The author is a freelance editor and writer living in Detroit.
By Paul Harris
Red Wings General Manager Steve Yzerman says “the plan hasn’t really changed,” but it certainly seems to have been accelerated.
That much is clear after the Red Wings signed six players in the NHL’s first two days of free agency.
The moves give Detroit a new look on the ice as well as something it has not had in quite a few years: Depth in solid NHL players.
Things were already going to be different behind the bench, with Derek Lalonde taking over from Jeff Blashill as head coach, and also in the goal crease -- the team traded for goalie Ville Husso, who replaces Thomas Greiss in tandem with Alex Nedeljkovich, during the NHL Draft.
But neither of those moves have the impact of the signings of forwards Andrew Copp, David Perron, Dominik Kubalik and defensemen Ben Chiarot, Olli Maatta, and Mark Pysyk.
Before those signings the team was already looking at a potential talent infusion going into the 2022-23 season but from more of its own draft choices who are beginning to come of age.
Defenseman Simon Edvinsson – the team’s first-round pick (sixth overall) in 2021 and who at 19 and 6-feet-6, has been compared to last season’s NHL Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year) winner Moritz Seider, late bloomer Elmer Soderblom, 21 (the 159th pick in 2019) a 6-feet-8, 250-pound winger … with hands both signed three-year entry-level deals and are preparing for their first season in North America (both are from Sweden). Another Swede, left winger Jonatan Berggren who is 22, led the Red Wings American Hockey League affiliate the Grand Rapids Griffins with 64 points (21 goals and 43 assists) in 70 games in 2021-22, his first season in North America after being taken in the second round (33rd overall) in the 2018 draft.
All would have gotten a long look in training camp – Edvinsson was expected by most to make the team, Soderblom was expected to ultimately head to Grand Rapids, and the natural progression would have had Berggren heading the opposite direction to Detroit. And maybe they could have rivaled or come close to the impact that Seider and right wing Lucas Raymond had as rookies last season.
It is always possible that one or more of Edvinsson, Soderblom and Berggren could still play their way onto the team in Traverse City and in exhibition games, but now all three will likely be in Grand Rapids when the regular season begins. Yzerman, like Ken Holland before him, prefers the Red Wings top prospects to get as much seasoning as possible in the American Hockey League as key players getting power-play time, etc., as opposed to being extra players in the NHL who sit out many games and/or go back and forth from Detroit to Grand Rapids before they are ready to be NHL regulars.
Now a team that finished far out of the playoff picture last season after an abysmal second half, and was not expected to challenge for the postseason in 22-23, is seen as a team that could reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2016.
None of the newest Red Wings are superstars, but are all quality NHL players who fit Detroit’s needs. They are all “hard to play against,” over 6 feet tall and, with one exception, at least around 200 pounds.
A lack of size and grit has been one of the Red Wings' biggest issues, but with the signings and recent draft picks (Seider 6-feet-4, 207, and Edvinsson and Soderblom above) that is clearly being addressed.
Copp is certainly the best known in this area and was the first announced signing on July 13, shortly after noon, when teams could begin signing other teams' free agents. A native of Ann Arbor and teammate of captain Dylan Larkin’s at Michigan, Copp (28) will slot in as the much-needed second-line center behind Larkin after signing a five-year, $28.125 million ( a little more than $5.6 million annually). At 6-feet-1 and 206 pounds, Copp will slide the much smaller Pius Suter (5-feet-11, 176) to the third-line center spot. Suter sometimes got manhandled by bigger players while trying to defend close to his own net last season.
Copp spent the first 7.5 seasons with the Winnipeg Jets, mostly as a checking line center, before a breakout season in '21-'22, during which he was dealt to the New York Rangers at the trade deadline. He had 21 goals and 53 points in 72 games. eight goals and 18 points with the Rangers in 16 games after the trade and continued to be a key offensive contributor in the playoffs as New York reached the Eastern Conference Finals before being eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Copp, who can also play either wing, had six goals and eight assists in 20 playoff games.
“He’s 28, he’s a very good athlete, he’s very versatile, he’s playing center, he’s playing wing, he can play on the power play, he plays on the penalty kill, he’s a good face-off man,” Yzerman said at the press conference to discuss the signings. “At 28, I’m comfortable offering a player a five-year contract because he’s a good athlete. We know he takes care of himself, he’s very professional.”
Copp is also the son of long-time area youth hockey coach Andy Copp.
An ineffective power play has vexed Detroit for the past six (26th last season and a combined worst in the NHL the past six campaigns, excluding Seattle). Perron is well suited to address that issue.
He had a career-high 11 power-play goals among a total of 27, also a career high, last season for the St. Louis Blues, who set a team record for power play goals last season. Perron has 33 power-play goals over the last four seasons. A veteran (34 and entering his 16th season) who was a physical two-way grinder for most of his career, Perron has added offense the past six seasons with 128 goals and 333 points in 403 games in that span and was a key member of St. Louis’ Stanley Cup winner in 2019, and of the Vegas Golden Knights during their stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural campaign the previous season.
