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Rebuild Review: The Detroit Red Wings

The Yzerplan has started to work for the Red Wings, even if the job is far from over. And that should get fans thrilled for the team's long-term future, writes Tony Ferrari.
Moritz Seider

‘Rebuild Review’ is a series where Tony Ferrari takes a look into a current rebuild in the NHL. We will take a look at when it started, the journey to where they are at now, and what the outlook is going forward.

In Yzerman we trust. That has been the mantra Red Wings fans have put their faith in over the last few years. In all honesty, it’s what Red Wings fans have gotten excited about in three of the past four decades. After 20-plus seasons as a player with the team, Yzerman joined the front office to learn under Ken Holland from 2006 to 2010 before heading off to Tampa Bay to building the foundation for what eventually wound up being back-to-back Stanley Cup championships as GM.

Just prior to those Tampa titles the Red Wings legend made his way back to the team as GM, taking over for the man he learned under. The rebuild had technically begun a couple of seasons prior when the Red Wings missed the playoffs in 2016-17, but Yzerman is the man with the Yzer-plan that is restoring this ‘Original 6’ squad to glory.

The End of the Playoff Streak and Holland’s Rebuild Begins

After a record 25-year playoff streak, the Red Wings finally had the bottom fall out in 2017. With Pavel Datsyuk departing to return to Russia to play in the KHL, a step back for then-sophomore Dylan Larkin, and an aging core supplemented by overpriced depth players, the signs were on the wall. 

The rebuild was ready to begin.

Ken Holland was in a position he had never been in as an NHL general manager before. Picking in the top-10 for the first time since selecting Martin Lapointe in 1991, the Red Wings were sitting pretty at ninth overall. The opportunity to add a key piece to start the rebuild presented itself despite the class not being vaunted for its high-end talent.

Selecting center prospect Micheal Rasmussen from the Tri-City Americans of the WHL, Holland was looking to add some size and scoring ability. The 6-foot-6 center was a menace in front on the net, especially on the power play. There was some concern over the fact that 52.7% of his points came on the man advantage, but the Red Wings felt that the size and hands in tight were well worth the selection. 

The rest of the 2017 draft has only yielded one player of significance to this point with second-round selection Gustav Lindstrom beginning to make his mark this season with the big club. Most of the picks are no longer with the organization, with a couple no longer in pro hockey.

The following year was again a struggle on the ice. The bright spot was that some of the youth in the system began to really show what they were made of. Larkin led the team in scoring, Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi began to make their impact felt. The issue of the overpriced veterans and lack of supporting cast persisted though and Detroit finished outside of the playoffs yet again.

Selling off assets throughout the season and at the deadline, the Red Wings began to stockpile draft picks for the rebuild. Out were Petr Mrázek, Tomas Tatar and Riley Sheahan, among others, and in came numerous draft picks. The key deal was the Tatar trade to the Vegas Golden Knights that netted the Wings a first-rounder in the 2018 draft, a second-round pick in 2019, and a 2021 third.

Although they dropped one spot in the lottery, the Red Wings were still in a good position on draft day. With Filip Zadina and Quinn Hughes both surprisingly on the board when they were on the clock, the Red Wings were facing a dilemma. Zadina was a projected top-four prospect and Hughes was one of the highest upside prospects in the draft class. Holland, in what would be his last draft with the Red Wings, selected Zadina which left Hughes for the Canucks.

With the first-round pick from the surprisingly successful expansion Golden Knights, the Red Wings were slated to pick at 30th overall. As the night went on, one name stood out as he fell down the board and teams passed on him. Joe Veleno, ranked within the top-15 on the majority of public draft boards from TSN to ESPN, continued to be passed over until the Red Wings stepped to the stage to make their selection. Holland and the Red Wings managed to select two players in Zadina and Veleno later than either was expected to go.

With two more top-50 picks, the Red Wings swung on players with interesting upside in Jonatan Berggren and Jared McIsaac. Both have shown the skill and potential to be good NHLers but have yet to reach the big club because of injuries. Playing for Grand Rapids in the AHL, they are beginning to make up for the lost time.

