Red Wings Face Big Lineup Decisions as Injured Players Return

With the end of December comes the beginning of January. And, for the Detroit Red Wings, with the beginning of January comes a handful of players returning to the lineup after missing time with injury. Considering the fact that the Red Wings have technically never iced a fully-healthy lineup this season, this is certainly welcome news.

With winger Jakub Vrana exiting the player’s assistance program on Dec. 16, he will likely be the first player to return to the Red Wings’ lineup, possibly even before we flip the calendar to 2023. But once that calendar flips, players returning to the lineup will almost be a weekly occurrence.

Jakub Vrana Detroit Red Wings
Jakub Vrana, Detroit Red Wings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

But with so many bodies slated to return to the lineup over the next few weeks and only 23 roster spots to go around, some big decisions loom in terms of who will be moved off the roster to make room for the returning players. Once Vrana is officially activated from his leave, the Red Wings will have a full roster with 23 out of 23 available spots taken. This means we should soon be getting the answers to some of the burning questions we’ve had about this team over the last month or so.

Which Red Wings Are Returning?

On Jan. 1, forward Robby Fabbri is slated to become available for the Red Wings. The soon-to-be 27-year-old has not played since Mar. 10 when he played just over eight minutes against the Minnesota Wild before suffering a knee injury. Prior to the injury, he had 30 points in 56 games and was on pace to post career-best offensive numbers. He is in the first year of a three-year extension he signed with Detroit on Dec. 14, 2021.

While Fabbri has never played a game under new head coach Derek Lalonde, the forward has shown himself to be a versatile piece in the Red Wings’ lineup in prior seasons. He can move up and down the top-nine, and he can line up down the middle if he needs to. He’s a solid complimentary offensive player that has some finishing ability and should provide offensive depth as soon as he enters the lineup.

Related: Red Wings Mailbag: Strong Start, Healthy Lineup & More

Over the next two weeks of January, the Red Wings should also see the return of forwards Tyler Bertuzzi and Filip Zadina. Bertuzzi exited the lineup on Nov. 30 after having to undergo surgery on a broken left hand. This is the second time this season that the scrappy winger has missed time with a hand injury after he injured in right hand back in October. Zadina left the Red Wings’ game on Nov. 5 after blocking a shot with his leg, and was given a recovery timeline of six-to-eight weeks afterwards.

Two other players that might return are defensemen Robert Hägg and Mark Pysyk, the latter of which has not been able to suit up for the Red Wings this season. Both were signed in the offseason to provide depth on the blue line and create competition for younger defenders such as Gustav Lindström and top prospect Simon Edvinsson. While Pysyk has not seen game action yet, Hägg has produced middling results through 13 games on the Red Wings’ bottom pairing.

All in all, the Red Wings could see a grand total of six players become available between now and the end of January. If there are no other injuries or moves, those returnees would put Detroit over the roster limit by five. While injuries are unpredictable but inevitable, it goes without saying that the Red Wings and general manager Steve Yzerman are going to have to make some moves in order to make room for all these returning players.

Which Red Wings Might Go?

When determining the answer to this question, it’s important to note that roster construction isn’t always about “who are the 23 best players available?” Asset management is a real thing, especially for a team like the Red Wings that cannot afford to let any of their assets go to waste. This is why there may be some unpopular decisions made over the coming weeks.

The Red Wings currently have two players on their roster with minimal NHL experience that could be sent down to the American Hockey League (AHL) without having to pass through waivers. Those players are wingers Jonatan Berggren and Elmer Söderblom, both of which have spent some time with the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins, this season. While Söderblom earned a roster spot at the start of the season and showed some promise alongside fellow big men Michael Rasmussen and Oskar Sundqvist, Berggren has been a revelation since he joined the Red Wings in the second week of November. Together, they combine for eight goals and 15 points this season.

The Red Wings are also carrying three goaltenders right now, one more than the usual amount teams carry during the season. On Nov. 23, Detroit claimed Magnus Hellberg off of waivers from the Seattle Kraken, and the goalie situation in Hockeytown has been in question ever since. While Ville Husso has been a rock for the Red Wings this season, Alex Nedeljkovic has struggled all season and hasn’t inspired confidence the same way that his Finnish counterpart has. When the Red Wings added Hellberg, a 31-year-old Swedish netminder that played the final game of the 2021-22 season for Detroit, many started to wonder if Nedeljkovic’s days in Detroit were numbered.

While Hellberg was brilliant with the Griffins when he joined them on a conditioning stint (2-2 record, 2.50 goals-against average, .932 save-percentage) that brilliance did not carry over when he played his first game with the Red Wings this season. He allowed three goals on 21 shots against the Wild on Dec. 14, and really didn’t do much to suggest Nedeljkovic’s spot behind Husso should be in jeopardy. “Ned” has a 2-4-2 record, a 4.09 GAA and a .880 SV% this season. The Red Wings aren’t going to carry three goalies forever, so expect them to waive Nedeljkovic or Hellberg, or possibly even trade one of them, within the next week or two.

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

Other players that could depart the roster for various reasons:

  • Joe Veleno – exempt from waivers; has nine points in 31 games this season.
  • Pius Suter – final year of contract; has floated all around the lineup despite being a solid two-way contributor.
  • Adam Erne – final year of contract; physical bottom six player with 13 points in 32 games this season.

Shaping the Red Wings’ Lineup

Alright, now we know who’s coming and who could be going. Now it’s time to assess what the Red Wings’ roster might actually look like when all is said and done.

We know that the top line will feature Dylan Larkin down the middle. He is the team’s top center, and that’s not going to change unless he departs the lineup for some reason. Rasmussen and Andrew Copp have primarily centered the team’s second and third lines, though both have also spent some time on the wing this season. Veleno has been the Red Wings’ fourth line center for most of the season.

The wingers on each line will more than likely be an everchanging thing, especially with the trade deadline looming on March 3. Different combinations have shown varying levels of promise throughout the season, and if the Red Wings do decide to sell as the trade deadline approaches, some players will find themselves in differing roles to showcase what they could do for another team. This, among other reasons, is why it is almost impossible to really nail down what the lineup will look like once everyone is available.

But based on previous combinations from this season, here’s an idea of what a fully-healthy lineup could look like:

Tyler BertuzziDylan LarkinLucas Raymond
Jakub VranaRobby FabbriDavid Perron
Andrew CoppMichael RasmussenOskar Sundqvist
Dominik KubalikJoe VelenoJonatan Berggren
Ben ChiarotMoritz Seider
Olli MäättäFilip Hronek
Jake WalmanJordan Oesterle

This lineup leaves Erne, Suter, Zadina and Söderblom as the forwards on the outside looking in. Hägg and Lindström are in similar positions among the defensive group. Only Söderblom would be able to report to the AHL without being exposed to waivers.

The biggest question with this lineup is if Veleno and Berggren stay on the team despite the fact they could both be sent to join the Griffins without passing through waivers. That would solve most of their issues in terms of roster spots, but both are promising, young players that have showed good offensive potential together, giving the Red Wings the type of offensive depth in their bottom six that they haven’t had in years.

Needless to say, there are some tough decisions coming up for the Red Wings. As was previously mentioned, asset management is going to be key here. Yzerman will have to make sure he retains the players that make his team better while also making sure that he is able to extract value from players that may not have a spot on the roster anymore.

Having too many NHL-quality players is a good problem to have, but it is a problem nonetheless. How the Red Wings go about solving this problem over the next few weeks will go a long way towards determining how the rest of their 2022-23 season will go.

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