3 routes the Red Wings can take after this season: Part 2 - Play it safe

Is it too early to make a big splash in free agency?

Note: If you missed the first part of this series, be sure to check out a more aggressive approach to the offseason.

A good rebuild takes time.

There’s no telling exactly how long one might take, but assuming a team can fix its problems in just a couple seasons is naïve at best. The Red Wings have been slowly tearing their team down for the last five years, and for the first time in what feels like forever, the rebuild is yielding results. Lucas Raymond, Moritz Seider, and Alex Nedeljkovic are three of the most electrifying rookies in the NHL this season and look to be fixtures on the lineup for the long run.

There’s a lot to love about this team. They’re scrappy, aggressive, and make every game at least slightly exciting. The fact that they’re still playoff contenders through December is a remarkable feat in and of itself.

But is it enough?

The true test of a team’s readiness is when their opponents start to get into their grooves. For slow-starting teams like the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders, that time usually kicks in around December. Unfortunately, the Red Wings are in one of the tougher divisions in the league, playing several games against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Bruins. While the Montreal Canadiens have been comically awful to start the season, there’s still a chance that they pick it up at the midpoint.

What happens if the team crashes down to earth?

Scenario 2: The Red Wings bottom out and play it safe

Where Scenario 1 posited a potential playoff berth, Scenario 2 takes the opposite route. In this alternate universe, injuries cause the wheels to fall off the wagon. Bertuzzi is injured following his return from a positive COVID test, Larkin is injured at the Olympics, and a groin injury from Alex Nedeljkovic forces Thomas Greiss to take on the starter’s role again. The resulting chaos of losing three of the team’s best players causes the team to spiral, racking up a handful of losses just in time for the trade deadline.

At the deadline, the team decides to open up shop and sell as much as they can. These are the deals they make:

  • Nick Leddy (50% retained) to the Calgary Flames for a 2022 2nd round pick.
  • Robby Fabbri (50% retained) to the New York Rangers for Vitali Kravstov and a 2023 3rd round pick.
  • Vladislav Namestnikov to the Minnesota Wild for a 2022 3rd round pick./

These three moves provide Detroit with two more 2022 draft picks for a total of 11 — six of which are in the first three rounds. The 2022 NHL Draft is set to be one of the deepest the NHL has seen in years. With a bevy of picks at his disposal, general manager Steve Yzerman will have plenty to work with in the offseason.

Before the draft arrives, however, the team will have to finish the season. Losing one of their top-four defenders, a top-six forward, and a top-nine forward having a career year puts a dent in the team’s offense, knocking them further down in the standings. They end the season in 26th place, just a few points shy of a bottom-five finish.

With Fabbri, Namestnikov, and Leddy off the books, the team will have just eight players to worry about signing. If Yzerman takes a more conservative approach, here’s what I think will happen:

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

Who stays: Filip Zadina, Mitchell Stephens, Marc Staal

Similar to last season, Detroit opts to clean house, sending DeKeyser and a handful of other players off to free agency. While it isn’t necessarily a nuclear option, it frees up roster spots for younger players and puts the priority on the rebuild. These corresponding moves, along with the additional $3.75M obtained from the Nielsen buyout, leave the Red Wings with over $40M in cap space to spend between Zadina, Stephens, Staal, and whoever else they find during free agency.

Given Staal’s age and current contract, if he keeps up the surprisingly solid year he’s had so far, a low-cost, low-term deal might be suitable for both parties. Stephens, who will be 25 before the 2022-23 season, will earn himself a very cost-effective deal. This leaves Zadina, who Evolving Hockey’s Contract Projection tool has around two years and $2M per year. With that said, here’s where I see the remaining contracts shaking out:

  • Zadina: 2 years, $2M/year
  • Staal: 1 year, $1.5M
  • Stephens: 2 years, $850K/year/

Stephens essentially absorbs Sam Gagner’s old contract, while Zadina receives a slight bump in pay for production. Staal takes a slight cut, but it should be noted that he will be 35 by the time the season starts. No matter how well he plays out 2021-22, his age will be the biggest deterrent in a long-term deal for any team. In Detroit, he serves as an alternate captain, taking on a key leadership role with the team. This offer provides him stability and opportunity as the rebuild starts to really take off.

Up next: the offseason.

2021-22 offseason moves: Safety first

The last thing a conservative approach to a rebuild needs are costly long-term deals. If you were hoping for super exciting offseason moves, I’m afraid this next section might be a letdown for you. In this scenario, Yzerman and the Red Wings take the approach they’ve taken the last few years: short-term, cost-effective deals that won’t deter from the rebuild. They may pick up a project player or two if they see potential, but they won’t break the bank over, say, John Klingberg.

The roster openings offer auditions for three players: a forward, a defenseman, and a backup goaltender. While Simon Edvinsson’s arrival in Detroit seems inevitable, if the defenseman doesn’t have the type of season Seider has had, it’s important to have a backup plan. Similarly, Jonatan Berggren’s current season in the AHL hasn’t guaranteed him a spot on the roster just yet. Thus, contingencies will be considered in the event that neither of these players breaks out next season.