Holland remained GM when the 2018-19 season began as the rebuilding Red Wings continued down the path of a deteriorating dynasty. With the success on the ice harder and harder to come by, the teardown continued. As the trade deadline approached, underrated defenseman Nick Jenson was sent to the Capitals for a 2020 second-round pick and stop-gap defender Madison Bowey. Gustav Nyquist was sent out a few days later for a 2019 second-round pick and a 2020 third. The draft pick cupboard was beginning to look very promising.

Stevie Returns and the Yzerplan Begins

In a move that was a bit of a surprise, at least in terms of timing with one year left on his deal with Tampa Bay, Yzerman came home to take over as general manager of the team he captained from 1986 to 2006. While Holland didn’t leave the organization right away, sticking around for a grand total of 18 days as the team’s senior vice president before accepting the GM role in Edmonton, the team was in Yzerman’s hands now.

Yzerman’s first real opportunity to put his stamp on the organization came on draft day in 2019. As has become tradition, Detroit fell in the Draft Lottery yet again, falling from fourth to sixth. In a draft that was considered quite talent-laden, the Red Wings were expected to add what could be their top prospect.

Yzerman selected German defenseman, Moritz Seider, a move that surprised just about everyone – including Seider himself.

Touted as an elite defensive blueliner with the tools to grow offensively, Seider was seen as a raw prospect that was expected to go in the teens. As we’ve seen, and we will dive into in just a bit, Seider has exceeded all expectations and there are no Red Wings fans as confused and upset with the pick as they were on draft day.

With a stable of picks, the Red Wings made 11 picks throughout the proceedings with six of them coming in the top-100. Antti Tuomisto, Robert Mastrosimone, and Albert Johansson were all taken in the second round and have shown solid development over the last couple of seasons. Later round picks such as Elmer Soderblom (6th round) and Kirill Tyutyayev (7th round) have shown some impressive development in their game, taking strides towards being legitimate prospects.

That offseason, Yzerman made a few moves to help supplement the roster with some minor moves. Starting with the opening of free agency, the Red Wings new general manager added some veteran leadership in defender Patrick Nemeth, goaltender Calvin Pickard, and forward Valtteri Filppula, all of which were signed to short-term two-year deals. Adding players who can be capable NHLers who can at worst hold their head above water was a shrewd move that allowed the Red Wings prospects time to develop without being forced into an ill-prepared NHL lineup.

In August, Yzerman made a trade with his old friends in Tampa Bay to acquire forward Adam Erne. Erne was an RFA that was signed to a one-year deal worth $1.05 million. The theory behind the move was that Erne hadn’t been given as big of an opportunity in Tampa as he could earn in Detroit.

Yzerman’s First Full Year at the Helm

With arguably the team’s greatest captain back in the building, the Yzerman-led Red Wings got off to a hot start. Winning three of four to open the season, Detroit was feeling good about their squad. But then it got ugly, with the Wings dropping 12 of its next 13 contests. Yzerman made one of the more underrated deals of the season. Once-promising 23-year-old forward Robby Fabbri was floundering in the St. Louis Blues organization, fighting for just about any role in the lineup. The Red Wings had an underwhelming player of their own in Jacob de la Rose. Fabbri has become a key part of Detroit's lineup, something de la Rose never achieved in St. Louis.

As the trade deadline approached that year, with the Wings in dead last league-wide, Yzerman turned Mike Green, Ryan Kuffner and Andreas Athanasiou into Sam Gagner, Kyle Brodziak, a fourth-round pick in 2020, a 2020 second-rounder, and a 2021 second-round pick. Not a bad haul for a few players who were likely not in the Wings’ future plans.

With COVID-19 now playing a role, the Red Wings found themselves at the bottom of the league for the 2020 draft. Hoping for a top-three pick with a lottery win that had eluded them in years prior. They didn't receive the luck they needed and despite finishing with eight fewer wins than any other team in the league.

A trade prior to the draft to bring in defenseman Marc Staal and a second-round pick from the New York Rangers for future considerations in a move to help the Rangers clear up cap gave them some stable veteran leadership. While he isn’t what he once was prior to injuries, Staal was looked to provide replacement-level play while being a steadying influence in the room.

