Red Wings’ Sundqvist & Walman Are Earning Their Keep

Heading into the 2022 Trade Deadline, it seemed like a sure thing that Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nick Leddy would be changing addresses. What wasn’t as obvious was what the return would be from the team acquiring him. Well, as all of “Hockeytown” knows by now, the return from the St. Louis Blues included a second-round pick in 2023 as well as roster players Oskar Sundqvist and Jake Walman.

Fans will be forgiven if they weren’t familiar with either of the newest Red Wings. After all, Walman had played just 57 NHL games prior to the trade, and Sundqvist had made a career for himself as a complimentary piece, helping out in a depth role for both the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Blues. Fast forward to the final week of the 2021-22 and both players have had the opportunity to endear themselves to the Red Wings’ fans, coaches and front office.

But as the Red Wings continue the arduous task of rebuilding, the question persists of whether or not these are players that fit in with what general manager Steve Yzerman is trying to build. It’s not enough to have a couple of good games; both players have had to show that they can make a difference and have something to offer that the team does not already have. While you can never know for sure what he is thinking, the Red Wings’ GM has to like what he has seen from his trade deadline acquisitions.

Sundqvist Fits as a Utility Player

At 28 years old, Sundqvist is the older of the two players Detroit acquired in the Leddy deal. He’s a veteran of 286 regular season games in the NHL, as well as an additional 36 playoff games where he won two Stanley Cup rings, one in 2016 with the Penguins, and the other in 2019 with the Blues. With a career-high point total of 31 (set in the 2018-19 season), he’s never been a big-time scorer in the NHL. That’s okay, though, because he isn’t necessarily in the lineup to rack up goals and points. Instead, he makes a living by being adept in all areas of the ice, and by being willing to play a more gritty brand of hockey.

Oskar Sundqvist Detroit Red Wings
Oskar Sundqvist, Detroit Red Wings (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

Sundqvist has spent the majority of his time with the Red Wings on a line with Adam Erne and Michael Rasmussen, forming a bottom six line whose goal is to make life difficult for the opposition. For the most part, they have succeeded at that objective, outscoring their opponents 3-2 through 42 even-strength minutes together. According to Natural Stat Trick, their collective Corsi-percentage (a measure that determines what percentage of offensive chances a player, line or team controls) is just 39.8, meaning that they play a bend-don’t-break style that, to this point, has had success.

While there’s no guarantee that this is a line that will live on past this season, it is worth noting that the Red Wings are outscoring their opponents 10-8 whenever Sundqvist is on the ice at even-strength. With four goals and seven points through 16 games with the Red Wings, he has been a solid source of depth production while playing primarily in the team’s bottom six.

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With one more year on his deal, Sundqvist is signed for the 2022-23 season with a cap-hit of $2.75 million. That is a manageable cap-hit that can easily fit on the Red Wings’ books next season, and it won’t prohibit him from potentially being moved at next year’s trade deadline. As one of just two forwards with right-handed shots that are signed beyond this season (the other being Lucas Raymond), there is also value in knowing the team has another forward that can easily receive the puck on the right wing.

Nicknamed “Sunny”, Sundqvist is known for being a positive force in the locker room as well. For a team that continues to deal with the ups and downs that come with rebuilding, it helps to have a player who not only has won the NHL’s ultimate prize, but also is able to keep team morale from completely bottoming out.

Given his age and contract status, chances are that Sundqvist won’t be around for the long haul. However, he should still be around entering next season, playing in perhaps the exact same role he is in right now. Who knows, maybe a strong finish and a solid 2022-23 season convinces Yzerman to keep him around for a few more seasons. As a native of Sweden, he could fit in as a mentor to the many Swedish prospects that should be filtering into the Red Wings lineup over the coming years.

Walman Offers Intrigue, but Future is Still Up in the Air

Sundqvist is more of a proven commodity at this point; whether it’s been with the Penguins, Blues or Red Wings, he has mostly played the exact same type of game, and has filled that role pretty well for all three teams. Walman, on the other hand, was and still is far from a proven commodity. Not only has he played fewer than 100 games at the NHL level, but at 26 years old, he isn’t exactly a young prospect still figuring out what it means to be a professional hockey player. Despite that, one could make the argument that Walman has been the more exciting of the two players acquired from the Blues, and with that comes the notion that he is the more important player to keep around for the long haul.

All you have to do is watch Walman during any given game to understand the hype.

Walman plays an offensive game, and he loves to have the puck on his stick. He carries it through the neutral zone with confidence and enters the offensive zone with possession rather than dumping it in. Once he’s in the offensive zone, he isn’t afraid to put it on net himself, often winding up for a slap shot ripped straight out of 1996. It’s the kind of offensive confidence from the blue line that, ironically, reminds some of Leddy during his prime years.

As great as the eye test sometimes looks, Walman hasn’t been able to translate that offense into consistent production. He currently has just three points (all assists) in 17 games with the Red Wings while averaging 17:34 in ice-time. Furthermore, Detroit controls just 39.3 percent of high-danger chances with him on the ice. While his defensive instincts still need work, his ability to get the puck out of danger when he has the opportunity drives up his defensive value. His puck-carrying/puck-moving abilities don’t just spark the offense, and you can see that illustrated here:

It’s fair to wonder how Walman would look in an even bigger role than the one Detroit has given him (he’s playing almost six minutes more per game than he was with the Blues this season.) However, with more minutes comes greater competition, and it stands to reason that part of his success stems from his coaches picking and choosing when and where to play him. He offers value as a bottom-pairing defenseman that catches the opposition off-guard with his puck-moving abilities.

Walman will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season, meaning that the Red Wings hold his exclusive negotiating rights unless they release him. He would not be expensive to re-sign, and there’s a chance that a full season in Detroit could yield better offensive results as he continues to get more comfortable with his surroundings and his teammates. However, with the Red Wings’ well-documented defensive struggles this season, Yzerman will need to find ways to improve on this season’s defensive group. With Jordan Oesterle already signed for next season and top prospect Simon Edvinsson looking to push for an NHL spot as well, that leaves two spots on the left side for Yzerman to fill. Is he willing to dedicate one of them to an unproven offensive defenseman who, at age 26, probably doesn’t have a ton of room for growth in their game?

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Walman is the type of player that Yzerman absolutely should have been willing to take a chance on in the Leddy deal. When he’s doing what he does well, Walman stands out as someone with untapped potential. As a cheap option on the team’s bottom pairing, the Red Wings could do a lot worse. With the sheer amount of defensive prospects in Detroit’s system, he more than likely doesn’t fit in the long-term picture, though. He’s probably good to keep around for another season, however, because he would provide competition for prospects like Donovan Sebrango and Albert Johansson as they look to take the next step in their respective development.

Yzerman Turns 1 Piece Into 3

No matter how Sundqvist and Walman fit in or don’t fit into the Red Wings’ rebuild, the fact remains that Yzerman was able to take one piece in Leddy and turn it into three separate pieces that can help the team now and into the future. While the Red Wings’ blue line misses the veteran savvy Leddy brought, Sundqvist and Walman both fill various needs for this team right now, and the second-round pick acquired in the deal has the potential to yield a player that can help this team out down the road when Detroit is playing meaningful games deep into April.

A highly consequential offseason is just around the corner for the Red Wings. While it seems likely that both Sundqvist and Walman will be in Traverse City when training camp opens up this Fall, a lot can and will happen between now and then. The Red Wings need a shake-up in a big way, and it remains to be seen whether or not these two players have many more days in Hockeytown ahead of them.

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