Finding the right forward

If there’s one thing the Red Wings aren’t lacking in, it’s talent on the wing. Despite what their CapFriendly positions might suggest, several of the rostered players appear better suited on the wing than at center. Thus, the first task on Steve Yzerman’s free agency list should be finding a middle-six center to challenge Pius Suter. Fortunately, there are practically a dozen centers on the upcoming free agent list that could fit this role.

Again, the key to this approach is flexibility. This means that the contracts and terms will be short and light. Signing Seider, Raymond, and other players down the line will require as much cap flexibility as possible. Of all the upcoming free agent centers available, four fit the bill of affordable, flexible deals: Victor Rask, Andrew Copp, Bryan Rust, and Vincent Trocheck.

Trocheck, who currently plays the second-line center role for the Carolina Hurricanes, will almost certainly seek a new home after this season. The cap-strapped Hurricanes can’t afford to extend Trocheck, as they’ll need to worry about Martin Necas and a handful of other players first. Unfortunately, Trocheck might warrant a slew of high-paying suitors, and, barring a short-term deal, he’ll likely look elsewhere.

Rask and Rust are two sides of very different coins. Rask, the younger of the two, has had a very rough go of his last two seasons, scoring just 36 points in 97 games with the Minnesota Wild. This season, he’s got eight in 14 — and it should be noted that Rask’s defensive output this season has been incredible. Take a look at his advanced stats this year (courtesy of Evolving Hockey):

This season, Rask’s defensive efforts have suffocated the Wild’s opposition. With Detroit, Rask can play defense-first hockey, taking over Rasmussen’s role as the third line center. Having said that, Rask’s decreased production, lack of real speed, and his frequent role as a healthy scratch may be red flags for the Red Wings, who might look elsewhere.

Rust, on the other hand, plays with more offense in mind. He’s scored at a solid 50-point pace for the last three seasons with the Penguins and could easily carry his production over to Detroit. The Pontiac native coming back home to Michigan would be a story almost too good to be true. Unfortunately, Rust’s production might earn him a spot on a team like the New York Islanders as they look to shore up their less-than-ideal offense. If you’re a gambler, betting on a team to overpay for Rust might be a safe bet.

A different option

Out of all the names on the free agent list, the one that best fits the rebuild timeline is Andrew Copp. Copp, who (take a drink) played with Dylan Larkin in the University of Michigan, currently has 20 points in 24 games with the Winnipeg Jets. While the flashy center has never scored 40 points or higher in his career, this encouraging start to the season — and last season’s breakout campaign — may warrant a neat little raise for the center.

The Ann Arbor native currently plays on Pierre-Luc Dubois’ wing, but is able to shift in and out of the center role as needed. If the Jets can’t find a way to sign him, he should absolutely be one of the first names Yzerman calls. Evolving Hockey’s contract projections place him close to a four-year, $5M/year route. Given the price needed to pay to obtain free agents, a three-year, $5.75M/year contract for the 28-year-old might be just what the team needs.

This is what the lineup would look like with Andrew Copp in the picture:

Three lines of scoring, plus a fourth line with untapped potential. Copp is a great get for a rebuilding squad.

Down for defense

If the Red Wings were contenders, it wouldn’t be a shock to see them make a pitch for someone like Klingberg or even P.K. Subban. Given this scenario’s conservative approach, it’s likely they’ll look elsewhere for their defensive help. The 2022 free agent class is full of solid top-four defensemen that can play bottom-pairing minutes if needed. If Simon Edvinsson is next season’s Moritz Seider, the Red Wings need to find a Nick Leddy to pair alongside him. They’ll be on the hunt for an affordable defenseman with just the right amount of term.

Right now, what the Red Wings need is a stable defenseman who can still put a few points on the scoresheet. Similar to Leddy, this new defenseman’s role will be one part mentorship and one part production. The three defensemen that stick out the most on this free agent defensemen list are Justin Schultz, Jon Merrill, and Colin Miller.

Schultz has had an exciting last few seasons. The puck-moving defenseman won back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins before being traded to the Washington Capitals in 2020-21. With an immense amount of playoff experience and a slew of solid offensive seasons, he could make an immediate and seamless impact in Detroit’s top-four. Schultz has had a season to forget this year; with just four points in 23 games, he’s far removed from his career high 51 points in 78 games.

Still, Schultz has shown that he’s got plenty of gas left in the tank. While he’s not the player he used to be, he can still serve as an excellent depth threat on a contending (or soon-to-be-contending) team. Realistically, if Yzerman wants to play it safe for another couple seasons, Schultz might not fit in the picture.

