Rebuilding the Red Wings - My Approach To The 2019 Offseason
In 2017, I attempted to sketch out a three-part, 18-month plan detailing how I would rebuild the Red Wings, culminating in the Wings being players in the 2019 free agency market. Based on the roster moves I made, my belief was that the Wings would be poised to make a big splash in free agency to expedite the rebuild.
Looking back, my approach was far too hasty with respect to roster turnover. While the Wings were able to accomplish some of my action items, such as moving on from Riley Sheahan, the “old” guard of upcoming defensemen (Robbie Russo, Xavier Ouellet, Nick Jensen, and Ryan Sproul), and freeing up >$10 million in cap space, there is still a significant roster logjam. Thus, I thought it was prudent to revise my approach to this offseason based on the current status of the franchise.
Our Starting Point
Before we can discuss how to rebuild the Red Wings, we first have to have an accurate assessment of the current roster. Earlier this year, The Athletic Detroit’s Max Bultman (with the help of Dom Luszczyszyn) penned an article detailing how far away the Red Wings were from being a Stanley Cup contender. In that article, Dom provided the average Game Score for a player at each roster position.
Applying this same concept to Detroit’s optimal lineup, we can see that the Wings are pretty far off.
In comparison to the average Stanley Cup contender, the Wings...don’t look particularly close. It appears as if they have their 1C in Dylan Larkin but the rest of the roster is woefully subpar. This is extremely important because it sets forth the mindset I’m using as I approach this rebuild.
The Red Wings are a long way from being a playoff team, let alone a Stanley Cup contender. There is no one the Wings could add right now that would elevate them into the conversation of playoff contender, even if the Wings somehow managed to acquire Connor McDavid and Erik Karlsson for pennies. This is important to state because it guides how I will approach this rebuild.
This article will cover how I would approach the 2019 offseason from the buyout period in the middle of June through the free agency period.
Buyout Period - June 15th-June 30th
Each offseason, the NHL offers teams the opportunity to buyout a contract to obtain a reduced cap hit. Depending on the age of the player, the buyout ratio varies. If the player is less than 26 years of age, the buyout amount is 1/3rd of the remaining contract value. If the player is 26 years or older, the buyout amount is 2/3rd of the remaining contract value. Looking at the Red Wings’ roster, there are three players that have been discussed as potential buyout candidates - Justin Abdelkader, Jonathan Ericsson, and Trevor Daley.
Let’s start with the easy one - the Wings should not buyout Abdelkader.
Abdelkader has come up as a buyout candidate after his atrocious season. Among all forwards who played at least 300 minutes this season, Abdelkader finished with the 5th worst goals above replacement at -7.9. His season was so bad that even the Detroit Free Press’ Helene St. James suggested that the Wings should consider waiving him to send him a message. All of that being said, the Wings simply cannot afford to buyout his contract. With four years and $13,750,000 remaining on his contract, a buyout would result in his contract staying on the Wings’ books through the 2026-2027 season:
As rough as Abdelkader play was this past season, the Wings can’t afford to have him count against the cap all the way through 2026-2027. The Wings already have Xavier Ouellet’s buyout counting toward the cap next season and Stephen Weiss’ counting through 2020-2021 and can’t afford to continually have dead cap space.
As far as Ericsson and Daley, both players only have one year left remaining on their deals, meaning that a buyout would only count against the cap for this season and next season. Among defensemen who played at least 300 minutes, Ericsson and Daley were among the ten-worst defensemen in Goals Above Replacement.
One advantage to buying out either or both players would be to provide additional cap space for this season if the Wings were to splurge in free agency. As I’ll detail later in my plan, however, I don’t believe that this is the right time for the Wings to pull the trigger in free agency.
The other advantage would be freeing up one or two roster spots on the blue line for the Wings to fill with prospects. As much as I’d like to see the Wings embrace the youth movement, I don’t believe that the Wings have two additional prospects ready for full-time NHL action on top of the spots I will free up with other moves.
