As the Detroit Red Wings’ rebuild rolls along, everything seems up in the air at any given moment. The primary area of concern at this point would be the defense, but that’s not to say that other things don’t need to be addressed too. Throughout the 2021-22 season, they seemed to have an imbalance in goaltending between Alex Nedeljkovic and Thomas Greiss, with Nedeljkovic getting the nod as the primary starting netminder. Things looked pretty good with him for the most part as he played out his rookie season, yet he was carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders without anyone to truly take the load off.
This being said, a new goaltender seems to be on the ‘Yzerplan’ wish list before the puck drops on the 2022-23 season. If the Red Wings were to stick with Nedeljkovic as the primary goaltender, who would fill out the tandem?
Need to Know About Ned
Nedeljkovic was acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for the rights to Jonathan Bernier and a third-round pick, which has since proven to be another great move by general manager Steve Yzerman. He ended up starting 23 games in the 2020-21 season with the Hurricanes and was one of three finalists for the Calder Trophy. Since joining the Red Wings at the start of the 2021-22 season, he has appeared in 59 games, with a record of 20-24-9, having only previously played 29 NHL games with the Hurricanes. He faced 1,796 shots and made 1,618 saves, leaving him with a .901 save percentage (SV%) – not too shabby for his first full NHL season.
Nedeljkovic’s 2021-22 season has shown the extreme highs and lows that a rookie goaltender goes through, as he consistently left everyone wondering what kind of game they would see out of him. When he was great, he was stellar, yet when he was bad, he was truly not good. However, not all blame for the drastic fluctuation in his performance should solely fall on him, considering the Red Wings’ defense this season was barely there.
So, using Nedeljkovic as the foundation, who in the system will best complement him to not only give him proper relief but bring the team more overall success?
Who’s in the Red Wings’ Goalie System?
After a lackluster season as the Red Wings’ secondary goaltender, Thomas Greiss’s future in Detroit seems to have a question mark floating around it as he is an unrestricted free agent (UFA) for the 2022-23 season. He seems to have passed his prime, as the 36-year-old did not look up-to-par in contrast to his younger tandem mate. Like Nedeljkovic, he also was inconsistent throughout this season, but the highs were not quite as good and the lows were equally as bad but seemed to take longer to come out of. This being said, he walked away from 31 games with a .891 SV% which was the worst in his entire 13-year NHL career.
Greiss formerly played for the San Jose Sharks, Phoenix Coyotes (now Arizona), Pittsburgh Penguins, and the New York Islanders before coming to Detroit for the 2020-21 season. Last season was better for him, as he appeared in 34 games, faced 894 shots, and maintained a lower goals-against average (GAA) (2.70 compared to 3.66) and higher SV% (.912). His stats from last season just about match his career averages perfectly but this season was a sharp departure from his typical trajectory. Yet, not all was bad, as he still was able to put up showstopping performances against some of the best teams in the league, such as 38 saves against the Tampa Bay Lightning late in the season. Big picture-wise, it is the right time for the Red Wings to move on from him in order to find a more fitting partner for Nedeljkovic.
Having only played in three games and started one as a Wing this year, Calvin Pickard spent the majority of his time down with the Grand Rapids Griffins in the American Hockey League (AHL) but still made an impact in red and white. His big hurrah behind the winged wheel came in the Jan. 28 road game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He faced 38 shots and allowed two goals which were good enough to secure a well-needed victory for the struggling Red Wings.
With 116 career NHL games under his belt, the 30-year-old Pickard is a younger player with a sprinkle of league experience and some decent stats to show for it all. He has a .903 SV% and a 3.09 GAA for his nine seasons in the league between the Colorado Avalanche, Toronto Maple Leafs, Philadelphia Flyers, Arizona Coyotes, and now Detroit Red Wings. He has been doing his thing with the Griffins as he has played in 43 games with a record of 21-16-5 and a .918 SV%. He makes for a decent third-string goaltender for the Red Wings, but it seems unlikely that he will get the full call-up to be half of the day-to-day tandem. As he is a UFA, there is no guarantee that he will be kept in the system for the upcoming season, but there is always a chance.
