Red Wings Rebuild Right on Track

It all started with Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman’s shocking move to trade winger Anthony Mantha to the Washington Capitals. The question of whether or not the Red Wings’ rebuild is as far along as Yzerman hoped started popping up as people witnessed a “core” piece of Detroit’s roster get dealt away during another losing season. To be fair, that’s a valid concern; the Red Wings’ GM often grouped Mantha in with Dylan Larkin and Filip Hronek as players he aimed to build around in the early days of his tenure. If the big power forward was no longer part of the future plans, then the future must be further away than initially anticipated, right?

Not necessarily. You see, since the day Yzerman was introduced as the club’s next GM, “The Captain” has preached and pleaded for patience.

“This takes time, and this organization has been through it before,” Yzerman said during his introductory press conference, sitting alongside former GM Ken Holland and team president/owner Chris Ilitch. “I can’t give you a specific timeline, but we are going to do this in the way that I believe will get us to where we need to be.”

Yzerman reiterated that thought process almost a year later, following a 2020 trade deadline that saw him trade away defenseman Mike Green and forward Andreas Athanasiou. “It’s very difficult to sell and we have to show progress. I’m hoping the progress shows next year in wins and losses, but it will show in prospects in the system and their development,” he said. “But at some point we have to show progress and I’m confident we’ll do that. All I can ask for is patience. Honestly, I don’t know what to tell people, but that’s what we’re doing.” (From “Detroit Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman preaches patience as he plots his next move”, The Detroit Free Press, 2/25/20)

Steve Yzerman, Christopher Ilitch
Steve Yzerman and Christopher Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, Inc. after Yzerman is introduced as the new executive vice president and general manager of the Detroit Red Wings. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Just over two years after Yzerman was officially named the Red Wings’ next GM, it seems that fans are starting to get a bit antsy. Their team hasn’t made the playoffs since 2016. That same team did not fully embrace the rebuild until the end of the 2017-18 season. After enjoying a playoff streak that spanned a quarter of a century, you can’t blame fans and people who follow this team for wondering when we might return to the glory days.

Despite the small but growing narrative that this rebuild is going to take longer than initially perceived, let me reassure you that Yzerman’s “Yzerplan” is right on schedule.

A Growing Prospect Pool

When is the last time the Red Wings had a top three prospect, let alone two of the top three? TSN’s Craig Button recently ranked 2020 draftee Lucas Raymond as the third-best prospect outside of the NHL, and he named 2019 draftee Moritz Seider as the number one prospect. In both drafts that Yzerman has been in charge, the Red Wings have added a legitimate blue chip prospect into their system with their first pick in the draft. While they may seem easy to do considering Detroit picked sixth in 2019 and fourth in 2020, you don’t have to look too far into the history books to find that picking that high does not always equate to a successful pick.

But it doesn’t end with those two players. Holland’s parting gift to Yzerman was a prospect pool that was already starting to get a face lift. Jonatan Berggren, drafted in 2018, announced himself this season in the SHL as a player with legitimate NHL upside – there are even some people who are higher on him than Raymond! Joe Veleno, also added in the 2018 draft, has now completed solid campaigns in the AHL last season and the SHL this season; he is currently on Detroit’s taxi squad, waiting to be cleared from concussion protocol.

Jonatan Berggren Sweden
Jonatan Berggren #17 of the Sweden Nationals skates up ice with the puck against the Finland Nationals during the 2018 Under-18 Five Nations Tournament game at USA Hockey Arena on February 15, 2018 in Plymouth, Michigan. Finland defeated Sweden 5-3. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)

And the list goes on. The Red Wings should find themselves with another top 10 pick in this year’s draft, possibly even another top five pick if they stop collecting points at the rate they have been down the stretch this season. Though the 2021 draft class has a cloud of mystery and uncertainty around it, there are good players to be found, and Detroit has the added benefit of a second first round pick, acquired in the Mantha trade. Yzerman should be able to add two more solid, if not spectacular pieces to a prospect pool that should be recognized as one of the better pools in the league.

Cap Room for Days

As you may or may not have heard, the Red Wings are positioned to have a ton of cap space heading into this offseason – almost $50 million to be exact. While a good chunk of that space will be spent to re-sign the team’s pending restricted free agents as well as whatever unrestricted free agents Yzerman wants to fill out the team with, Detroit should still be left with ample cap space to make as bold a move as they want to.

Yzerman could (and should) look to take on an ugly contract or two in exchange for draft picks, much like what he did with Marc Staal and the New York Rangers before the 2020-21 season. With a flat salary cap and the overall financial uncertainty linked to the ongoing pandemic, Detroit is in prime position to capitalize on the financial squeeze being felt throughout the league. The Staal transaction could not have gone any better for Detroit: they received a second round pick for taking him on, and he has enjoyed arguably his most successful season since entering his 30’s.

