Now that the 2022 NHL Draft is in the rearview mirror, the Detroit Red Wings can turn their focus to the free agent market.
Looking at Detroit’s organizational depth, there are a couple key areas that Steve Yzerman can upgrade through free agency: top-six forward and left defense. With these needs in mind—and after reviewing all the free agents expected to hit the market—I’ve put together target lists to address Detroit’s needs. Included are notes on those targets, why some players are excluded, and recommendations for the team at the very end.
Finally, I do want to note that the Red Wings have ~$56 million committed to 20 NHLers after factoring in my restricted free agent (RFA) contract projections. They’ll need to spend ~$5 million to reach the salary cap floor.
With that out of the way, let’s dig in!
2022 Red Wings Offseason Overview
- Red Wings’ Year-Over-Year Team Analysis
- Red Wings’ Individual Player Progression/Regression in 2021-22
- Risk & Reward in Continuing the Rebuild vs. Pushing for Contention
- Analyzing the Red Wings’ Organizational Depth
- Contract Projections for Detroit’s 8 RFAs
Red Wings’ No. 1 Priority: Left Defense
A case can be made that a top-six forward might have more of an impact and should be prioritized, but the left side of Detroit’s defense is a mess. Restricted free agent Jake Walman sits atop the depth chart, followed by Simon Edvinsson and Jordan Oesterle. The Red Wings need at least one left-handed defenseman to slot in above those three blueliners.
With that in mind, here are my top left defense targets:
- Brett Kulak
- Marc Staal
- Alex Edler (Editor’s Note: Edler re-signed with Los Angeles)
Not very exciting, right? The trouble is that the top free agent defensemen hitting the market this summer are either right shots or in line for overpriced contracts that Detroit should avoid. John Klingberg and Josh Manson – right side. Ben Chiarot and Nick Leddy – not worth the cap hit.
That said, I’m here to advocate for signing Brett Kulak. Why? While his box score numbers aren’t tremendous, his underlying numbers certainly are.
The table below outlines Kulak’s five-on-five stats with the Montreal Canadiens (56 games) and Edmonton Oilers (18 games), and compares them to Detroit’s best defenseman for each metric.
|Metric||Montreal Stats||Edmonton Stats||Detroit’s Best|
Clearly, Kulak knows how to defend – something that has been an issue for the Red Wings. Signing him to play next to Moritz Seider would be a smart decision on Detroit’s part.
If Kulak cannot be had, the Red Wings might as well run it back with locker room favorite and team leader Marc Staal. He would give Detroit a veteran presence (again) on a young blue line and another option for the penalty kill.
Alternatively, the Red Wings could pursue a trade. That’s outside the scope of this article, but my recommendation would be to explore the trade market if a Kulak signing doesn’t look probable.
Red Wings’ No. 2 Priority: Top-Six Forward
I decided to break up my top-six forward targets into three tiers. The Red Wings should aim to sign one or two of the nine players listed below.
Tier 1 – Main targets who fit in with Detroit’s timeline:
- LW Andre Burakovsky
- C Vincent Trocheck
- LW Mason Marchment
Tier 2 – Shoot-for-the-moon targets:
- LW Valeri Nichushkin (Editor’s Note: Nichushkin re-signed with Colorado)
- C Evgeni Malkin (Editor’s Note: Malkin re-signed with Pittsburgh)
- C Nazem Kadri
Tier 3 – Middling value:
- LW Nino Neiderreiter
- LW/C Andrew Copp
- C Dylan Strome
Starting with Andre Burakovsky, the two-time Stanley Cup winner is just 27 and coming off of a 61-point campaign. He fits Detroit’s rebuild timeline and provides size and a scoring touch up front. In addition, Burakovsky has comparable scoring and possession numbers to Valeri Nichushkin, who will likely command a much larger contract on the open market due to his exceptional postseason.
Burakovsky is the clear, No. 1 target up front. He could thrive on the top line or rekindle chemistry with former teammate Jakub Vrana on the second line.
If Burakovsky opts to sign elsewhere, Vincent Trocheck and Mason Marchment would be solid backup plans and would quickly upgrade Detroit’s second line. Trocheck played in all situations for the Carolina Hurricanes last season and brings a blend of tenacity and offensive flair. Marchment had a breakthrough campaign with the Florida Panthers and has been tabbed as this year’s Michael Bunting – a value free agent who could thrive in a bigger role (and not a veteran who somehow still qualifies as a rookie).
Nazem Kadri is a long shot, but worth reaching out to if he truly intends to explore the open market. He would have substantial price tags – higher than the Tier 1 options. Yzerman could potentially offer a very high salary on a one- or two-year contract – similar to what Detroit did with Marian Hossa in 2008.
Finally, Nino Neiderreiter, Andrew Copp, and Dylan Strome are closer to middle-six forwards. Neiderreiter’s size and play down low makes him an intriguing option. Copp and Strome can contribute down the middle or on the wing, and are essentially newer versions of Pius Suter.
Other Red Wings Free Agency Notes
In addition to the players listed above, I wanted to provide a few notes on a few more UFAs and how they may or may not fit with the Red Wings.
- Top-Tier UFAs – I anticipate Patrice Bergeron re-signing with Boston and Claude Giroux going to a true contender. In addition, I don’t see the Red Wings committing themselves to a massive contract with term for Johnny Gaudreau. These players were excluded from consideration.
- Ondrej Palat – The Yzerman connection is there, but I can’t see Palat leaving Tampa Bay for a rebuilding team. Not after the role he had in the 2022 playoff run.
- AHL Depth – The Grand Rapids Griffins need reinforcements to insulate Detroit’s top prospects in the AHL. Re-signing Riley Barber and a couple other AHL forwards could propel the Griffins into Calder Cup contenders.
- Sam Gagner – If the Red Wings strike out on quality free agents, they should bring back Gagner in a bottom-six role and for his top-notch leadership.
Recommendations for the Red Wings
Now that we’ve covered Detroit’s potential targets, here are my recommendations for which UFAs the Red Wings should sign this summer:
- LW Andre Burakovsky – Five years, $5.75 million AAV
- LD Brett Kulak – Three years, $3.25 million AAV
- LD Marc Staal – One year, $1.5 million AAV
- C Riley Barber – One year, $850,000 AAV
- C Glenn Gawdin – One year, $775,000 AAV
- LW Turner Elson – One year, $775,000 AAV
With Burakovsky, Kulak, and Staal (plus recent acquisition Ville Husso) on the NHL roster, the Red Wings will have a much stronger team compared to the 2021-22 squad. In addition, there’s still plenty of cap space if Yzerman wants to explore a trade to further bolster the left side of the blue line.