When Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman went on a spending spree this offseason, he did so with the intention of creating internal competition within the team’s organization. Furthermore, by firing head coach Jeff Blashill and replacing him with Derek Lalonde, Yzerman created a clean slate for the entire organization. Since the beginning of training camp and the preseason, Lalonde has remained committed to providing that clean slate and fresh opportunity for everyone on the roster, regardless of whatever they did or didn’t do last season.
“I meant it when I said I want to give everyone a fresh start,” Lalonde told the media. The Red Wings’ new coach has stuck to his word in the early going, giving exciting prospects opportunities to flourish, and even giving some established players opportunities to prove they can do more than what they did last season.
But with these new opportunities and fresh starts comes the reality of roster construction in the NHL. Not everyone can make the team, and when you’ve got multiple players looking like they are either ready for an enhanced role or to make their rookie debuts, that affects the status of players who were already entrenched in those roles going back to last season.
Yzerman wanted competition and he got it. Because of it, here are three players whose roles with the team appear to be in question:
Last season was Joe Veleno’s rookie campaign. The 2018 first-round pick played in 66 games and recorded 15 points while averaging 13:13 in ice-time. Meanwhile, in 11 games with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League (AHL), he recorded a steady 10 points. This suggests that the 22-year-old is too good for the AHL, but he hasn’t found a way to be consistently effective in the NHL, at least not yet.
Heading into training camp, most roster projections had Veleno slotted in as the Red Wings’ fourth line center, skating between two checking forwards in Michael Rasmussen and Oskar Sundqvist. This would essentially be the exact same role as Veleno had last season, though he did spend some time playing higher in the lineup when injuries struck Detroit’s lineup. Still, his numbers – whether you’re talking basic stats or advanced analytics – paint him as a player that is kind of just meh at everything. For Veleno to truly take a step forward in his development, he needs to find his niche, whether it’s as a point-producer or a defensive forward.
“I think we see him as a center,” Lalonde said of Veleno. “I think he is versatile enough to play both [center and wing], but right now our vision on him is helping us as a center and him growing as a center going forward.” With Dylan Larkin and Andrew Copp expected to be the team’s one-two punch down the middle, and Rasmussen getting looks playing between Filip Zadina, Dominik Kubalik and Jakub Vrana, it appears that Veleno’s path to Detroit still lies on the team’s fourth line.
However, there is one unique wrinkle that may be going against Veleno as he looks to secure a spot in Detroit for his sophomore season: waiver status. Despite playing most of the season with the Red Wings in 2021-22, he is still technically able to be assigned to the AHL without having to pass through waivers first. This means the Red Wings have the option to assign him to the Griffins, opting to give him top-line minutes in the AHL rather than bottom six minutes in the NHL. This is an especially important thing to consider when you factor in the possibility of a player like Elmer Söderblom potentially making the Red Wings’ opening night roster.
After spending most of training camp and the early part of the preseason with a day-to-day ailment, Veleno has to take the ball and run with it when he has the opportunity. Otherwise, he could find himself back in the AHL this season after seemingly becoming an NHL regular last season….
The mood surrounding Adam Erne has done a complete 180-degree turn over the last year or so. In the…umm…unique 2020-21 season, he led the Red Wings with 11 goals in 45 games. While that obviously shows how offensively inept Detroit was that season, it did spark some optimism that the rugged forward had some more offensive pop to his game than fans and pundits initially gave him credit for. That he was also willing to drop the gloves from time to time was an added bonus.
Last season, through 79 games, Erne failed to match his goal and point totals from the prior season. Like Cinderella’s carriage turning back into a pumpkin, Erne turned back into a fourth-line grinder who chipped in on offense essentially once every four games. The spell wore off, and now he finds himself in a situation where he may be left off the starting lineup completely.
To be clear, Erne’s contract (one year left at $2.1 million) and his first preseason game (he scored both of Detroit’s goals in a 4-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks) suggest that he’ll have a spot on the roster, just maybe as an extra forward. He would be an easy player to plug into the lineup if they need to add more physicality, and he has shown that he is capable of putting the puck in the back of the net. He also has some familiarity with Lalonde going back to their time together with the Tampa Bay Lightning. However, after three seasons of being a mainstay in the Red Wings’ lineup, it now appears that Erne is on the fringe of the lineup at best, and could be completely left off of it at worst.
Last season, Pius Suter was the Red Wings’ second line center, spending time playing alongside a revolving door of wingers including Zadina, Vrana, Robby Fabbri and others. Suter posted a respectable stat line of 15 goals and 36 points through 82 games, and he was generally a useful player in the defensive end, which included some time on the penalty kill. Now entering his second 82-game season in the NHL, the Swiss forward finds himself falling down the depth chart, possibly even lower than any of us could have anticipated.
The expectation heading into training camp was that Suter would center the Red Wings’ third line, likely between two offensive wingers in Zadina and Kubalik. However, as previously mentioned, Rasmussen has been getting looks between those two players and he didn’t look out of place in the slightest. Furthermore, if Veleno is going to stick around as a center, his development should dictate that he takes over that third-line center position at some point (and that’s not even mentioning Fabbri, whose return to the roster in the new year will cause a ripple effect throughout the lineup.) Meanwhile, during the Red Wings’ second preseason game, Suter skated alongside Erne and Söderblom, forming an effective line that would likely be the team’s fourth line if it sticks together into the regular season.
That’s right: Suter could go from the team’s second line to the fourth line in just one year.
To be clear, Suter isn’t a “Red Wings Without a Confirmed Role” in the same way as Veleno and Erne are. Suter is an established NHL player that will be in Detroit’s lineup on opening night. The question – and the basis of including him here – is what role he’ll play for the Red Wings in 2022-23. While it’s still early on in the preseason, the fact that Suter skated in the second game alongside Erne and Söderblom instead of the first game alongside Kubalik and Zadina is noteworthy.
Should Suter begin the season on the fourth line, it may not be long before Yzerman is forced to move the 26-year-old in order to make room for players like Veleno and even prospect Jonatan Berggren. If there’s any one player who really seems to be getting lost in the shuffle of all the new faces and the fresh opportunity provided by Lalonde and his staff, it’s Suter.
Red Wings’ Roster Is Far From Set
Speculating about any team’s roster this early in the preseason is usually a fool’s errand, especially when we’re dealing with a new head coach that is still familiarizing himself with his players and what they bring to the table. However, the Red Wings’ moves in the offseason weren’t made to just shake things up and hope for better results. They were made to reset the team, even if it means knocking players down the depth chart or off the team completely.
That’s why it is a blessing that the Red Wings are playing a hefty eight preseason games this year. It provides young players and rookies with ample opportunity to announce themselves, and it gives veteran players the opportunity to plant their feet in the ground and fend off challengers for their spot in the lineup. It’s still very early, but we’re already seeing some players rise to the challenge while others are seeing their stock decline.
Forget what you think the opening night lineup is going to look like. If the early days of the Lalonde era has taught us anything, it’s that anything and everything is on the table as long as the players are earning their opportunities.
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.