Marc Staal Detroit Red Wings
Marc Staal, Detroit Red Wings (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

There are a few other maneuvers the Red Wings can do to utilize their cap space:

Expansion Draft Assistance

This kind of goes hand-in-hand with the idea of taking on bad contracts in exchange for picks, but with the Seattle Kraken looming just around the corner, not every team will be in as good a position as Detroit is. In fact, the worst case scenario for Detroit in regards to the expansion draft is probably losing Adam Erne, who has been highly effective for the Red Wings in a fourth line role this season.

Other teams that seem destined to lose a very good player could look to Detroit as a way to open up a protection slot. The Red Wings could take on a player that a team would normally have to protect (due to a no-movement clause or something of that sort) but they don’t want to, and in exchange, the Red Wings would receive some sort of futures-based compensation. It’s not just the expansion team that can broker those kinds of deals.

Offer Sheet!?!?

This is an idea that was recently floated by Prashanth Iyer over at Winging It in Motown, and it is not without its merits. Offer sheets have become almost as rare as Hronek scoring a goal that isn’t an empty-netter, but whenever one is signed, it’s almost always a case of one team with bottomless pockets trying to pick on a team with seemingly tight pockets. The Montreal Canadiens tried to bully the Carolina Hurricanes out of Sebastian Aho; the Philadelphia Flyers tried to do the same with the Nashville Predators and defenseman Shea Weber.

Sebastian Aho Carolina Hurricanes
Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With the Red Wings’ vast amount of cap space, as well as their collection of draft picks, it’s not out of the question that Detroit could look to poach a player from a team that doesn’t have the cap space to match Detroit’s offer. Iyer mentions Elias Pettersson of the Vancouver Canucks as a player worth targeting, and there’s no doubt that the Red Wings’ lineup would receive an instant boost by adding him to the roster. While this isn’t the route that I would go to utilize Detroit’s cap space, it’s definitely an intriguing idea, and certainly a viable option for Yzerman as he looks to weaponize the Red Wings’ cap space.

Bold Moves

As the Red Wings’ prospects continue to develop, there will soon come a day where Yzerman will have the opportunity to address deficiencies in his roster by dealing from a position of strength. One potential area I’m already looking at is on the blue line, where the Red Wings suddenly have a ton of prospects with varying upside, not to mention the possibility that Detroit adds another high-end defensive prospect in the 2021 draft. With Seider, Hronek, Gustav Lindstrom, Dennis Cholowski, William Wallinder, Albert Johansson, Jared McIsaac and more in tow (and all of them being 23 years old or younger) the Red Wings may soon find it beneficial to deal away a defender to address a need elsewhere.

Depending on the development of Seider and a few others, here’s my bold idea: would the Flyers be interested in a trade that would send Travis Konecny and/or Nolan Patrick to Detroit in exchange for Hronek? It’s no secret that the early retirement of Matt Niskanen left Philadelphia with a bit of a hole on the right side of their blue line. While Hronek has been a warrior on a mediocre Red Wings blue line over the last couple seasons, there’s no doubt in my mind that he is better suited for a second pairing role. Not only would he address that issue for the Flyers, but he would give them somebody they can go into the future with. In return, the Red Wings could add needed scoring and upside to their offense.

Filip Hronek Detroit Red Wings
Would you be open to trading Filip Hronek? (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The point of this article isn’t what I would do with this team, however. The point is that Yzerman’s moves over the last two years have afforded him some flexibility today with even more flexibility coming tomorrow. We’re entering the phase of the rebuild where the pieces are slowly beginning to fall into place, and if Yzerman doesn’t have all the pieces he would like to have, he has the chips needed to put the right pieces in place. Patience isn’t just about waiting for players to get drafted and developed, it’s also about waiting for the right time to take a big swing at a team-altering move.

When is the Window?

The biggest question looming over the Red Wings’ rebuild is when can fans expect their team to contend for the playoffs again. In other words, when does their “window” open? Well, as even Yzerman would say, it’s a bit of a moving target. It depends on the development of the team’s top prospects. If Seider and/or Raymond fail to live up to the hype, that’s going to push the timeline back a bit. That’s why rebuilds are never built the same: the Toronto Maple Leafs turned things around pretty quickly once they landed Auston Matthews in 2016, but the Buffalo Sabres are still rebuilding despite landing Jack Eichel in 2015 and Rasmus Dahlin in 2018. There are simply too many variables at play to definitively say “this is the year we will start contending.”

But for the sake of reassurance and making my point, let me offer this: when a GM arrives and immediately preaches patience, they are not thinking they’re going to turn things around in two or three years. No, when they preach patience even a year into their tenure, they’re thinking it’s going to take five or more years to get all the pieces in place. That puts us at the 2023-24 season, though I’ll admit I’m slightly more optimistic than that.

Tyler Wright Steve Yzerman Kris Draper Detroit Red Wings
Tyler Wright, Steve Yzerman and Kris Draper of the Detroit Red Wings, 2019 NHL Draft (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Whether the window opens next season or three seasons from now, the plan is in place. It’s not behind schedule, it’s right on time. If you’re expecting a train to arrive at 6:45 and it instead arrives at 7:00, do you immediately assume that the train is late, or do you pull out your ticket and check the time stamped on it?

Check your tickets, folks. The train will be arriving soon.

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