The normal resting heart rate for adults is anywhere from 60 to 100 beats per minute. But once noon hit on Wednesday, the average heart rate for Detroit Red Wings fans had to have climbed to upwards of 120 to 160 beats per minute.
Needless to say: it was an exciting day in Hockeytown.
Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman surprised the hockey world once the free agent market opened up and signed no less than five players that will have a roster spot on next season’s team. Some were more expected than others, and some seemingly came out of nowhere. There will be plenty of time to break down what each of these moves mean on an individual basis, but as a whole, these additions to the Red Wings signal a turning point for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2016.
For the first time this decade, the Red Wings seem to have enough talent to truly make a playoff push.
Is Yzerman’s “Slow Build” Over?
Since Yzerman arrived in Detroit back in the Spring of 2019, he has preached patience at every step of the way. When the Red Wings iced the worst team in the NHL during the 2019-20 season, he preached patience as we witnessed the cruel, cold reality of just how far of an uphill battle this rebuild was going to be.
He preached patience after bringing in guys like Vladislav Namestnikov and Marc Staal the following offseason, plugging holes but not greatly elevating the team’s overall quality.
He preached patience when he renewed the contract of head coach Jeff Blashill despite a losing record under his watch. Yzerman was quick to point out that the quality of the roster was responsible for the Red Wings’ struggles, not coaching.
This offseason, something is different. Blashill was dismissed before the offseason was 24 hours old, and he was later replaced with Tampa Bay Lightning assistant Derek Lalonde (who himself pumped the brakes on playoff talk when he was introduced as the franchise’s new head coach.) Once the free agent market opened up, Yzerman didn’t sign just one or two guys to fill holes; he signed veterans like David Perron and Ben Chiarot, he signed a hometown kid (Andrew Copp) to the longest deal he has ever given as GM of the Red Wings, and he even managed to lure in Dominik Kubalik on a two-year deal that should give the 26-year-old a chance to rediscover the scoring touch that made him a Calder Trophy candidate back in 2020.
These moves are not patient like the last three years have been. These are moves of urgency. These are moves that place an emphasis on winning games. When the Red Wings lost 9-2 to the Arizona Coyotes on March 8 earlier this season, it felt like this team had somehow hit a lower rock bottom than anything that 2019-20 season served up. The moves made today signal that losses like those – losses that became too familiar over the last few seasons – are not acceptable, regardless of how deep, how young, or how experienced the Red Wings’ roster is.
And despite all of those additions, Yzerman’s core plan – building through the draft and slowly incorporating young talent into the roster over time – remains in tact. The signings have made it so that any of Detroit’s prospects will have to earn a roster spot because competition at training camp will be fierce. If 2021 top pick Simon Edvinsson is going to make the roster, he’ll have to be better than Jordan Oesterle, Jake Walman and Olli Määttä; that’s setting a certain standard, but it’s not setting the bar so high that it’s a foregone conclusion the Swedish defender will start his season in the American Hockey League (AHL). Same goes for 2018 draftee Jonatan Berggren, who could still force his way into the Red Wings’ forward group – especially if a player or two are moved out over the coming weeks.
Furthermore, most of the contracts Yzerman gave out are all pretty easy to envision the team moving on from down the line. Määttä on a one-year deal feels like the type of player/contract that gets moved at the deadline if the Red Wings don’t like their chances, or a prospect has usurped him. Perron signed a contract with a team other than the St. Louis Blues for the first time in his career, but the well-traveled veteran is the exact type of player that contenders come calling for as the trade deadline draws near. With Copp signed for five years and Chiarot signed for four, they are probably the only two signees that are a virtual lock to play all of next season with Detroit.
None of this is to say that Yzerman will go on a selling spree at next season’s trade deadline, but he will have the option. Alternatively, he may have the option to add to this roster as it looks to make an honest push for the playoffs. Perhaps he’ll be digging into his pool of prospects seven months from now, perhaps he’ll be adding to it.
After adding Marco Kasper and eight other prospects in this year’s draft, the Red Wings prospect pool is in as good a shape as it has ever been. There’s good-to-great prospects at every position, and these new signings will ultimately force the cream to rise to the top. So while these moves seem to signal that Yzerman is hitting the gas on making a playoff run, this is more so about providing the Red Wings’ youngest players with a roster they can develop with. Players progress more when they’re winning than when they’re losing, and these moves should go a long way towards ensuring the Red Wings win a lot more games.
Red Wings Enter New Phase
The Atlantic Division has quickly become an arms race. The Lightning have won the Eastern Conference championship three years in a row. The Florida Panthers lost some talent, but still figure to be a team capable of making the playoffs and doing some damage. The Boston Bruins will cause problems as long as Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand are in town, and the Toronto Maple Leafs look set to return mostly the same team that put the Lightning on the brink of elimination in the first round of the playoffs. The Ottawa Senators are early offseason winners after bringing in Alex DeBrincat, Claude Giroux and Cam Talbot over the last week or so, and the Buffalo Sabres have one of the best pools of U-23 players in the NHL. These early moves will help the Red Wings keep pace with their divisional foes, but they’ll need more than a few good free agents to truly take the next step.
The growth of this team will still depend on Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider taking another step forward in their development. If Joe Veleno and Filip Zadina remain on the team come training camp, they need to establish themselves as key players, otherwise their time in Detroit could be cut short. Goaltenders Alex Nedeljkovic and Ville Husso both need to prove that they can be consistent enough to deliver quality starts on a night-in, night-out basis. If a couple prospects like Edvinsson and Berggren can make it impossible for Yzerman and Lalonde to send them down to the AHL, that’s only going to help even more.
The point is that all these free agent signings don’t automatically mean the Red Wings are going to be a playoff team next season. Most of the players signed were brought in to be known commodities – complimentary pieces that help pull together a roster that had some bright spots, but not enough talent to allow everyone to shine. It’s the unknown commodities that will really propel this team forward. If those unknowns can move far enough in the positive direction, then we may very well be nearing the end of a playoff drought that continues to become one of the longest active droughts in the league.
The fact that it’s even possible to consider that reality is a testament to the additions Yzerman has made to this team. There’s real excitement and real hype surrounding the Red Wings after his spending spree. If nothing else, for one single day in July 2022, the Red Wings feel like a force to be reckoned with in the NHL once again.
That’s worth every penny that Yzerman spent.