If I Was Steve Yzerman…My Approach To The 2021 Offseason (Part 4)

Winging It In Motown

Part 3 of this series focused on the “nuclear” approach to free agency. Part 4 today will focus on the “radical teardown” approach and my decision on which way I would proceed.

From Parts 1 and 2, the following decisions were made:

  • Evgeny Svechnikov was lost to Seattle in the expansion draft
  • Frans Nielsen was bought out
  • The Red Wings drafted the following players in the first 3 rounds:

Regardless of free agency approach, I would not change my approach to the expansion draft or buyout window. The decision to protected Vladislav Namestnikov over Givani Smith and Evgeny Svechnikov is a tough decision but ultimately one I made for the following reasons:

  • For next season, I still firmly believe that Namestnikov is a better hockey player than either Smith or Svechnikov.
  • Namestnikov’s history at center allows the Wings the option of easing Joe Veleno into the lineup at wing or as a sheltered 3C with Namestnikov as a good defensive player on his wing.
  • Even though most don’t believe Namestnikov would be attractive to Seattle, a 29-year-old good defensive center on a cheap contract (one year, $2 million) is exactly the kind of deal I think the Kraken would pounce on to maximize cap flexibility in the long-run and be decent in the short-term.
  • In my opinion, I don’t believe that Smith (23 years old at start of next season), Svechnikov (25 at start of next season), and Namestnikov (28 to be 29 at beginning of next season) are a part of the long-term future for this team. It may be a little crazy to say this about Smith at 23 years old, but thus far I haven’t necessarily seen anything from his AHL or NHL play to suggest that his upside is higher than a low-end 3rd line winger, the kind of winger that can often be found in free agency for $1.5 million or less.

Yesterday we discussed what the “nuclear” scale up option would look like. Today, let’s discuss the opposite – the “radical” teardown.

I started my nuclear option by promoting Moritz Seider and Joe Veleno but opting to stash Jonatan Berggren, Lucas Raymond, and Albert Johansson in Grand Rapids. Under my radical teardown plan, I would have Raymond start the season in Detroit and have a quick trigger ready to bring up Berggren and Johansson from Grand Rapids.

To start, my approach to the unrestricted free agents would be very similar to what happened in the previous plan with the exception that I’m open to bringing back Bobby Ryan on a one-year $2 million deal. I would offer a slightly richer deal to Jonathan Bernier at $3.6 million x 2 years, a slightly richer deal to Sam Gagner of one-year $1.2 million, and I would make the same offer of one-year, $1.3 million to UFA C Mikhail Grigorenko.

Moving on to the restricted free agents, we’ll start with the same approach as last time by setting aside Vrána, Hronek, and Bertuzzi and first focusing on:

  • Adam Erne (arbitration eligible)
  • Mathias Bromé (arbitration eligible)
  • Michael Rasmussen
  • Christian Djoos (arbitration eligible)
  • Dennis Cholowski
  • Gustav Lindström
  • Givani Smith

With this group of seven, I would make the exact same decisions I made in the last article in terms of walking away from Bromé and Djoos, and re-signing the other five to the deals I offered in yesterday’s article.

At this point, the Wings 23-man roster looks like the following:

The Wings have 20 players signed and $34 million in cap space with Vrána, Hronek, and Bertuzzi to sign. Assuming that the salary cap lower limit stays consistent at $60.2 million, the Wings could simply get there by signing their three remaining RFA’s to a combined cap hit of $13 million which should easily be doable.

Or….

The Wings tear it down further in the hopes of landing more picks at the top of the draft in 2022 and 2023. I think the most attractive option in this plan would be to explore a trade for one or both of Bertuzzi and Vrána. I don’t think Filip Hronek has as much trade value at present and with the way the Wings D corps is shaping up, I’d rather sign him to a three-year deal with a $4.7 million AAV that leaves him an RFA at the end of the contract.

Focusing on Bertuzzi and Vrána, the Wings have to be intentional with the team they target. With a trade of this magnitude, there’s a specific type of team you want to pick on. You want to find a team where it’s possible that the floor falls out from underneath them in the next one to two years. This is Ottawa in 2018-2019, San Jose in 2019-2020, and Columbus in 2020-2021. Colorado and Ottawa were able to take advantage of Ottawa and San Jose respectively, and ultimately were rewarded with Bowen Byram and Tim Stützle. While no one was able to take advantage of Columbus’ 2021 1st round pick, they are the type of team you want to target for 2022 and 2023. In my opinion, there are a couple of teams that fit that bill – Philadelphia, Boston, St. Louis, and Nashville. All of these teams meet the following criteria:

  • Aging players locked in on long-term deals
  • Core players are on the downswing of the standard aging curve
  • All have their first round picks in 2022 and 2023

Of those teams listed above, I think Philadelphia and Nashville are the teams most likely to “crater” in the next one to two seasons. The Flyers find themselves currently sixth in their division and if the divisions return back to normal next year, the Flyers will be jostling for position with Carolina, Washington, Pittsburgh, New York Islanders, a blossoming New York Rangers team. With a large portion of their forward group of Claude Giroux (33 years old), Jakub Voracek (31 years old), James van Riemsdyk (31 years old), Sean Couturier (28 years old), and Kevin Hayes (28 years old) being on the older side, their defense in shambles, and their goaltending a huge question mark, there’s a solid chance they could bottom out.

One potential deal with the Flyers could revolve around taking Shayne Gostisbehere’s $4.5 million AAV for two more years as Gostisbehere appears to have fallen out of favor in Philadelphia after being waived early this year. Potentially a Vrána for Gostisbehere + 2022 1st round pick would be enough to make this deal happen or at the very least form a framework for a potential deal. This would be an attractive option for the Wings as it would bring in $4.5 million for them to hit the cap floor.