Based on the other moves I make, we’re talking about handing one or two full-time spots to Jared McIsaac, Joe Hicketts, or Gustav Lindstrom. Given Namita Nandakumar’s finding that defensemen take slightly longer on average to develop than forwards, I would be hesitant to rush either McIsaac or Lindstrom and think both would benefit from a year in the AHL. As such, I will decline a buyout.
Summary: No buyouts
NHL Draft - June 21st/22nd
For the second consecutive year, the Red Wings will select 6th overall. Last year, things worked out nicely as the Wings were able to get Filip Zadina, a player that some considered to be the 3rd best player available. This season’s draft presents a slightly different situation. After Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, no single player has set himself apart from his peers over the next 12-15 draft slots. Listed below are the NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings for the 2019 draft class.
2019 NHL Central Scouting Rankings
|Ranking||North American Skaters||European Skaters|
|1||Jack Hughes||Kaapo Kakko|
|2||Bowen Byram||Vasily Podkolzin|
|3||Kirby Dach||Victor Soderstrom|
|4||Alex Turcotte||Ville Heinola|
|5||Dylan Cozens||Philip Broberg|
|6||Trevor Zegras||Moritz Seider|
|7||Arthur Kaliyev||Tobias Bjornfot|
|8||Cole Caulfield||Danil Misyul|
|9||Matthew Boldy||Ilya Nikolaev|
|10||Peyton Krebs||Mikko Kokkonen|
|11||Thomas Harley||Nils Hoglander|
|12||Cameron York||Pavel Dorofeyev|
|13||Alex Newhook||Albin Grewe|
|14||Philip Tomasino||Michal Teply|
|15||Lassi Thomson||Antti Tuomisto|
Digging beyond Central Scouting’s rankings, I wanted to incorporate an objective component of prospect evaluation so I turned to Jeremy Davis of Canucks’ Army pGPS model. Davis incorporates a number of measures into his assessment including scoring adjusted for situation, era, age, and league (SEAL scoring), and the expected likelihood of success based on prior players with similar attributes. Below are the top-15 players from his Winter Rankings.
A couple of things stand out from Jeremy’s rankings. First, the lack of data for Podkolzin may explain why Jeremy is so low on Podkolzin relative to other mock drafts. Another name that jumps out is winger Arthur Kaliyev. He has the highest involvement in his team’s scoring at 5v5 and grades out as the player most likely to succeed as a top-6 forward. As a 17-year-old, Kaliyev put up 51 goals and 102 points in 67 games and finished 7th in OHL scoring. His numbers are certainly impressive although there are concerns that he may need someone to set him up at the next level.
Another interesting name on this list is winger Jakob Pelletier. Graded as the 27th best North American skater by Central Scouting, Pelletier finished with 38 goals and 88 points in 65 games in the QMJHL. While most of us were busy watching Joe Veleno dominate in Drummondville, Pelletier quietly finished 7th in QMJHL scoring as a 17-year-old. He’s flown under the radar given his size and the fact that fellow undersized forward Cole Caufield has scored at a more impressive rate in the for the U-18 USNTDP.
While both Kaliyev and Pelletier are impressive scoring wingers, the Wings need centers and defensemen. Of the available centers, Kirby Dach, Dylan Cozens, Alex Turcotte, Peyton Krebs, and Trevor Zegras have been discussed as viable options for the Wings at 6. Factoring in their similar rankings, Jeremy’s work suggests that Cozens might have the edge, albeit a slight one. Cozens has the highest SEAL-adjusted scoring rate of the group and projects to have the highest likelihood of being a top-6 forward. I think if he’s available, Detroit should jump on him. Dach appears to be the next best option, followed by Krebs, Turcotte, and then Zegras. For those concerned about Turcotte’s absence from the top-15, note that he had only played nine games at the time of Jeremy’s rankings. After returning from injury, Turcotte posted 43 points in 21 games.
