The Detroit Red Wings are beginning to emerge from a deep rebuild, and with any luck, will be back in playoff contention within the next few years. Longtime fans can still easily recall the team’s heartbreak prior to its 1997 Stanley Cup championship, not to mention the sustained excellence of the organization from its first modern-day championship in 1997 to its last playoff appearance in 2015-16.
Those years of success sometimes feel like they all happened decades ago, but in reality, it has only been six years since the last time the club made the postseason. Though much has changed since Scotty Bowman helped the Red Wings end their 42-year playoff drought in the 1996-97 season, one thing has not:
Detroit Free Press reporter Helene St. James.
St. James is a staple in the Motor City sports scene, as has covered the Red Wings for the Free Press since 1996. A lot has happened since then, but recently the team’s rebuild progress is on the forefront of everyone’s mind.
She has seen it all, and sat down with me during Detroit’s most recent game — a 2-1 overtime loss to the Arizona Coyotes — to talk about the state of the Red Wings rebuild, who’s been the most impressive rookie, what prospects to keep an eye on, coach Jeff Blashill’s job security, and even her favorite memory in almost three decades of covering the team.
Let’s dive in.
Red Wings Improving, But Still Lack Key Pieces
The Red Wings have drastically improved since their COVID-shortened season in 2019-20, though to be fair, the changes started to be implemented after general manager Steve Yzerman took the helm in April 2019. Since then, the team has drafted well, stockpiled talent in its minor league system, and allowed that talent to mature at a pace that ensures they aren’t rushed into action.
“You have to give [Yzerman] a lot of credit for how dramatically he’s changed the roster, without, in any way, mortgaging the future,” St. James said. “He signed good players to short-term contracts.”
Yzerman’s plan has been evident from the start, highlighted by the short-term contracts he’s almost exclusively offered to the majority of the roster. One of the only exceptions to that logic, former Red Wing Anthony Mantha, earned a four-year deal in November 2020, only to be traded to the Washington Capitals for Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, a 2021 first-round pick, as well as a 2022 second-rounder.
That first-round pick was indirectly used to select top goalie prospect Sebastian Cossa (Detroit traded its pick from the Capitals to Dallas in order to move up in the first round), and he’s tearing it up with the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Edmonton Oil Kings.
Yzerman ultimately signed Vrana to a deal that’s strikingly similar to what Mantha’s was, though the 25-year-old forward is currently sidelined with a shoulder injury sustained in training camp.
Needless to say, the Red Wings’ young core is talented, but is just starting to get the help it needs to seriously contend for a playoff spot in the future.
“They’re all in that 25-year age group, and that’s the core they’re counting on to push this team forward,” St. James said. “Then you have these current draft picks coming in — the [Moritz] Seiders, the Lucas Raymonds — they come in and hopefully help provide the push.
“You look at a guy like Pius Suter, signed out of free agency, well he fits in that mold perfectly. He’s 25 years old and got $3.25 million. The money is good, but the term is only two years. He also went out and traded for [goalie Alex] Nedeljkovic, so Steve’s made a lot of changes that have really stabilized the team.”
The moves have helped the Red Wings get off to their best start in years — despite the team’s current four-game losing streak (one came in overtime) — but there’s still a lot of work to be done if Detroit is to seriously compete for a playoff spot against the likes of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Boston Bruins.
“They’ve looked really good at times, but they’re missing a lot of pieces that you see on a championship team, like a superstar center,” St. James said. “Moritz Seider has had a fantastic season, and at 20-years-old, he’s their best defenseman, but this is only his first year.
“It’s going to take a little time to build, but I think you see him, you see Lucas Raymond, and those two give you a lot of hope for the future of the team.”
Seider & Raymond Highlight a Promising Future
Yes, fans are clamoring for a return to the playoffs, but the reality is it’s going to take a little more time for the team to put together what it needs to become a true contender. Even though the team’s last trip to the playoffs feels like generations ago, St. James has a simple reminder for fans who forgot what it took for Yzerman to help Detroit reach the promised land when he was simply known as “The Captain.”
“Steve Yzerman waited 14 years as a player to win the Cup, and in between 1983 and 1997, there was a 1989 draft where they got Lidstrom, Fedorov, and Konstantinov,” she said. “That’s not going to happen again.
“Back then there were 20-some odd teams, now there are 32, so it just gets harder and harder.”
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, and Yzerman has certainly made some incredible draft decisions to this point. He elected to draft Seider sixth overall in the 2019 NHL entry draft, a move that sent shockwaves through the hockey community at the time. Fast-forward to 2021, and it looks brilliant, considering the 20-year-old is without question the top defenseman on the Red Wings this season.
Just one year later Detroit slipped to fourth overall despite having the top odds to land the No. 1 pick, and Yzerman used that to pick Raymond. After just one season of professional hockey in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), the 19-year-old forward defied all odds and made the opening night roster this season.
Now he and Seider are leading the early-season Calder Trophy discussions.
“If I were voting today, it’s hard to argue against Lucas and all the points he’s consistently putting up, but Seider, that position is so much harder for a young guy, and he’s their go-to guy in every spot,” St. James said. “I hope it’s a problem at the end of the year, deciding which one to vote for.”