If you’re a sucker for homecomings, Jon Merrill might be just the guy to target. Merrill is familiar with Detroit’s system and has plenty of playoff experience under his belt. Right now, he’s having somewhat of a career year with scoring — through 24 games, he has eight points, putting him more than halfway to his career high 15-point season in 2018-19. If you want a real laugh, take a look at Merrill’s absolutely incredible advanced stats chart:

This elite (and definitely sustainable) level of production puts him on par with Aaron Ekblad, a current candidate for the Norris trophy. Obviously, there is a zero percent chance this continues, but it’s very funny to see a defense-first defenseman make this sort of leap. Merrill is an intriguing choice for a veteran defenseman based on his familiarity. The team knows what they’re getting with him and they can do so at a discount. He might warrant a slight pay raise, but it won’t be by terribly much. Merill is also guilty of one of the funniest quotes in recent NHL history:

The problem with Merrill lies within his mentorship ability. The trade for Leddy, in Steve Yzerman’s words, was to help the younger defensemen learn. While Merrill is a solid defenseman in his own right, he’s a defense-first guy. His skillset doesn’t focus on offense at all, and for a team that’s been starved for point production in the past, Merrill might not be the answer to that problem. Still, signing Merill at a one-year, $900K contract wouldn’t break the bank — especially if he slots in an Jordan Oesterle-esque role this season.

A mentor’s mentality

Colin Miller is a unique candidate in that he’s already been tasked with a mentorship role. Following a trade to the Buffalo Sabres, Miller took on a role as a locker room leader while the Sabres navigated their toughest season yet. His stability through adversity makes him a great candidate for the dogged determination of the Red Wings. In addition, he’s no slouch in his own right; despite his position on the third pairing, he’s almost completely carried Will Butcher through the first third of the season.

Miller comes with years of deep playoff experience. He was a key player in the Vegas Golden Knights’ inaugural Cup run, marketed for his heavy shot and big hits. He’s a perfect mentorship candidate for Edvinsson based on his play style alone. His mentorship can go beyond Edvinsson, as well — the defenseman’s booming shot would be worth an investigation by Seider. While Miller is making a tidy $3.875M this season, his production has taken a hit in Buffalo and will likely play a part in his next deal.

If the Red Wings hope to net the 29-year-old, they’ll need to make sure they can fight off other suitors. Offering a two-year, $3.5M/year contract might be enough to secure the defender. Should things go as planned, they’ll have two years of a solid vet. If Miller continues to decline, they can easily retain salary and flip a $1.75M contract to a would-be contender.

Backup bonanza

With Greiss out of the picture, a backup is needed. This backup should be enlisted on a year-by-year basis until Sebastian Cossa is ready. While many netminders may search out term this offseason, the Red Wings should seek someone with much more flexibility. A goaltender that’s flexible, affordable, and competent is a rare find in the upcoming free agent market. The free agents are either too risky (Martin Jones), too old (Marc-Andre Fleury), or will look for a big payday (Jack Campbell).

If the Red Wings want a solid, flexible, and affordable contract, their best bet is Scott Wedgewood. Wedgewood is playing surprisingly solid hockey with the Arizona Coyotes, putting up a .908 save percentage on one of the worst teams in the NHL. While he won’t challenge Alex Nedeljkovic for the starter’s role anytime soon, he makes just enough sense to slot in a year-by-year backup role for the Red Wings. If Wedgewood outplays his expectations, he can seek a bigger (and better) contract elsewhere. If he fails to meet the levels he has this year, Detroit can simply sign a new backup as they await Cossa.

A one-year, $900K contract for Wedgewood is a win-win for both sides.

Plenty of cap for contract absorption

With these three signings, the Red Wings have close to $26M left to spend as they please. They can either play it safe and save the money for extending Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi, or they can temporarily spend it by absorbing costly contracts. The Vegas Golden Knights are about to enter a horrible salary cap experience once Jack Eichel returns from long-term injured reserve. They’ll need to free up nearly $10M to sign 11 players, many of whom are due substantial raises.

The Red Wings can capitalize on this and absorb a few of the team’s costly contracts. Evgenii Dadonov is running Vegas up $5M next season — taking on his deal may warrant a hefty payment in return.

Pitfalls, downsides, and worries

Playing it safe minimizes the risk of going for it too soon; however, it also pushes the rebuild back further than before. Consider the following “what if” scenarios when contemplating next steps:

  • If the team hopes to contend by 2023-24, Dylan Larkin will be 27 and in need of a hefty pay raise.
  • What if the team doesn’t make enough progress and Jakub Vrana leaves after an outstanding season? What happens if Alex Nedeljkovic heads out alongside him?
  • How long are the Red Wings willing to commit to many of their long-term players? If the Cup window opens as their primes come to an end, is signing them worth the risk?/

There’s a latent risk to a slow, steady approach — and one that can leave players demoralized. If they don’t feel like their management is helping them succeed, they’ll likely seek brighter horizons somewhere else. There’s something to be said about rewarding good effort — and playing it safe might just do the opposite.

Stay tuned for Part 3, which will arrive later this week!