One of the talking points at the Detroit Red Wings‘ training camp is that this is as competitive as they have looked for several years.
General manager Steve Yzerman has, in a little more than two years, put his mark on almost the whole team: He has either acquired (via trade, free agency or draft), re-signed every player — or, in Dylan Larkin’s case, named him captain.
As the regular season nears, that has prompted questions about just how good the Wings might be in 2021-22. Free Press reader Bruce Law wrote to ask, “Helene, look into your crystal ball and give me your best guess/prediction for the Wings in ‘21-22. A playoff team? Will the Wings be like the ‘21 Tigers and give us a better, more consistent day-to-day effort, although fall short of the playoffs? Thanks.”
The Wings haven’t been to the playoffs since 2016; their historic 25-season streak, which included four Stanley Cups, was nipped on March 28, 2017, when they were eliminated after a loss on the road to the Carolina Hurricanes. They’ve endured some rough times since then, with the worst being the misery of 2019-20, when they were 17-49-5 — 29 points worse than the next-to-last team — when the NHL shut down the season because of COVID-19.
They made progress last season, though the enthusiasm in early January’s camp had dissipated by the end of the month thanks to having five players in COVID-19 quarantine for two weeks, and losing Tyler Bertuzzi to a back injury.
This season’s camp already hit a sour note when forward Jakub Vrana showed up late and then left after 10 minutes because of a nagging shoulder issue that required surgery. He’s out a minimum of four months, which will take him into January — but since the NHL is shut down almost all of February because of the Olympic Games in Beijing, Vrana is looking at a March return, realistically.
Even without Vrana, the Wings project to be competitive among the top six forwards: His absence creates an opportunity for veteran Bobby Ryan — and 2020 first-round pick Lucas Raymond — to battle Filip Zadina for spots on a line with Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi, or Pius Suter and Robby Fabbri.
The defense looks like it will be the Wings’ best since 2018-19, when Niklas Kronwall was still in the lineup, Mike Green was still effective, and Filip Hronek was just beginning to make an impression. Moritz Seider, a 2019 first-round pick, is a mobile puck-carrier who can run one of the power plays; newcomer Nick Leddy is fluid skater who will stabilize a top-four corps that included Hronek and either Danny DeKeyser or Marc Staal. Troy Stecher, Jordan Oesterle and Gustav Lindstrom also will compete for ice time. They’re all NHL-caliber defensemen, and that’s a degree of depth that’s been sorely missing.
In the crease, Alex Nedeljkovic comes in with the bragging rights of being a Calder Trophy finalist, but the guy he’s replacing, Jonathan Bernier, was the Wings’ most consistent player the past two seasons. Nedejlkovic will share duties with Thomas Greiss, who righted himself after a dismal start last season.
All in all, it should add up to more consistently competitive performances.
But will the Wings make the playoffs next spring? I doubt it. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins all project to finish above the Wings in the standings. The Montreal Canadiens made it to the Stanley Cup Finals last season. That’s five division rivals right there, now that the Atlantic division is back. In the Metropolitan, meanwhile, the New York Islanders, Washington Capitals, Hurricanes and New York Rangers look like playoff teams, and while the Pittsburgh Penguins will start the season without Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin, they still warrant consideration.
Yzerman knows rebuilds require patience; he waited 14 years as a player to hoist the Stanley Cup. But he, and fans, should be able to watch the 2021-22 Wings and see a team on the right trajectory, with an emphasis more on the development of younger players than the standings.
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.