Red Wings Goaltending Is Crucial to Completing the Rebuild

The Detroit Red Wings are gradually becoming “painfully mediocre.” Management has addressed the forwards and defense, and as their prospects develop, the team will only get better. The only thing it will take to become truly competitive is time, and the 2021-22 season is going to be a step in the right direction. 

However, one thing that’s not talked about enough is goaltending. That might be because Jonathan Bernier and Thomas Greiss were a solid duo last season. Still, with Bernier’s departure and as Greiss gets older, the team must get their goaltending headed in the right direction as well.

Alex Nedeljkovic’s “Prove It” Season

I’ve often addressed the trade for Alex Nedeljkovic. So much so that it might be tedious at this point. However, it’s essential to highlight how good this trade was. There is no reason a Calder Trophy finalist should have been given up for scraps (a third-round pick and the rights to goaltender Jonathan Bernier). Although, the Carolina Hurricanes spent a fair amount of money on goaltenders in free agency this offseason. They splurged on Frederik Andersen instead of keeping Nedeljkovic, which is odd no matter which side of the spectrum you’re on. 

One of the biggest reasons that the Canes were willing to part with him was his lack of experience. He only has 29 games of NHL experience, and for a young team with Stanley Cup aspirations like the Hurricanes, many would argue that they needed a veteran goalie who has been through it all. It’s an understandable point of view and one that the Red Wings benefitted from in both the short and long term.

Alex Nedeljkovic Carolina Hurricanes
Former Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

Nedeljkovic showed what he can do in 2020-21, but this season will be vital in determining his future. He has the talent and the skill to become a regular starter, but consistency matters. If he isn’t consistent, he won’t get the job. He needs to prove that last season wasn’t an outlier and that those games were an accurate representation of the goaltender he can be. Otherwise, the team will suffer and, inevitably, so will his career.

Of course, with goaltenders, you can’t gauge their ability off of one season. One good season and one bad season may not be representative of anything more than inconsistency. Either way, the onus will be on Nedeljkovic to prove his worth and show that the Hurricanes made a big mistake.

Greiss’ Mentorship

Every young goalie needs a mentor. Nedeljkovic will have that this season. Greiss has had an up and down career and has experienced it all. He’s 35 years old and was drafted 94th overall in the 2004 Entry Draft by the San Jose Sharks. He played 44 games with the Sharks and posted a .912 save percentage (SV%). He signed a one-year deal with the Phoenix Coyotes as a free agent in 2013 and played 20 games in a backup role with a .920 SV%. He then moved to the Pittsburgh Penguins, also in a backup role, fared slightly worse with a .908 SV%, before moving again to the New York Islanders, where he spent most of his career. After five seasons and one William M. Jennings Trophy, he became a Red Wings goalie ahead of the 2020-21 season.

Thomas Greiss Detroit Red Wings
Thomas Greiss, Detroit Red Wings (Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)

So, here we are. From backup to Jennings Trophy winner, Greiss knows how to handle adversity and be patient, both vital to a young goaltender’s success in the NHL. With his mentorship and guidance, Nedeljkovic can learn a lot this season. It’s not only in the locker room that Greiss can make a difference, either. He performed well in 2020-21 with a .912 SV%, and although his goals saved above expected (GSAx) per Evolving-Hockey was disappointing, he faced many expected goals against (xGA). More importantly, the defense in front of him gave up many wide-open chances in the slot, which usually resulted in a goal. 

The results were still good enough, and considering that Detroit added the goalie who was third in GSAx among all qualified goaltenders, I’m not worried. Greiss will be a precious asset both on and off the ice, but specifically for Nedeljkovic. For the team to come out of the rebuild, they will need this tandem to play very well. It will also take the younger goalie being open to listening and learning from his elder. Knowledge is power, and it’s one of the most valuable tools at a position that requires consistency.

Sebastian Cossa Is Inevitable

Headed into the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, most expected the Red Wings to select a goaltender; they just didn’t know which one, either Jesper Wallstedt or Sebastian Cossa, though most believed it would be the former. Wallstedt had a higher ceiling, according to most scouts, so he seemed to be the obvious choice. However, general manager Steve Yzerman surprised us all, as he’s done before, and chose Cossa.

Don’t get me wrong; I love what he can bring to the table, even though I probably would not have chosen him after trading up. The astoundingly tall goaltender at 6-foot-6 has the raw tools that he can improve on to become an elite player. In the Western Hockey League (WHL), he played 19 games in 2020-21 with ridiculous numbers. The Edmonton Oil Kings went into each game with confidence, knowing he was in the net. He put up a .942 SV% and a 1.57 goals-against average (GAA). Did I mention that Cossa only lost one game? In 2019-20, he played 33 games and notched a .921 SV% and a 2.23 GAA.

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

No matter which goaltender the Red Wings selected, they would have received an excellent player for the future. However, they will now be committed to Cossa for as long as it takes for him to develop. He is the goaltender of the future, and picturing him in tandem with Nedeljkovic brings joy to my heart. Both are tremendous, and Cossa, in particular, has a chance to become one of the better goalies in the NHL. The most important thing is not to rush him. Since goalies tend to take longer to develop, taking good care of him is of the utmost importance. Luckily, there’s no need to rush him. The tandem is set with Greiss and Nedeljkovic for at least this season and maybe beyond.

The Red Wings have lots of promise. From Lucas Raymond, who showed why he was picked so high at the Traverse City Prospect Showcase, to Moritz Seider–the team’s top prospect and most NHL-ready defenseman–they got their position players. With what appears to be a coaching staff focused on defense, the biggest thing that will pull the team out of the rebuilding phase will be their goaltending. The team’s performance hinges on how well the goaltenders do.

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