nedeljkovic gets cold, or suffers an injury, DeSmith can serve as a de facto starter in the interim. He comes with plenty of experience and would make for a great fill-in while prospect Sebastian Cossa continues to develop. At worst, he’s a temporary solution. At best, he could even net a return during the trade deadline if a contender’s backup goes down with an injury.

Other notable names: Alexander Georgiev, Braden Holtby, Martin Jones