Turcotte is an interesting option as his head coach John Wroblewski recently noted that he reminded him of Dylan Larkin, something sure to excite Red Wings’ fans. Turcotte has committed to play for the University of Wisconsin next season along with Caufield meaning that he’s not likely to be a difference-maker for Detroit next season if drafted. The only thing that scares me about Turcotte is his recovery from the hip injury. While he certainly didn’t look limited in his return, it’s another factor in my mind given the issues that Gabriel Vilardi (chronic back issues) has had since being drafted even though he didn’t appear limited in his draft minus-one season.
Last but not least, there’s the lone defenseman - Bowen Byram. The Vancouver Giants’ defenseman had an excellent season, showing off his incredible skating ability and offensive awareness. Ryan Biech of The Athletic Vancouver penned an excellent profile of Byram earlier this year that focuses on his patience with the puck, his anticipation, and poise. Looking at Detroit’s system, it’s likely that Byram would instantly be Detroit’s top defensive prospect.
Overall, there are a plethora of players available at 6 that would be top-tier prospects for the Wings. I think the two players I’m highest on are Cozens and Byram.
If both are gone at 6, I think the smartest move for Detroit is to field offers from other teams interested in moving up. I wouldn’t move any further back than 12 to ensure that Detroit still has the opportunity to select from the pool of players I listed above given their need to add talent. That means that potential trading partners are Buffalo, Edmonton, Anaheim, Vancouver, Philadelphia, and Minnesota.
Both the Sabres and the Ducks have two first round picks this year. If both Cozens and Byram are gone, I would call both Buffalo and Anaheim to see if there is a player they want to move up for in exchange for their late 1st round pick. If both decline, then I make the pick at 6 from the wider pool of players. My best guess that I will carry forward is that both Cozens and Byram are gone, both Buffalo and Anaheim decline to move up, and Detroit selects Turcotte with the 6th overall pick.
Summary: Wings select Alex Turcotte with the 6th overall pick
Free Agency - July 1st
Just over a week after the draft, the Wings will enter free agency with a number of important decisions to make. The following players will be free agents for the Wings:
As of now, the Red Wings have 38 standard player contracts and $71,170,377 committed in cap hit for the upcoming season. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll use a salary cap of $83 million for the upcoming season. What follows below is what I would do if I was general manager of the Red Wings, NOT what I think is most likely to happen.
Let’s start with the unrestricted free agents. This should be an easy decision for Detroit... if you’re able to remove emotion from the decision-making process. Niklas Kronwall has been a warrior for Detroit for more than a decade, but at 38 years of age, the Red Wings need his roster spot more than him on the active roster. I would thank Kronwall for his years of service and see if he would be willing to serve as an advisor for the Wings’ defensemen.
Similar to Kronwall, Vanek’s influence on the younger Red Wings’ forwards has been an important talking point but should not factor into the decision to re-sign him.
Using Evolving-Hockey’s regularized adjusted plus-minus model, we can see that Vanek has been one of the worst defensive forwards in hockey over the last three seasons and his offensive impact comes nowhere close to making up for it. While he may have been influential to the development of the young forwards, his on-ice play has consistently put the Wings in bad defensive situations.
Finally, Luke Witkowski has been a sentimental fan favorite but ultimately provides little measurable on-ice value. Over the last two seasons, Witkowski has averaged less than eight minutes of 5v5 ice time per game, and with him on the ice, the Wings have been outscored by nearly one goal per 60 minutes. While fans and teammates like him I think it’s time for the Wings to move on so that they can free up another roster spot on the blue line.
Let’s start with the easy ones. It’s pretty clear that Dylan McIlrath, Jake Chelios, Harri Sateri, Patrick Rybar, and Wade Megan have no future with the big league club.
The logjam of defensive prospects has gotten so bad that it’s pushing back into Grand Rapids. Pending how the Red Wings play free agency, the Wings will likely need to have regular minutes available for at least four of Vili Saarijarvi, Libor Sulak, Joe Hicketts, Dennis Cholowski, Filip Hronek, Madison Bowey, and potentially Gustav Lindstrom.
