Niyo: Yzerman, Red Wings hoping this draft proves to be a net gain

Detroit News

Suddenly, the crease is filling up.

The Red Wings’ search for their goalie of the future worked double-time this week, and in the span of barely 24 hours, general manager Steve Yzerman found one option, and then another.

Two days, two netminders, and perhaps one less pressing concern for the Wings’ rebuilding effort in Detroit.

Thursday’s trade with Carolina for goalie Alex Nedeljkovic offers the more immediate solution, bringing in a 25-year-old Calder Trophy finalist signed for two years at a reasonable $3 million annual salary-cap hit. That deal only cost the Wings a late third-round pick (94th overall) and the rights to pending free agent Jonathan Bernier, the 32-year-old who’d made nearly 100 starts for Detroit over the last three seasons.

But then Yzerman followed it up Friday with a bold move in the first round of the draft, swinging another trade — this time with old friend Jim Nill and the Dallas Stars — to move up with Detroit’s second first-round pick and select who the Wings felt was the top goalie in this class, 18-year-old Sebastian Cossa of the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings.

That made a big night even bigger for the Red Wings, who’d already used their initial first-rounder (No. 6 overall) on a smooth-skating, left-shot defenseman from Sweden, Simon Edvinsson, who carries some serious upside in his nearly 6-foot-5 frame. And yet he still may find himself looking up to Cossa one day, because the new goalie is a towering 6-foot-6 presence in the crease.

More: Red Wings land defenseman Simon Edvinsson, goalie Sebastian Cossa in NHL Draft 1st round

But by taking the 23rd overall pick — acquired in April from Washington in the Anthony Mantha-Jakub Vrana trade — and packaging it with second- and fifth-round picks from this year’s draft stockpile, the Wings made a serious wager here.

“Obviously, when you pick him where we did, you hope you’re getting a starting goaltender,” Yzerman said. “And we think he has the talent to do that. There’s a lot of work to be done between today being drafted and eventually becoming a starter in the NHL. But we think he has that ability.”

It’s one that might not sit well with some folks in terms of value propositions. There’s a reason Cossa’s only the 15th goalie to be a top-15 pick in the last 20 years, and just the third in the last decade. (He’s only the fourth first-round goalie drafted by the Red Wings, ever.) It’s because goalies generally take more time to develop, while solid veteran netminders can be found at discount prices in free agency most years.

But it’s worth noting that Yzerman has done this before. Back in 2012, a couple years into his tenure as GM in Tampa, Yzerman swiped a first-round pick (19th overall) from Detroit in a deal that sent Kyle Quincey back to the Wings. (Sorry for the reminder, folks.) Then he used that extra first-round pick to take a chance on 17-year-old Russian goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Many analysts had Swedish goalie Jesper Wallstedt pegged to go ahead of Cossa in this draft, and the Wings clearly liked both of them a great deal. Yzerman said they would’ve considered trading up for Wallstedt as well. (The Swede ended up going 20th overall to Minnesota.)

But that’s perhaps the biggest difference between this year’s scenario and the one that played out in 2012, when according to Yzerman, Tampa’s amateur scouting director Al Murray was “adamant that Andrei was the best goalie he had seen in all his years of scouting.”

That year, Yzerman and his staff were fairly confident the goalie would still be there when they picked at No. 19. This year, the Wings’ were convinced both goalies would be gone by the time they were on the clock at No. 23. Once one went, the other would go soon after, they figured. So they made a few calls and even paid a little extra by throwing in the fifth-round selection to climb up eight spots and snag the one they wanted.

The goalie they needed, too, because even though the Wings have picked a goaltender in each of the last seven drafts, there’s certainly no clear-cut future NHL starter in the pipeline.

It took Vasilevskiy a few years to reach the NHL, and four or five to fully establish himself as a starter. But now it’s easy to look back and see why he was a risk worth taking. At 26, the Russian goalie already has won a Vezina Trophy and he just backstopped the Lightning to a second consecutive Stanley Cup title, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP earlier this month.

No one’s predicting that for Cossa at this point. But while he doesn’t have the same pedigree — he also didn’t have the same opportunity thanks to the pandemic — he did turn heads the last two years in junior hockey.

In two seasons in Edmonton, he went 38-7-4 as a starter, and he lost just one game (17-1-1) this past season while leading the WHL in goals-against average (1.57) and save percentage (.941). Cossa boasts a rare combination of size and athleticism, and by all accounts — Kris Draper, the Wings’ amateur scouting director, said the team did plenty of digging on this prospect, and had several interviews with him over the last couple months — the young goalie seems to have the mental makeup to be a franchise-type goalie at the NHL level.

“He certainly looks like the goaltender that can not only be a No. 1, but be a top-notch No. 1,” TSN draft analyst Craig Button said. “You watch the way Andrei Vasilevskiy plays in the net, there’s a lot of similarities with Sebastian Cossa.”

Again, that’s not a comparison Yzerman’s ready —  or willing —  to make.

“It would be unfair to him, and I think it would be irresponsible of me to say I think he’s got the potential of Andrei Vasilevskiy,” the Wings’ GM said. “Because if he’s anything close to that, we’d be thrilled.”

But for now, they’re pretty happy with their opening-night haul in this draft. Adding another big defenseman who they project will play big minutes alongside Moritz Seider was a near-perfect start, in the Wings’ eyes. And then to pick up a goalie the Wings view as a future starter, it felt like mission accomplished on Day 1.

“I think it’s imperative to have a good defense to win championships, ultimately,” Yzerman said. “You’re not winning without a good goalie, you’re not winning without a good D corps.”

And Friday night, they felt like they took a step toward winning on both those counts.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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