One of the best things about being a member of the Red Wings team here at THW is our weekly column The Grind Line in which we all sound off on a topic of our choosing. I think it not only highlights differing perspectives on various Red Wings topics, but it also serves as a vessel for us writers to offer a glimpse into our personalities and our overall thoughts on the team as a whole. If you haven’t checked out that column (or our YouTube show by the same name), I highly recommend it.
The one downside to the column is that WE pick the topics. Well, with the 2021-22 season just a month away, I wanted to find out what topics are on YOUR mind as the offseason comes to a close. Thus, here we are with the first edition of “Red Wings Mailbag”.
After posting a call for questions on Twitter, I received a handful of questions that I’ll be answering in today’s column (be sure to give me a follow, or leave a question in the comments section below that you want me to answer in the next one!) Today’s questions include a couple about the Red Wings’ goaltending situation, Lucas Raymond’s development and the identity of the team. Without further ado, let’s dive in!
If Red Wings’ Goaltending Doesn’t Work Out this Season, Would Detroit Tank to Put Themselves in a Better Lottery Position?
If there’s any one thing that could drag down the Red Wings’ performance this season, it’s the possibility that their goaltenders come out flat this season. Returning is Thomas Greiss who, at 35 years old, fared very well in the last half of last season, but it’s fair to wonder if and when the tires may start falling off. Joining him this season is 25-year-old Alex Nedeljkovic after being acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for the ghost of Jonathan Bernier and the 94th pick in the 2021 draft. If you want to know what kind of upside “Ned” brings to the Wings’ lineup, check out this article.
As a finalist for the Calder Trophy (awarded to the Rookie of the Year) last season, it’s very easy to get excited about the 37th pick of the 2014 draft. That being said, I have made no mystery of my concerns in regards to jumping on the Nedeljkovic bandwagon this quickly. While some people look at the Hurricanes’ decision to trade the young goaltender as a laughable mistake, I can’t help but wonder why they would be so willing to part with a Calder finalist. They are one of the best teams in the league, and they did not get there by undervaluing their players. With just 29 NHL games to his name, I think this season is very much a “prove it” year for Ned as far as whether or not he is truly an NHL goaltender.
So what if it all goes wrong? Greiss looks more like he did in the first half of the 2020-21 season, and Nedlejkovic cracks under the pressure of being “the guy” for an NHL franchise – what do the Red Wings do? Well, I don’t necessarily think they’ll have to go out of their way to “tank” this season – their goaltending, or lack thereof, will do most of the work for them. That being said, general manager Steve Yzerman strikes me as a realist when dealing with his roster. I think you can expect the Red Wings to offload some of their veterans on expiring contracts in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, and that’s regardless of whether or not the goaltending duo works out. Those moves will likely help the team “tank” in the process, but it’s not necessarily the full intent of those moves.
Long story short, I don’t think the Red Wings are going to intentionally rely on tanking this season. Even when they were the worst team in the league, they still only landed the fourth overall pick. If there’s one position that could tank the Red Wings on its own, however, it is goaltending. That’s the risk you have to weigh when you bet on an inexperienced goaltender like Nedeljkovic.
If Cossa Impresses at the Prospects Tournament, Could We See Him with the Red Wings as Early as 2022-2023 Season?
If the Red Wings’ current goaltending situation doesn’t work out, the bright side is that they do have a goaltending prospect capable of becoming that “goalie of the future” in Sebastian Cossa. Fans that haven’t watched him play with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League (WHL) should get their first look at him soon as he is on Detroit’s roster for the upcoming Prospects Tournament in Traverse City.
While I wouldn’t write off the possibility of Cossa accelerating his NHL timeline, I’m going to point to the other goalie that Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman drafted in the first round: Andrei Vasilevskiy. Taken with the 19th pick of the 2012 draft, “Vasi” made his NHL debut as a 20-year-old back-up to Ben Bishop during the 2014-15 season. It wasn’t until the 2017 trade that sent Bishop to the Los Angeles Kings that Vasilevskiy fully assumed the role of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s go-to guy in net.
I bring up Vasilevskiy because I think his timeline and what the Lightning had going on could closely resemble the Red Wings’ situation in a few years. Cossa will return to the WHL this season where he will be determined to show the rest of the hockey world why Detroit opted for him instead of Swedish goaltender Jesper Wallstedt, whom most people had ranked ahead of him in the 2021 draft. From there, the Red Wings’ goaltending situation depends on two things:
- How did Cossa do this season?
- How did Nedeljkovic do in Detroit this season?
When Vasilevskiy showed up in Tampa Bay, Bishop was still just 28 years old and had 108 NHL regular season games under his belt. Nedeljkovic will turn 26 years old in January, and he has yet to truly cement himself as an NHL starting goaltender. If he can do that this season, the Red Wings have the luxury of easing Cossa in as they see fit – and I do believe that easing him in is their preferred approach here. If “Ned” falters this season, however, the attention is going to fall on Cossa as people wonder “is he ready yet?” That is unfair pressure to place on an 18-year-old goaltender.
Long story short, yes, I think there’s a possibility that Cossa could play himself into the Red Wings’ plans for the 2022-23 season, but I think it’s more about how he fares during the WHL season rather than the Prospects Tournament. It should also be noted that the only goalies that have under contract for that season are Nedeljkovic and Cossa. That being said, I wouldn’t take it as a given, as Yzerman and Co. are going to want to make sure that their top goaltending prospect isn’t rushed in before he’s ready. When he does make the team, the expectations right now should be that he will be Ned’s understudy for a couple of seasons before taking over, much like Vasilevskiy did in Tampa Bay. Whether that happens next season or later is entirely dependent on the play of both Nedlejkovic and Cossa.