In Grand Rapids, Brian Lashoff is also under contract for next season. I don’t have an issue with the Wings keeping McIlrath or Chelios in the organization, but I’d lean toward re-signing McIlrath and letting Chelios walk to ensure that the Wings maintain enough open spots in the AHL for their prospects. Another option is to let Lindstrom stay in Sweden for another season, but I’d like to get a closer look at him sooner rather than later.
In net, the move to sign Filip Larsson will accelerate his timeline. Ryan Martin noted that Filip Larsson will be in Grand Rapids next season, and the Wings will want him to have regular playing time, meaning that both Rybar and Sateri won’t be back. While the win totals don’t show it, Rybar was the better of the two goalies for Grand Rapids and is four years younger. I would allow Sateri to walk, re-sign Rybar, and have Larsson as the backup in Grand Rapids.
Up front, Wade Megan had a great year in Grand Rapids, recording 19 goals and 37 points in 48 games. A journeyman, Megan had a great impact with the Griffins, and I would be happy to bring him back next year on a one-year, two-way deal.
With the younger guys, I think it’s a bit more straightforward. I would re-sign Martin Frk to a one-year, two-way deal. Since Frk has not played >180 NHL games in the last 3 years, did not play 60 NHL games last year, and cleared waivers this past season, his qualifying offer does not have to be a one-way offer. Frk’s qualifying offer would be $997,500 and I expect that he spends a majority of next season in Grand Rapids.
Along with Frk, I would extend qualifying offers to Sadowy, Holmstrom, Turgeon, Sulak, and Hicketts which would bring the Wings up to 47 standard player contracts. Hicketts is in a tough position as it appears as if he’s been leapfrogged by Hronek, Cholowski, and Bowey, and is at risk for getting passed by McIsaac and Byram, if selected. He’s an excellent defenseman in the AHL, but the chances of him making it in the NHL appear to be dwindling. If Hicketts said that he wanted a shot with another organization, it wouldn’t be a huge loss for the Red Wings.
The Rest of Unrestricted Free Agency
Now here’s the fun part. I left off my 2017 rebuild plan with the 2019 offseason being the chance for the Wings to strike gold. While some of the big names have gone off the market over the last two seasons, there are still a number of incredible players up for grabs.
The Wings will have approximately $12 million in cap space, not factoring in Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen’s LTIR status. If you maximize the use of LTIR, the Wings would have close to $22 million available to spend. Sitting back, you could imagine a world where the Wings land both Panarin and Karlsson and evaluating how that changes their rebuild timeline. It’s an enticing possibility for sure. However, both players are likely to command 6-8 year contracts on the open market at a cap hit north of $10 million, and the question remains as to whether or not both would elevate the Wings to contender status.
In Bultman’s projection of the 2021-2022 Red Wings, he noted that the Wings were two first-line wingers, a second-line center, a first-pairing defenseman, and a second-pairing defenseman away from an “average” Stanley Cup contender.
Panarin and Karlsson would certainly take care of the first-line winger and first-line defenseman roles. However, that still leaves the Wings in need of another first-line winger, a second-line center, and a 2nd-pairing defenseman.
The Wings have some players in the system that could fill those holes such as Joe Veleno and Jared McIsaac, but it’s a huge gamble. If the stars don’t align and McIsaac and Veleno can’t fill the void, then the Wings have added two long-term, high-dollar contracts for players that will age out of their prime during the contract.
Furthermore, I still have concerns handing Karlsson an eight-year deal, given his injury history. Ultimately, I think the Wings are better off sitting out of free agency this year altogether to allow them to continue purging bad contracts. An added bonus of this is that it allows the star players on current contenders such as Pittsburgh, Washington, and Boston to age further out of their prime.
Looking at the restricted free agents, there are a number of tantalizing names available. Brayden Point, Mitch Marner, Mikko Rantanen, Sebastian Aho, and more are RFA’s this offseason. While the idea of an offer sheet is exciting, there is absolutely no reason the Wings should part with the draft picks in an offer sheet situation, given that their draft picks are likely to be of high value.