Nashville on the other hand has seen a late season surge thrust them into playoff position and as such, they may have a more optimistic perspective of what the 2021-2022 season might look like for them. However, Nashville’s got some difficult contracts still on the books. The Predators have Matt Duchene (30 years old, $8 million AAV x 5 more years), Ryan Johansen (28 years old, $8 million AAV x 4 more years), Ryan Ellis (30 years old, $6.25 million AAV x 6 more years), and Roman Josi (30 years old, $9.059 million AAV x 7 more years) locked in and they don’t really have a strong supporting cast outside of Forsberg and Arvidsson. Detroit could conceivably work on a deal surrounding Bertuzzi and Mark Borowiecki (one-year, $2 million remaining) + Nick Cousins (one-year, $1.5 million remaining) + a 2023 1st round pick. Both this deal and the Gostisbehere deal passed the muster of being a “roughly equivalent” deal as evaluated by my trade machine – however the trade machine is only concerned about player/pick value and may not correlate with the market value.

Adding Borowiecki, Cousins, and Gostisbehere in addition to the Hronek deal above leaves the Wings looking like this for the next season.

It just barely hits the cap floor of $60.2 million and it’s certainly not pretty but it sets the Wings up for another big deadline of selling with Ryan, Fabbry, Gagner, Grigorenko, Cousins, and Borowiecki on one-year deals.

Ultimately making these deals would signal to the fanbase that they are pushing the future out a bit further and going all-in on the 2022 and 2023 draft lotteries. This strategy makes sense on the surface as the 2022 and 2023 drafts purportedly will have multiple franchise players available at the top of the draft. In 2022, there’s Shane Wright, Matthew Savoie, Brad Lambert, Rutger McGroaty, Seamus Casey, and more. Wright as a 15-year-old rookie last season finished with a higher point per game average (1.20) than John Tavares (1.18) and Connor McDavid (1.05) at the same age. The 2023 draft offers Matvei Michkov, Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli, Dominik Petr, and more. Bedard, at age-15, is leading the WHL in estimated primary points per 60 minutes with a ridiculous 6.16. That’s better than Dylan Guenther, Peyton Krebs, and Connor Zary. Michkov as a 15-year old was 9th in the MHL in estimated primary points per 60 with 3.33 and had an eye-popping even-strength Goals For percentage of 70%. There’s just so much talent in these drafts that giving yourself multiple lottery balls would be a fantastic opportunity to rebuild this team.

Whether you like the nuclear option or this radical teardown option, what I don’t think is an option is another year of minor moves. Relying on lottery luck for a single 1st round draft pick has proven to be an unlucky strategy for the Wings the last few seasons and with the 2022 and 2023 drafts containing what appears to be multiple franchise players, it would be in the best interest of the Red Wings to be aggressive as opposed to tying their hopes to at best an 18% likelihood of landing the top pick in the draft. There’s also something to be said about culture. This season will be the fifth consecutive season the Wings miss the playoffs. A lot of the Red Wings young players have never experienced playoff hockey. There’s a standard and a culture that’s been built in Detroit over the last 30 years that is at risk of the Wings continue to tread water in hopes of winning the lottery with their pick. That doesn’t mean the Wings should blindly be aggressive and go out and sign a bunch of unrestricted free agents to be better. It means that they need to pick a smart option that offers them either the opportunity to land elite talent now or gives them better odds in the draft lottery than just their own pick. As such, I think the only two smart strategies are the radical teardown or the nuclear upscale.

When deciding between the nuclear option and the radical teardown option, my personal belief is… while the radical teardown option offers the “safer” path forward as it is less contingent on the Red Wings current prospects hitting their ceilings, I would swing big. Go with the nuclear option. We’ve seen over the years how tough drafting can be and then there’s the added time waiting for some of these guys hit. The 2021 and 2022 drafts in particular are still going to be tough to evaluate well as COVID precautions ease up for scouting staffs to get back into buildings. Additionally, the Wings have not had any lottery luck and there’s still not a guarantee that the picks they trade for end up in the lottery with the players the Wings send back that way. Yes, I do still worry about the ceilings of Johansson, Berggren, Veleno, and Rasmussen. Yes, it makes me slightly uncomfortable going all-in on Lucas Raymond being that elite play-driving forward that the Red Wings have been lacking.

However, I firmly believe that if the Wings were able to execute the offer sheet and somehow land Hamilton with their large sum of money, this would be a competitive hockey team on day one. That team would also maintain substantial cap flexibility with only Hamilton and Pettersson signed beyond 2023-2024. Once the cap starts to go back up (likely in 2023-2024) it will become easier to move Hamilton and Pettersson’s contracts in the event the gamble on Detroit’s current prospects did not pay off. By no means are the Wings now locked in to being mediocre if the puzzle pieces don’t fall into place. I think at times we’ve become too comfortable with losing to maximize our draft odds when the system as designed is simply not conducive to building around that plan.

There’s a ton of unknowns here. Does Pettersson even want to sign the offer sheet? Does Hamilton care to leave Carolina and even if he did, would he want to come to Detroit? We don’t know any of that right now but it certainly does not hurt to swing for the fences. This fear of retribution of future offer sheets is overstated as teams only get themselves into trouble when they make poor salary cap decisions with non-elite players. The Wings will be absolutely fine if they pull this off. And ultimately if they can’t? Then we have the radical teardown as the fallback option. But if I’m Yzerman, I’m swinging big first to see if I can turn things around faster.

Thanks to everyone who stuck with me through these 8000+ words and I’ll see you all back in 2023 for another edition.

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