The Grind Line: Grading the Red Wings’ 2021 Free-Agent Signings

The Hockey Writers

What’s The Grind Line? Apart from the once-famous line of Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, and either Joe Kocur or Darren McCarty, The Grind Line is also The Hockey Writers’ weekly column about the Detroit Red Wings. This week Tony Wolak, Devin Little, Patrick Brown, and Kyle Knopp are the muckers who make up THW’s forechecking unit and sound off on Red Wings topics.

Since free agency opened on July 28, the Detroit Red Wings have made numerous moves to make them competitive again. 

In all, the Red Wings signed 11 players, including:

  • G Alex Nedeljkovic
  • F Michael Rasmussen
  • D Marc Staal
  • F Kyle Criscuolo
  • D Brian Lashoff
  • F Taro Hirose
  • F Sam Gagner
  • G Calvin Pickard
  • F Pius Suter
  • D Jordan Oesterle
  • F Tyler Bertuzzi

While saying goodbye to the following players: 

  • D Alex Biega
  • F Luke Glendening
  • F Darren Helm
  • D Dylan McIlrath
  • G Jonathan Bernier

With big names like Jakub Vrana, Adam Erne, and Filip Hronek — as well as Bobby Ryan — still needing new contracts, the Wings are not quite done yet. In this week’s edition of The Grind Line, The Hockey Writers’ Red Wings coverage team grades the results of Detroit’s free agency up to August 1 and offers up analysis on what actions the Wings still need to take heading into the 2021-22 season.

Tony Wolak: B

The Red Wings didn’t make any splashy moves, but that was to be expected. This year’s free-agent market didn’t offer up many players worth costly long-term contracts. Instead, GM Steve Yzerman opted for value signings once again.

The Pius Suter signing gives the Red Wings two solid scoring lines, which isn’t something we’ve been able to say in the last couple of years. I like the idea of Suter playing on a line with former Guelph Storm teammates Bertuzzi and Robby Fabbri. The three combine for a good mix of playmaking, shooting, and puck-retrieval skill sets which should result in a fair amount of goals next season. 

Pius Suter ZSC Lions
Pius Suter spent his rookie season with the Chicago Blackhawks after playing overseas with the ZSC Lions (Reto Stauffer, CC BY-SA 4.0 – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0 – via Wikimedia Commons)

Apart from Suter, I thought the other UFA signings adequately filled holes in the lineup, but don’t offer much resale value. Staal and Gagner are fine – just don’t expect them to be flipped for a second-round pick at the trade deadline. I feel like this was a missed opportunity, though the Red Wings could potentially trade Fabbri, Vladislav Namestnikov, or Nick Leddy for a decent return as pending UFAs

Overall, I thought the free-agent additions were fine. Nothing more, nothing less. And that’s why I graded this year’s haul as a B.

Devin Little: A-

The only thing holding this grade back from being a full “A” in my opinion is that the casual fan likely looks at this list of moves and doesn’t see much to get overly enthused about. The more you follow this team, the more you know that this offseason has been a great one for Detroit, and things certainly seem to be pointing in the right direction. Good luck selling that to any fair-weather fans you know, though. 

Yzerman has complimented and improved his roster by bringing in young, unproven players (such as Nedeljkovic and Suter) that offer serious upside if they can repeat and improve upon their efforts from this season. At this stage of the rebuild, those are the types of players I like to see join the Red Wings, even if it means Hockeytown has to say goodbye to fan favorites like Glendening and Helm. 

It’s the end of an era seeing guys like Helm and Glendening sign elsewhere

The mission for this offseason, in my opinion, was to make the Red Wings more competitive than they were last season without relying on big-ticket free agents. The growth of this team should come from within, and I believe Yzerman has brought in and retained players that will help foster that growth. 

Oh, and by the way — the offseason is still far from over. 

Patrick Brown: B

Free agency went perfectly fine — and given the state of the Red Wings’ rebuild, perfectly fine is right according to plan.

Tony already summed it up perfectly: There was absolutely no reason to make a splash. There will come a point that Yzerman will need to have a flair for the dramatic in the offseason, but not until it’s clear what piece of the championship puzzle is missing. Continue to develop the kids, get them some quality ice time with veteran leadership, and watch the core make strides together.

Though I’m excited about the Suter signing, as is most everyone, I’m certainly going to take more of a guarded approach this season because I expected better secondary scoring numbers last season. That, of course, never materialized. Sure, Suter showed a lot of promise during his rookie campaign, but he was also consistently skating with the likes of Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat, and you’d better believe there are plenty of NHL forwards who go to sleep at night wishing they could skate with either Kane or Debrincat, let alone both.

The best of the rest came in for reasonable terms and cost, and that’s all that anyone can ask for at this stage of the rebuild. The next couple of seasons will highlight who’s truly going to become part of this team’s long-term plans, and that will determine where Yzerman will spend the team’s money in future offseasons.

Kyle Knopp: B-

In terms of expectations, this free agency period has so far delivered. While the Wings did lose two veteran players in Helm and Glendening, their exits will open up much-needed roster spots for the younger players to be able to develop more in the long run. So far, Yzerman has yet to overpay for any one player — something that plagued this team when Ken Holland was at the helm. 

My one issue is that the Wings have yet to address the lack of offensive scoring this offseason. Sure, I didn’t expect them to go out and pay for a Gabriel Landeskog or Alex Ovechkin type player, but it would have been nice to lock up either Erne or Vrana before they filed for arbitration.

Jakub Vrana Detroit Red Wings
Jakub Vrana was a scoring machine for the Detroit Red Wings after coming over in a trade with the Washington Capitals during the 2020-21 season (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

The good news for the Wings is that there is cap space to sign both of these players, even if it goes through the full hearing. While Detroit can afford to go through the process, the fact they are still short of the cap floor — and that Erne and Vrana finished in the top-five for Wings’ forwards in point-per-game scoring — could end in a less favorable result than when Yzerman went through this last year with Bertuzzi.  

Hronek not seeking arbitration is a good sign that the Wings are close to signing an extension with the 23-year-old defenseman. Once Detroit is able to do that and sign Vrana, I will bump this grade to a B/B+. If the Wings can sign Erne and find another top-six scoring forward at value — this grade immediately becomes an A. 

How would you grade the Red Wings free-agent signings so far? Comment below!

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