Many people have thrown out the idea of offer-sheeting Marner or Point given that both Toronto and Tampa Bay are a bit tighter on cap space. First, that relies on both Marner or Point actually signing the deal with Detroit, something I can’t actually see happening. Second, both would likely command deals in excess of $8 million, meaning that the Wings would have to part with at least 2 first round picks if either Toronto or Tampa Bay declined to match.
Third, how much does the addition of Marner or Point actually improve the Wings?
Hypothetically, if the Wings added one of them, they would have cap space to chase only one of the other top free agents. Going back to our discussion in free agency, I don’t think Marner + Karlsson or Point + Karlsson or any combination of Marner/Point + top free agent moves the Wings into legitimate contender status. There are still too many holes, too many bad contracts, and not enough elite talent to warrant accelerating the rebuild.
I get the logic of playing chicken with Tampa or Toronto by driving up the price of Marner/Point’s contract, but that game of chicken is a two way street. If Tampa and Toronto see a price they don’t like and they know that neither player moves the Wings into serious contention, then they should want to take the two or four potential lottery picks. It’s simply not worth the risk.
If the Wings do sit out of free agency entirely, it’ll mean carrying $10 million in dead cap space for Franzen and Zetterberg. 2019-2020 is the last year of Franzen’s contract but Zetterberg has another year remaining. However, there’s another way the Wings could utilize their LTIR cap space to augment their position—taking on an expiring contract in exchange for draft picks or prospects.
Some potential targets for such a trade are Tampa Bay’s Ryan Callahan, Philadelphia’s Andrew MacDonald, New Jersey’s Andy Greene, and Buffalo’s Matt Hunwick. The Wings could step in as a 3rd team in a trade to take on some dead weight in exchange for draft picks or prospects. The likelihood of this happening is low, but it’s an avenue that I think it would provide better utilization of the Wings cap space.
Ultimately, I think the most important moves the Wings make will be how they navigate their current roster logjam. The Wings have a number of players expecting to get a chance at a big-league job, but only have so many available. What will become of Michael Rasmussen, Christoffer Ehn, Ryan Kuffner, Taro Hirose, Dominic Turgeon, Evgeny Svechnikov, Vili Saarijarvi, Jacob de la Rose, and Joe Veleno?
Up front, I think the following forwards are guaranteed to be on the NHL roster:
Tyler Bertuzzi - Dylan Larkin - Anthony Mantha
Andreas Athanasiou - Frans Nielsen - Player X
Justin Abdelkader - Darren Helm - Luke Glendening
Player Y - Player Z - Player A
That leaves four openings to be filled by:
Jacob de la Rose
The easy ones to send to Grand Rapids for me are Ehn, Turgeon, and Kuffner. I think Ehn and Turgeon are serviceable 4th liners that can be called upon in an injury situation but they aren’t much more than that. Optimistically, if the Wings were to find a way to unload Darren Helm or Luke Glendening, I think either one of those guys could step in and provide similar value. Kuffner showed very little in his brief stint with the Wings to merit being handed an NHL roster spot for next season.
I think Taro Hirose, Jacob de la Rose, and Filip Zadina are the next most likely to be on the NHL roster.
Hirose showed great hockey IQ en route to recording points in each of his first five games. de la Rose was a serviceable 4th line player picked up on waivers from Montreal. He doesn’t offer the Wings anything special besides being a warm body and his salary could be entirely buried in the AHL if needed. The only reason I keep him on the big league team is because I don’t think any of Detroit’s other forward prospects are quite ready to start the season in the NHL.
Zadina had a solid but unspectacular year in Grand Rapids. He had a seven-game point streak in February that preceded his call-up to the big leagues. With the Wings, he was able to record a goal and two assists in nine games before returning to Grand Rapids. However in his return to the Griffins, Zadina managed just one goal and four points in 14 games to close out the regular season The Wings could certainly explore the option of sliding his contract another season by limiting him to less than 10 NHL games again next season. However, I think it would be more beneficial for the Zadina to get a full season in the NHL and learn on-the-go as opposed to spending another full season against AHL competition.