With the fourth overall pick in a draft with a strong top-end, the Red Wings were looking to take a big step in their rebuild. With the top-three going as expected, Detroit was where the draft truly began. That’s when the Red Wings selected forward Lucas Raymond. While many in both the public and private evaluation world had discounted the young Swede because of his lack of production in the Swedish men’s league, anyone who truly watched Raymond play knew that the talent was undeniable.

Adding 11 other picks to their 2020 draft class, the Red Wings infused their prospect depth chart with a boatload of talent. Blueliner William Wallinder and forward Theodor Niederbach was added to the Swedish contingent in their system. Donovan Sebrango, a defender drafted out of the OHL, has played meaningful minutes at the AHL level already, too.

The First Steps out of the Cellar

The Red Wings continued with their low-risk, fill-a-gap signings bringing in defenders Jon Merrill and Troy Stecher as well as forwards Vladislav Namestnikov and Bobby Ryan on short-term deals of two years or less. They also brought in goaltender Thomas Griess to help in net. After re-signing forwards Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi, the Red Wings offseason was largely deemed as a success, at least for making this team relatively competitive on the ice.

It was expected for a long time but Larkin was finally named captain of the team. The heart and soul of the team, Larkin was a natural choice for the top on-ice leadership role. The Michigan native is a hometown kid who grew up dreaming of playing for the Wings and heading into a pandemic season, Larkin being named captain meant the season started with a bright start.

Playing in re-aligned divisions - avoiding Canada completely - due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Detroit pulled themselves out of last place to finish fifth from the bottom in a shortened season. Even in just 56’s games, they improved their winning total by two games and their win percentage jumped from .275 to .429. Steps towards relevance were beginning to take place.

By April, the team had begun their annual sell-off. With Nemeth headed to Colorado and Merrill on his way to Montreal, the Red Wings used found assets and turned them into futures. They also acted as a facilitator in a Tampa Bay-Columbus deal that saw them retain part of David Savard’s salary in exchange for a draft pick. The three deals netted them three mid-round draft picks.

What came next was the big move many Red Wings fans had been suspecting could be in the cards. Mantha was on the move months after signing a four-year deal to stay with the team. The return was huge for the Red Wings’ future. Along with a first-round pick in 2021 and a second-rounder in 2022, Detroit acquired Jakub Vrana and Richard Panik. Panik played well for the Wings for the remainder of the season and Vrana filled in for Mantha, outproducing the former Wing with their new teams. Vrana was younger, more skilled-based, and looked to be a solid complementary piece moving forward.

Finishing out the season a much more competitive team, the Red Wings had again suffered poor lottery luck and dropped a spot in the draft order, slated to select sixth overall. In a 2021 draft that felt a little underwhelming, there was a number of players who could be projected as the draft’s top player in a decade.

Just prior to the draft, the Red Wings made what now looks like an absolute steal of a trade, as has become accustomed during Yzerman’s tenure. Sending the rights to goaltender Jonathan Bernier and a third-round pick to the Carolina Hurricanes for Calder Trophy nominee Alex Nedeljkovic. The former Canes goalie was unable to come to contract terms in Carolina and the opportunity to be ‘The Guy’ in the Detroit crease made it a good bet.

Signing Nedeljkovic to a two-year, $6 million deal, the Wings got a legitimate NHL goaltender at 25-years-old. Adding Nick Leddy and a second-round pick in a trade that sent Panik to the Islanders was another shrewd move as the Isles needed to free up cap space and decided Leddy was expendable.

At sixth overall, the Red Wings were going to stick to what they are good at and selected Swedish defenseman Simon Edvinsson. A highly toolsy blueliner who displayed everything you could ask for in a defender but had to work on some of his decision-making with the puck. Ranked as high as second on some lists, Edvinsson seemed like a solid pick with some interesting upside.

Following their top pick, the Red Wings had the 23rd overall pick thanks to the Mantha deal. They used that pick, along with two others later in the draft, to move up to 15th overall. With superstar goalie prospect Jesper Wallstedt and highly touted Sebastian Cossa on the board, the selection of a goaltender would have made a tonne of sense considering the hole in their prospect pool at the position. While Wallstedt was the obvious choice, Cossa was the selection after an unreal season in the WHL over the two prior seasons. Regardless of whether the pick should have been Wallstedt, Cossa is a top-five goalie prospect in all of the world - drafted or undrafted - which fills a hole in the Red Wings system.