He could give the first line more snarl along with Larkin and Raymond, which would allow the smaller but feistier Tyler Bertuzzi to do the same for the second line along with Copp and Jakub Vrana, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, but has 21 goals in only 37 games wearing the winged wheel since being acquired from the Washington Capitals for Anthony Mantha at the trade deadline in 2020-21.
Perron’s age and mileage could be a concern but his two-year deal at a $4.75 million average annual value does not appear to be much of a risk.
Kubalik, 26, is a wild card and a bit of a reclamation project.
He scored 30 goals as a Chicago Blackhawks rookie in 68 games in 2019-20. But the 6-feet-2, 179-pounder will likely find a familiar face in Suter – a rookie with Chicago in 2020-21 before signing with the Red Wings the following offseason – and a Czech countryman in Filip Zadina, who is still trying to find his way after being the sixth overall pick in 2018 on the third line. Even if Kubalik does not improve his production from last season, 15 goals and 32 points would be fine for the third line and his two-year, $5 million (total) contract.
That leaves a fourth line of center Oskar Sundqvist – who was obtained in a trade from the St. Louis Blues in February – Michael Rasmussen, who had an outstanding second half in 2021-22 and Joe Veleno, Detroit’s second first-round pick in 2018, who is still developing. All are big – Sundqvist at 6-feet-3 and 208, Rasmussen three inches taller and, 229, and Veleno 6-feet-1, 206.
Sundqvist is almost everything you would want in a fourth-line center – defensively responsible, physical and with an offensive game. But he is not good on faceoffs. The 28-year old veteran of seven NHL campaigns also helped the Blues win the Stanley Cup in 2019. Rasmussen, still only 23 after being the ninth overall pick in 2017, took a major step in the second half last season and can also play center, where he won just over 50 percent of his faceoffs. Veleno showed flashes of his talent and ability to drive the play as he was forced to play too much in too many NHL games for where he was in his development last season due to injuries.
But this combination showed that it could be a nasty one for opponents of size, grit and skill in the few games it spent together in 2021-22.
Yzerman got good reviews on the contracts of the free agents, with the exception of defenseman Ben Chiarot, 31, who signed a four year-deal worth $4.75 million each season. Yzerman may have overpaid for Chiarot. But a top-four defenseman is of particular value to Detroit, who can put him next to Seider on the top defensive pair for a combination opposing forwards might actually think about when they have the puck. That has not been remotely the case since the combo of Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart in 2008-09.
Chiarot finished last season with the Florida Panthers after being acquired at the trade deadline from the Montreal Canadiens, for whom he played a key role in their surprising run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2021.
Olli Maatta, 27 and standing 6-feet-2 and 210, is a veteran defenseman who helped Pittsburgh win back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017. He signed a one-year deal for 2.25 million. Maata has been with the Los Angeles Kings the past two seasons and seems to be a good fit with Filip Hronek in the second defensive pair. Hronek is only 24, but has already logged 245 NHL games over the past four seasons. His struggles the past two season could be the result of him having to play too much early in his career. A steadying influence like Maata could be the perfect fit.
The third pair could be holdovers Dearborn Heights native Jordan Oesterle and Gustav Lindstrom.
Detroit also signed veteran defenseman Mark Pysyk to a one-year $850,000 contract. He is a 10-year veteran who has played with the Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars and will probably be the seventh defenseman.
So the Red Wings have been transformed from a team of mostly prospects with a few quality, proven NHL skaters – most on the small side - to one that is dominated by experienced NHL regulars with plenty of playoff and Stanley Cup-winning experience with a lot of size. The injury list even has experience, talent, grit and size. That’s where both forward Robby Fabbri and defenseman Jake Walman will begin the season due to knee and shoulder surgeries, respectively. Though he did not play much, Fabbri was also with the Blues when they won the Cup in 2019, while Walman – acquired in the same deal as Sundqvist – is a great skater with a heavy shot.
Also do not discount the number of former St. Louis Blues on the roster. Though they have not won it all since 2019, St. Louis has established itself as one of the NHL’s toughest teams to play against thanks to a heavy style of play – if you have ever watched them, you know what I mean. That is something that Blashill has been trying to get Detroit to do more of for the past six seasons, though it really did not have the personnel to do so.
But Lalonde does now.
Of course, goaltending will have a lot to do with where the Red Wings wind up this season.
Husso had a strong first half last season, supplanting Stanley Cup hero Jordan Binnington for a time, but did not play as well in the second half, which continued into the playoffs. For the season his totals were 25-7-6 with a 2.56 goals-against average and.919 save percentage. Nedeljkovic was spectacular at times but also struggled at times in 2021-22. His final numbers were 20-24-9 with a 3.31 GAA and .901 saves percentage. Both were still technically rookies last season. Husso is 27 and Nedeljkovic is 26, but it usually takes goalies longer to establish themselves than skaters.
Despite the jarring change to the team’s makeup, Yzerman says things are on the same course.
“I think we’re progressing slowly in this rebuilding of the Red Wings,” he said. “Are we good enough to make the playoffs next year? I don’t know. I’m hopeful we’ll score more goals and give up fewer goals. I’m hoping our power play will be a little better, our penalty kill is a little bit better … and that pushes us up the standings. Time will tell. But the plan hasn’t really changed. Keep our younger guys, be patient with them, keep our draft picks and continue to build this way.”