After Zadina, it gets a bit trickier. Michael Rasmussen poses a unique challenge for the Wings. Last season, it was either the WHL or Detroit for Rasmussen and the Wings felt that he would benefit more by playing in the NHL. However, it was obvious that Rasmussen wasn’t ready for the NHL as he struggled to play with consistency. He looked overmatched at 5v5 and was not confident in how to use his body to create space. This year, Rasmussen has the option to go to Grand Rapids, and I think the Wings would be wise to consider that. Rasmussen is 20 years old today (April 17th) and still has a long road to go when it comes to developing his all-around game.
Veleno is interesting because he so thoroughly dominated the QMJHL, albeit on a dominant Drummondville team. Given that most of the Wings’ top-six is spoken for, I think he would be better off starting the year in Grand Rapids to ensure that he gets big minutes. The transition from the QMJHL to the NHL is a tough one to evaluate given that scoring is so much higher in the QMJHL compared to other CHL leagues, making it tough to interpret a player’s raw number.
Veleno would likely benefit starting the season in Grand Rapids with Rasmussen, and if he dominates there, the Wings can bring him up. That leaves Svechnikov. The 2015 draft pick has had a tumultuous start to his career, culminating in an ACL injury this past season that forced him to miss a majority of the season. Svechnikov will be 23-years-old in October and time is running out for him to get a shot in the NHL. He’s at risk for getting passed by Zadina, Veleno, and this year’s draft pick on the prospect forward depth chart. I think he has to get a legitimate chance this year so that the Wings know how to proceed with him.
On defense, we know that we’ll see Danny DeKeyser, Mike Green, Trevor Daley, and Jonathan Ericsson on the opening night roster.
Beyond that, there are a number of questions to answer. Does Gustav Lindstrom come over from Sweden? Is McIsaac ready to jump straight to the NHL? To answer the first question, I think even if Lindstrom is ready to be brought over, I don’t think he’s ready to head straight to the NHL. However, as stated previously, I’d like a closer look at him, so I would bring him over to Grand Rapids.
The second question is trickier. McIsaac has had a fantastic season in the QMJHL, being named to the QMJHL’s Second All-Star team. He led all defensemen with 62 points in 53 games and has showed excellent poise with the puck. I certainly think he could give Bowey and/or Cholowski a run for their money for a roster spot. I think the final decision will come down to how he performs in camp but I think I’m more inclined to leave McIsaac in the QMJHL and give Cholowski a chance to show what he learned after being sent down last season with Bowey rotating as the 7th defenseman.
Alright, after more than 4000 words, we have our 2019-2020 Red Wings. Yes, these Red Wings may be even worse than the version we saw this past season. I elected not to buy any one out, not to sign any free agents, and I am willing to take on an expiring bad contract if the right deal presents itself.
My philosophy is to align Detroit’s potential ascension with the the prime of their stars, the rise of their prospects, the expiration of their bad contracts, and the decline of other contenders. It’s a fine line to balance and after heavy consideration, I don’t think this is the year to put the pedal to the accelerator.
I think the 2020 offseason offers the Wings a better opportunity to escalate their timeline where they may have a chance to draft phenom Alex Lafreniere and have the Jonathan Ericsson, Trevor Daley, Johan Franzen, and Mike Green contracts expire.
At that point they can explore advantageous trades or set themselves up for the 2022 offseason that will have Johnny Gaudreau, Filip Forsberg, Aleksander Barkov, Colton Parayko, Seth Jones, and Morgan Rielly as potential prizes. I know fans are getting impatient, but the time to accelerate isn’t here just yet. Patience will be the key to the Wings winning not only this offseason, but for years to come.
Data from the following websites were used to construct this piece:
Note: this article was updated to note that McIsaac is NOT eligible to play in the AHL this season due to the CHL-NHL agreement