Even with Seider, the Defense Needs to Improve Drastically
Seider’s impact has been felt immediately in Hockeytown, but unfortunately the team continues to struggle on the blue line. To be fair, the Red Wings’ defensive corps has been hit with the injury bug, with both Marc Staal and Troy Stecher currently out of the lineup. Other mainstay defenseman — primarily Danny Dekeyser and Filip Hronek — have not performed to expectations this season.
That said, Dekeyser is consistently the subject of fans’ ire, but the veteran has been a force on Detroit’s blue line since 2013. The 31-year-old has played in 507 career games, has 137 total points, and is actually a plus-7 in his career. This season, though, he has two points in 19 games, and is a minus-5. He’s been banged up in the past, and underwent back surgery in December 2019 to aid in his recovery.
So, does Dekeyser have an unfair bad reputation among Red Wings fans?
“For a while he was playing in a role way beyond what he should have, but they didn’t have anybody, so everybody played higher than they should have, based on the depth chart,” St. James said. “Same with Hronek. Two years ago after DeKeyser was lost eight games into the season, Hronek put the entire team on his back. He was 21, 22 years old, and it’s just a lot to do.
“You end up not looking as good just because you’re put into a role that’s too overwhelming.”
Help is on the way. The Red Wings have a number of top-notch defensive prospects in the pipeline, including Albert Johansson, William Wallinder, and their prized pick from the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, Simon Edvinsson. All three are currently playing in the SHL.
Jeff Blashill is Safe … For Now
Ask any Detroit fan about coach Jeff Blashill, and their response will likely vary based on whether the streaky Red Wings are winning or losing. St. James said Yzerman’s handling of Blashill’s tenure should be taken as a vote of confidence in the 47-year-old’s ability, and to be fair, he has been successful at every other level of hockey he’s ever coached, including the American Hockey League (AHL).
That doesn’t stop fan (or pundit) speculation on his job security, though odds are if Yzerman was going to make a change prior to the end of the current season, he would have already done it.
“To me, it says a lot the [Yzerman] has kept endorsing [Blashill], and what it says more than anything, probably, is that I know Steve would not have kept him if he didn’t think he was doing a good job with the young players,” St. James said. “That’s ultimately what the focus is.”
That said, the team needs to start winning soon, and Yzerman would not have brought in pieces such as Suter and Nedeljkovic if he didn’t expect to see progress this season.
“At some point the wins and losses are going to start to matter,” St. James said. “Probably this season, because they do have a team that they expect to see better results. It’s not “make the playoffs or perish,” but they expect to see better results and improvement.”
The Kids Can Play
Though St. James indicated Seider has stepped into a more challenging role, she also said Raymond has been the more impressive considering the challenges he’s facing as an inexperienced 19-year-old playing on North American ice for the first time in his career. Seider had experience in both the German League, the AHL, and the SHL (where he earned defenseman of the year honors last season), while Raymond had only a fraction of that experience, and none in North America.
“Raymond has earned his spot, and he looks at home,” St. James said. “There’s no panic, ever with the puck. He’s not afraid to be engaged physically, and he’s going against the best players that he’s ever seen, so I’ve been really, really impressed with how seamlessly he has transitioned.
“He makes really smart plays, and I think more than anything, that’s what helps at that age.”
There’s even more to be excited about. The Red Wings have a number of forwards waiting in the wings, prepared to make a difference, led by Jonatan Berggren. The 21-year-old is presently with Grand Rapids in the AHL, but has been turning heads since putting up 45 points in 49 games in the SHL last year.
It may not be imminent, but there’s no doubt Berggren will get a look — but only when the timing makes sense.
“I think they’ll take a look at [Berggren] at some point this season, but they don’t want to rush any of their young guys,” St. James said. “This is a long-term project, and they don’t want to bring anyone up who they don’t think is 100 percent ready, especially with their young prospects. They tend to overwhelmingly think they’re better off playing 18 or 19 minutes as go-to guys in Grand Rapids than playing eight or nine minutes in the NHL.”
A Wealth of Hockey Knowledge and Decades of Experience
St. James knows the Red Wings organization better than almost anyone, and has certainly seen just about everything in 25 years of covering the team. She released her book, “The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings” in 2020, which is a must-have for any Wings fan (the holidays are coming up!), and is available in bookstores and online.
To wrap the interview, I had just one question: What’s your all-time favorite memory in covering Detroit? Her answer will make any fan smile.
“In 2002, I went to the Czech Republic when [the team] had the Cup there, and leaving one of Dominik Hasek’s functions, I was driving with Jiri Slegr and his wife in their Mercedes,” she said. “Jiri was driving, and I was in the back seat, and the Stanley Cup was strapped in next to me, with a seat belt. That was just a really cool experience, seeing them, being invited into their homes, and seeing what a superstar Dominik Hasek was in his home country.”
With any luck, the rebuild will continue to progress as expected, and new memories just like that will be made in the years to come.
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A die-hard hockey fan in the desert, and proud Iowa State alum. Detroit Red Wings and Arizona Coyotes contributor for The Hockey Writers.