Red Wings’ Hellberg Acquisition Starts Goalie Controversy

The Detroit Red Wings made headlines this week as the third team to claim Magnus Hellberg off the NHL waiver wire this season. After signing with the Seattle Kraken as a free agent, Hellberg has since been claimed by the Ottawa Senators, the Kraken, and now Detroit. After making his return to North America last Spring with the Red Wings, Hellberg has been a fringe NHL goalie who teams would clearly love to have in the AHL, but injuries and poor performances have made it so that there’s always a team that wants him.

Magnus Hellberg Detroit Red Wings
Magnus Hellberg, Detroit Red Wings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

So why did the Red Wings pick up Hellberg off waivers? They’ve got a clear starter-quality goalie in Ville Husso and Alex Nedeljkovic has a decent track record of success. They don’t seem to need a goalie in the NHL right now, and it’s unlikely that Hellberg would make it through the waiver system if they were trying to send him to the Grand Rapids Griffins. This addition seems to indicate that there is something going on behind the scenes that hasn’t been made public yet, kicking off the first real goalie controversy of the year for Detroit. 

What About Ned?

After it appeared that Detroit’s goalies would share the starter’s net as a true tandem, Husso has started four consecutive games, five including Friday night’s game against the Arizona Coyotes. Husso has clearly been the better of the two goalies which has forced Nedeljkovic into the full-time backup role. 

Nedeljkovic has maintained his streaky form so far this year, with performances ranging from absolute blowouts, to stealing a win against the New Jersey Devils. With Ned being more than qualified to fill in as the backup, why did General Manager Steve Yzerman add yet another NHL goalie? 

The “Nedeljkovic Might Get Traded” Theory

There are two main theories, the first is that Nedeljkovic is being actively shopped on the trade market and the team wants to make sure they have a serviceable backup in the case that a trade comes along suddenly, and they want to pull the trigger without worrying about who will play behind Husso the next night.

Alex Nedeljkovic Detroit Red Wings
Alex Nedeljkovic, Detroit Red Wings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

So far, I haven’t seen any reports from NHL insiders about Nedeljkovic’s name being out in trade talks, but it seems entirely possible considering his diminished role and his pedigree as a solid but streaky goalie. Ned’s contract expires this year so he could be a valuable rental piece for a good team looking for some goaltending depth for their stretch run/playoff run. Perhaps a team like the Minnesota Wild (missing Marc-Andre Fleury due to injury) or the Boston Bruins (missing Linus Ullmark after an injury Friday afternoon) could be interested, especially if Detroit is willing to retain some of Ned’s salary.

The “Nedeljkovic Might Be Injured” Theory

As I mentioned before, Husso has started the last five games, but that’s not all, as Ned only has two starts in the Red Wings’ last 11 games. Obviously, we know that Husso has been excellent, and you play your best goalie whenever possible, but there’s a chance that one of the factors contributing to Nedeljkovic’s lack of starts lately is a nagging injury, either physical or mental.

Related: Diagnosing Nedeljkovic’s 2022-23 Struggles

If Nedeljkovic is dealing with a minor injury that isn’t quite going away that the team believes is holding him back, it would be a great call to add Hellberg and give Ned some time to rest and recover mentally and physically so he can come back as good as ever. Then Detroit could put Hellberg back on waivers to be whisked away to his next destination and move on with a fully healthy tandem. Detroit clearly doesn’t need Hellberg long-term in the NHL if they’re keeping both Husso and Ned.

Every Goalie Decision is About Husso or Cossa

The Red Wings don’t need another goalie in either the NHL or AHL as everything currently stands so the move doesn’t make a lot of sense within the current context. Detroit has at least two, and maybe three, goalies that I’d trust as an emergency backup who are not currently in the NHL. Both Jussi Olkinuora and Victor Brattstrom could easily be called up to the NHL on an emergency basis to fill in behind Husso, with Sebastian Cossa having an outside chance at filling the role. The two goalies that the Red Wings’ management team cares the most about is their NHL starter (Husso) and their top goaltending prospect in Cossa.

Sebastian Cossa Edmonton Oil Kings
Sebastian Cossa of the Edmonton Oil Kings (Andy Devlin/Edmonton Oil Kings)

They have plenty of goalies who could fill Nedeljkovic’s spot for a night or two, but Hellberg could hold down the fort for longer than that if need be and I believe that Red Wings management wants their minor league goalies to all stay put as they’ve finally found a home for Cossa in the ECHL where he gets plenty of ice time for the Toledo Walleye.

If they need a goalie to fill in for Ned for a week and that meant that Brattstrom was called up, then they’d likely need to move Cossa around as well to fill in the empty goalie spot in Grand Rapids, and that doesn’t seem to be an idea they are prepared to entertain. He bounced around enough in the first few weeks of the season and now they seem prepared to leave him in the ECHL to get comfortable and build some consistency.

Most Goalie Depth Detroit has had in Years

Regardless of the reason for his acquisition, Hellberg provides another reminder that this team has the best goaltending depth that fans have seen in years, with more young talent on the way as well. Maybe Ned is on the trade block. Maybe he’s injured, or maybe it’s neither of those options and Yzerman just wanted to get another good look at Hellberg’s incredible Red Wings pads in person. 

Regardless of what the reason truly is, it’s nice to see Hellberg holding an NHL roster spot even though he has only made one start so far this season, I know I’m not the only Red Wings fan who hopes to see his sweet, winged equipment again. Hopefully the Red Wings provide some clarity on the situation soon either through an announcement of a trade/injury or by placing Hellberg back on waivers. No matter what the answer ends up being, Detroit has one more goalie than they need right now so something is coming on the horizon no doubt.