Magnus Hellberg signed a one-year contract with the Red Wings on April 13 and was somewhat a flicker of hope that Yzerman was starting his hunt for a new goaltender. He showed up to Detroit with potentially one of the coolest goalie setups to ever grace the face of the ice and was ready to get to work. Having only played in four NHL games prior to joining the Red Wings, Hellberg was somewhat of an oddball name to see pop up in a contract. Definitely not in a bad way, but adding him to the system that late in the season was an interesting choice that can be interpreted as a placeholder or just a flat-out replacement for Greiss, but the decision was interesting nonetheless. Like Greiss and Pickard, Hellberg is a UFA and has no guaranteed spot in Detroit, so he could have potential as a piece of a trade package for Yzerman in the offseason.
Most recently, he has been over in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with Kunlun Red Star, St. Petersburg SKA, and Sochi HC since the 2017-18 season and had been hoisting winning records while never recording less than a .917 SV%. Prior to that, he was bouncing around between ECHL, AHL, and NHL teams in North America; including the Milwaukee Admirals, Cincinnati Cyclones, Nashville Predators, Hartford Wolf Pack, and New York Rangers. Hellberg has two NHL wins to his name now, one with the Rangers in the 2016-17 season and one with Detroit in the 2021-22 season, and just does not seem to be a fit for the NHL level of play long term.
As the Red Wings’ top goaltending prospect, Sebastian Cossa has been turning heads in the Western Hockey League (WHL) with the Edmonton Oil Kings. He has been big in net, quite literally, but also in terms of his play. In the 2020-21 season, he was awarded the WHL recognition for the best SV% (.941) and goals-against average (1.57). Being 6-foot-6 gives him the ability to take up most of the net solely by being in it, but he also has the skillset needed to be flexible and effective for his size.
Cossa was just named the WHL Goaltender of the Week on May 9 on top of being the reigning WHL Goaltender of the Month after two consecutive shutout performances. Throughout the Oil Kings’ run in the WHL Playoffs thus far, he has appeared in seven games with three of those being shutouts while having made 150 saves and only allowing 10 goals.
This is Cossa’s third season in the WHL while only being 19-years-old and his future seems to be bright whether it be in the NHL or another professional league. It is highly unlikely that he is next in line to be called up to the Red Wings given his age and lack of experience at a comparable level, but it can’t be fully ruled out either. Odds are that a free agent would be brought in to at least bridge the gap until he is deemed “ready to rumble” by Yzerman and company but nonetheless, he is a shining star of a goaltending prospect for the Red Wings organization to have.
The Upcoming Season
The 2022-23 season is a complete and utter mystery for the Red Wings as the rebuild will be a hot-button topic all summer long and nothing seems to be set in stone. Changes in the roster, coaching staff, and everything in between are in store for the upcoming months and once again, all eyes will be on the puppet master himself, Yzerman.
Is Nedeljkovic the cornerstone that the Red Wings will build up their goaltending depth around? It could truly go either way, but given the way that he performed this season and the chances he was given as the primary starter, I would lean towards yes when you take everything into consideration, such as his highlights from this season, the overall defensive struggles, other goaltenders in the system, and lastly his demeanor. His mindset and attitude throughout such a turbulent season did not seem to waiver much even through his roughest stretches.
For the time being, the Red Wings have a solid starting goaltender in Nedeljkovic. He is still young at only 26 years old and has shown all the signs of a successful NHL goalie, so there is no reason to wave him off after this season even given the negatives. The question as to who would back him up still stands and it may end up being a new addition to the organization rather than anyone currently in it, but only time will tell. It would be cool to see Cossa get the nod, but he is only 19 years old and could use more time in other leagues to fine-tune his game.
With Greiss, Pickard, and Hellberg all being UFAs, they are all liable to not be brought back for the 2022-23 season which makes way for Yzerman to bring in a free agent goaltender in their place. Guessing who will come, who will stay, and who will go is nearly impossible, but the floor is open for Yzerman to make his offseason moves. All that being said, Nedeljkovic is a strong foundation to build off of and Yzerman has the best set of tools to do so, which makes for a promising future for the Red Wings’ goaltending system.
Delaney Rimer writes about the Detroit Red Wings for THW who brings a new perspective to the hockey scene as a young female in the industry. Formerly, she wrote for Octopus Thrower- a Detroit Red Wings fan blog.