So Where Are The Red Wings Now?

The Red Wings have been in a rut for a few years now, but this season has been a breath of fresh air. They have been largely competitive against just about anyone with who they’ve shared the ice with whether it be the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay or the woeful Buffalo Sabres. They are currently sitting just outside of a playoff spot based on points-percentage. 

The Red Wings have become fun again.

A large portion of this success is owed to three rookies. Nedeljkovic maintained his rookie status despite finishing as a Calder Trophy runner-up last year. Seider, who had been tearing up the SHL and winning the league’s top award for a defenseman, was expected to come into the NHL lineup but he was never expected to have the impact he’s had thus far. The surprise was Raymond, the NHL’s rookie scoring leader and top-line winger for the Red Wings en route to what could win him the top rookie honors.

Playing on a line with Larkin and Bertuzzi, Raymond has been a godsend for the Red Wings. His high-IQ has given him the ability to play off his linemates at a high level, playing at almost a point-per-game clip. His dynamic skill and unreal ability to pick apart his opponents in a cerebral manner have made him one of the Red Wings’ most consistently dangerous players on the ice. It has also helped reinvigorate Larkin’s play and has led to Bertuzzi being a dangerous goal-scorer this season. The Red Wings have a legitimate top-line for the first time in a long time and Lucas Raymond is a major reason for that.

On the backend, Seider as well as offseason addition Leddy have made the Red Wings blueline a much better unit than it has been the last couple of seasons. That’s not to say that it’s a good blueline group though. Leddy has been a good puck mover as he has been up to this point in his career. Filip Hronek is settling into a more depth role as he should. Staal was re-signed in the summer to continue on as a warm body for the Wings. Gustav Lindstrom stepped into the lineup and has been up-and-down but better than other options as well. The backend is still a work in progress.

Seider’s emergence has truly been special. Playing a major role on their blueline, he has averaged more ice-time than any other Red Wing. He has consistently been a top-three rookie point producer while playing on a mediocre team while showcasing legitimate defensive acumen. His intelligence in his own zone is remarkable at times. The young German is wise beyond his years.

Zadina has developed his off-puck game to a very impressive level. He has been doing everything right except for putting the puck in the net. He generates chances and drives play at a high level and his defensive game has taken a major step since his draft year. Add in Zadina along with the currently injured Vrana and other forwards such as Fabbri, Namestnikov, and Veleno, there is a framework for a solid group of forwards in Detroit.

The future looks bright as well. Edvinsson has been tearing up the SHL in his first season since being drafted. Having both Edvinsson and Seider patrolling the blueline could be truly terrifying for opposing teams in a few years. The 6-foot-6 Cossa is one of the world’s best goaltending prospects and projects to be a very good NHL starter. Wallinder, Sebrango, Soderblom, Neiderbach among other prospects all look promising and if a few of them hit, the Wings are looking very good.

With rookie success upfront, on the back end, and in the crease, a captain in his mid-20s, and a prospect pool loaded with talent, Steve Yzerman and the Red Wings have put on a bit of a masterclass of how to rebuild. They look even better considering they haven’t drafted higher than fourth in any draft during this process.

The one area they currently lack is down the middle. As good as Larkin is, you need to insulate him with another center of his caliber if you want him to be the number one on a true Stanley Cup contender. Rasmussen, the player we started this deep dive with, has not lived up to expectations in any way. He’s been lackluster and has struggled to solidify a place in the lineup at times through his first few NHL seasons.

So where are the Red Wings? They are on the upswing of a rebuild and they could compete for a playoff spot as soon as next season realistically. The only question is how they fill the hole down the middle. All of the other pieces have seemingly fallen into place. Maybe they finally get their lottery luck this year if they fall down the standings in the second half of the year and get the opportunity to select Shane Wright. If that fails, a player such as Logan Cooley or Brad Lambert would certainly help ensure that the center position is much more stable coming out of the 2022 NHL draft.

Get excited Red Wings fans. Hockeytown is just about back. 

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