If Lucas Raymond Converts to Center, what is His Ceiling, and How does that Impact the Red Wings Trajectory?
I love this question because, while I debate which wing he would ultimately be the most successful on, I have never considered the possibility of him playing down the middle. How would a change in position impact things for Raymond and the Red Wings? In short: a lot.
Generally speaking, I believe that forwards can play higher in the lineup on the wings than they would if they played down the middle. So, for example, if a player is a second line winger, they would probably fit best on the third line if they play down the middle. You have more freedom on the wings, and playing down the middle demands excellence in areas you don’t necessarily have to worry about when you’re playing elsewhere (two-way play, face-offs, etc.)
So how does this all apply to Raymond? Well, as it is, I think he has the potential to become a top-tier winger in the NHL. No matter what type of player you think he’ll become, I think his offensive instincts are truly elite, and that should translate to him becoming a consistent offensive threat at the NHL level. Depending on the development of others around him, as well as their draft luck over the next couple of years, the Red Wings may not be in a position to move a talent like that off of the wings.
First and foremost, I need to see him play down the middle before I can say whether or not that move would work. Some players have that versatility in their game, while others flourish by staying in their lane. But, using my logic from before, if Raymond can become a top-tier winger, that means he could develop into a solid, if unspectacular top six center. Essentially, his potential down the middle probably tops out at what Dylan Larkin is right now.
If he makes that adjustment and realizes the potential I laid out for him here, that definitely changes things for the Red Wings. While a center core of Larkin, Raymond, Joe Veleno and Michael Rasmussen boasts versatility and some scoring promise, you have to wonder about a lack of star power there and throughout the rest of the lineup. As it stands, I believe Raymond is the only forward in Detroit’s prospect pool that has legitimate superstar potential – but he has that potential as a winger. I don’t think it would hurt to develop his skills down the middle, but that should be more of a secondary focus. The Red Wings need to develop difference-makers, and I think Raymond’s top potential in that regard lies on the wing.
With the Changes that Have Taken Place, Do You feel the Identity of the Red Wings is Changing? If so, What to?
To address whether or not the Red Wings’ identity is changing, the first thing we should do is establish what their identity was in the first place.
Since the departure of Henrik Zetterberg in 2018, this team’s identity has been in flux. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons that fans were clamoring for Yzerman and Blashill to name a team captain prior to last season was because of this perceived lack of identity. The captain often leads the way in terms of a team’s identity, and without one, you’ve got a group of players that are mostly just trying to do what the coach asks of them. I think it’s no coincidence that the season they finally named Larkin captain was the same season that the Red Wings not only made progress, but they seemed to adopt a workman’s mentality as a team. That mentality, in my opinion, became the team’s identity for the 2020-21 season.
As Billy alludes to, a lot of change has taken place since the day Larkin was named captain. Most of the familiar faces from the Ken Holland era are gone, and in their place are rookies, younger veterans, and prime-aged players with something to prove. This is going to affect the locker room dynamics as well as the team itself. But what about the team’s identity?
When Yzerman was asked earlier this year about the team’s identity, he didn’t give a concrete answer.
“Ultimately it’s as simple as we want good players. We want to have a good team,” Yzerman said.
Based on that comment as well as the team he built down in Tampa Bay, I believe the identity of the “Yzerplan” is one based on skill – and lots of it. By adding skilled players at every position, it appears that the Red Wings’ GM is taking steps towards building a team that embodies that identity.
However, entering the 2021-22 season, this is a roster whose skill level still can’t go toe-to-toe with the best of the league. The Lightning see your Jakub Vrana and raise you a Nikita Kucherov. The Florida Panthers see your Filip Hronek and raise you an Aaron Ekblad. This is why I believe Detroit will return to that workman identity for this season. The only difference is that they’ve added enough skill that their hard work should pay off a little more. This team’s identity is heading in a certain direction, but it’s not going to get there overnight.
What’s Better for the Red Wings: a Big Improvement on Last Season, or a Top 5 Pick in the 2022 Draft?
We more or less addressed this question in our latest issue of The Grind Line. In it, I stated that lottery luck would be huge for the Red Wings, and I stand by that. With a potential top-tier center prospect like Shane Wright sitting atop the 2022 draft class, having the opportunity to add a prospect like him to the Red Wings’ prospect pool would be like adding a pack of Mentos to a bottle of Coca-Cola.
That being said, I don’t think the Red Wings should actively tank for Wright. I believe that the damage done to a team and organization while tanking sets them back by years, regardless of whether or not they get some love in the lottery. Look at the Edmonton Oilers and the Buffalo Sabres. They’ve had plenty of luck in the lottery over the last decade, but neither of them have much to show for it. Things are so bad in Buffalo that, even though they just landed Owen Power with the first pick in this year’s draft, they’re still in the process of tearing down from their last rebuild.
Based on the quality of their team as is, the Red Wings should improve on last season without improving so much that they’re picking 12th on draft day. A top-10 pick is a pretty safe bet, and a top-five pick is not out of the question. It’s a total cop-out, but if the Red Wings can make some improvements on last season while also staying in their lane as far as league standings go, this will be a successful year from a rebuild standpoint.
Thank you to those of you who sent me questions and made this article possible. As previously mentioned, if you have a question you want me to answer, feel free to leave a comment on this article, or send me a message on Twitter. Depending on feedback and reception, you might be seeing more of this column as the 2021-22 season begins.
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I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.