Early Success Driving the Red Wings Toward Unchartered Territory

After what seems like a decade toiling at the bottom of the NHL standings, the Detroit Red Wings are finally competitive again. 

Consider this: the New Year is fast approaching and the Red Wings hold the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. They’re not competing for the first-overall pick – the Red Wings are pushing for the playoffs.

This new and evolving identity is great for the on-ice product, but presents a crossroad for Steve Yzerman and his management team. Do the Red Wings continue to sell and rebuild? Or do they set out on a new road toward a postseason berth?

Option 1: Red Wings Sell (As Usual)

We’ve all been here before. Trade pending free agents and acquire prospects and draft picks. Rinse and repeat.

Even though the Red Wings are exceeding expectations this season, the long-term health of the franchise should take priority. Plus, Detroit actually has a couple players worth dealing at the trade deadline: Nick Leddy and Vladislav Namestnikov.

Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nick Leddy
Nick Leddy’s mobility has been a nice value-add for Detroit’s blue line. (Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Leddy, in particular, could fetch a second-round pick from a contender looking to bolster their blue line. He has Stanley Cup experience and still transitions the puck up ice extremely well.

Additionally, Namestnikov’s breakout campaign could lead to a modest return at the trade deadline. A third-round pick for the versatile, middle-six forward isn’t out of the question.

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There’s also Tyler Bertuzzi, who garnered some trade interest over the summer. The 26-year-old forward is the straw that stirs the first line’s drink and has a tendency to step up his game during the postseason. But would Yzerman pass up a great offer to keep his young core intact? He didn’t when it came to Anthony Mantha.

With this approach, Yzerman will likely want to wait until the last minute to move these players out. Detroit has played competitive hockey with Leddy, Namestnikov, and Bertuzzi in the lineup, and this has boded well for the development of their young stars. Delaying until the trade deadline maximizes this for the Red Wings.

Option 2: Act Like a Playoff Team

First of all, apologies if this suggestion brings up repressed memories of Ken Holland mortgaging the future to bolster a flawed playoff push. Rest easy knowing those days are behind us. 

Steve Yzerman, Ken Holland
Will Steve Yzerman follow in Ken Holland’s footsteps and buy at the trade deadline? (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

That said, the Red Wings haven’t reached the postseason since 2016 and the allure of playoff hockey in Detroit may be too appealing to ignore. Why not give the Red Wings a boost? Or at least stand pat. This is a special team after all.

Looking at the roster, two clear pain points emerge: top-six center and the left side of the blue line. Pius Suter is better suited for the third line, and you’re not going to win a playoff series with Danny DeKeyser or Marc Staal in the top four – it’s not 2014. Bolstering at least one of these two roster spots will give the Red Wings a better chance at making—and advancing in—the playoffs.

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Alternatively, the Red Wings could opt to ride out the remainder of the 2021-22 season with their pending free agents in the lineup. Jakub Vrana should also be returning to action right around the trade deadline and could serve as a “stretch-run acquisition” for the second year in a row. With a fully healthy lineup, the Red Wings will be a fun team to watch in March and April.

Red Wings’ Optimal Approach

Even with their moderate success, the Red Wings shouldn’t deviate from their long-term strategy. They’re close to pushing for a playoff spot and have a bright future with Raymond, Moritz Seider, Joe Veleno, Sebastian Cossa, and Simon Edvinsson all a part of the organization. But this year’s plan should still follow Yzerman’s original position of being patient.

The team should not buy at the deadline. Standing pat may be a mistake as well. At the very least, Yzerman should look to move out Leddy given the weak pool of defensemen available this year. Adding a couple early draft picks or prospects in exchange for a pending free agent is just what this organization on the cusp needs. But until then, it’s all hands on deck to remain a competitive team.