In a span of one week, Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman dealt for two players who project to make an immediate positive impact without extensively depleting the Red Wings’ future assets .
On Thursday afternoon — minutes after the expansion draft-imposed trade freeze lifted — the Wings acquired the rights to goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic, a restricted free agent, from the Carolina Hurricanes for the rights to unrestricted free agent goaltender Jonathan Bernier and a third-round 2021 draft pick. The pick, No. 94, came from the Vegas Golden Knights in former GM Ken Holland’s 2018 trade that sent Tomas Tatar to the desert. The Wings still hold five picks in the first three rounds of this year’s draft, scheduled for Friday and Saturday.
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“We’re trying to improve our team,” Yzerman said. “Ultimately our goal is to build a playoff team, a Stanley Cup contender. In the interim, we are trying to give some of our younger players, to surround them with a more competitive team. With the state of the rebuild, as we’ve witnessed for the last few years, you trade your expiring contracts, your older players, your veterans, at the deadline for future assets.
“With having so many draft picks, we thought, selectively, we can use the odd one to try and improve our team for the short term, because I believe firmly there’s benefits to having good players for the young guys. It can be very difficult for a bunch of young kids out there in the NHL, playing games, it can beat you up after a while, and we want to be competitive.”
Soon after the trade, Yzerman signed Nedeljkovic to a two-year deal with a $3 million annual average value.
Nedeljkovic is an intriguing addition. He was a finalist for the Calder Trophy (the NHL rookie of the year award) after posting a 1.90 goals-against average and .932 save percentage in 23 games last season (including a 2-0 record against the Wings with a 1.51 GAA and .951 save percentage). Nedeljkovic is 17-7-4 in the regular season during his NHL career, with a 2.01 GAA and .928 save percentage. He also started nine playoff games for the Hurricanes this year, going 4-5 with a 2.17 GAA and .920 save percentage, earning all four wins in a first-round victory over the Nashville Predators and the first three defeats of a second-round loss to eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
That’s not much of a sample size, but he looks like he could be a rising star. Maybe he becomes the team’s longterm No. 1 goalie, filling a huge void. Maybe he doesn’t, in which case he’s on a relatively low-risk contract.
“The kids we have in our system are probably a ways off from playing in the NHL,” Yzerman said. “We wanted to bring in a younger goaltender that has some upside and that has potential to be our starter for a number of years. He’s relatively inexperienced at the NHL level but we think he’s got real good potential and has a chance to play for us for a number of years.”
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Bernier, 32, completed the last year of a three-year contract with a $3 million average annual value. Now the Wings will have a 25-year-old in the crease for the same AAV. Nedeljkovic is familiar with the Metro Detroit area, too, playing for the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers in 2012-15.
The Wings also locked up forward Michael Rasmussen with a three-year contract with an annual cap hit of $1.46 million. Yzerman said he anticipates signing his restricted free agents, a list that includes Tyler Bertuzzi, Jakub Vrana and Filip Hronek. There’s also interest in re-signing the Wings impending unrestricted free agents, defenseman Marc Staal, and right-shot forwards Sam Gagner or Bobby Ryan (but not likely both).
Nedeljkovic is the second new face added over the past week. On July 16, Yzerman sent a 2021 second-round pick (No. 52) to the New York Islanders to acquire offensive defenseman Nick Leddy. That pick was acquired form the Edmonton Oilers in the 2020 Andreas Athanasiou trade.
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“We are trying to surround our younger players with good players to help them develop,” Yzerman said. “A good partner for Fil Hronek. Strong goaltending. Some forwards that can complement Dylan (Larkin) and all our guys.
“I just think it’s important there’s a balance. We’re not going to mortgage or sell all of our assets, all of our draft picks, off, but somewhere along the way, balance trying to be a little bit more competitive with rebuilding.”
Contact Helene St. James at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.