How Steve Yzerman’s Detroit Red Wings measure up in Eastern Conference playoff race

Detroit Free Press

It’s as aggressive as Yzerman has been since being named GM of the Wings in April 2019, and a sign that the team is emerging from the rebuild. Compared to the shell of a team they were just two years ago, when they went 17-49-5, the 2022-23 Wings pulse with optimism.

But looking good mid-summer is one thing; another is whether the Wings can make it past the regular season and into the playoffs for what would be the first time since 2016.

[Steve Yzerman: ‘I’m hoping we’re a better team’ after Detroit Red Wings’ free agency haul]

Let’s delve into whether that is too idealistic to be realistic:

Sure, start saving for playoff tickets

Moritz Seider showed his character when, while celebrating being named the 2022 Calder Trophy winner, he emphasized what he and his teammates really want is “playoffs at LCA.” Seider and Lucas Raymond, who finished fourth in rookie of the year voting, were major reasons why the Wings were in the conversation for a wild-card spot last season as late as February. The Wings haven’t had as exciting and talented a defenseman since Niklas Kronwall in his prime, and Raymond adds a consistent scoring dimension.

A ‘VERY SPECIAL NIGHT’:  Wings’ Moritz Seider pumped about Calder Trophy

Yzerman used free agency to add a veteran scorer in David Perron and a promising young scorer in Dominik Kubalik (he scored 30 goals as a rookie three seasons ago). Jakub Vrana has been with the Wings since the 2021 trade deadline, but he resembles a newcomer because injuries limited him to 26 games last season, and 11 in 2021.  He has 30 points in those 37 games, hinting he can add more punch to the lineup.

In bringing in Andrew Copp, Yzerman filled a need at second-line center. Head coach Derek Lalonde projects to have what predecessor Jeff Blashill lacked: Quality options to put together two, maybe even three, scoring lines, and two viable power play units. Raymond, Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi clicked, and Copp’s wingers could be Perron and Vrana. Pius Suter could center a third line between Kubalik and Filip Zadina.

MORE: What Steve Yzerman’s busy free agency says about Red Wings rebuild

Seider was such a joy to watch last season, it almost made up for the overall shape of the defense corps. Filip Hronek wasn’t his usual efficient self, despite his role being eased by Seider’s arrival. Danny DeKeyser hadn’t been the same since back surgery in 2019, but he was called upon to partner with Seider at times because of the lack of depth. Marc Staal did what he was asked, but Yzerman significantly upgraded the left-side defense in signing Ben Chiarot and Olli Määttä. Those two also provide breathing room while the Wings bring along 2021 first-round pick Simon Edvinsson. Chiarot (6 feet 3, 234 pounds), Määttä (6-2, 206) and Seider (6-4, 197) give the Wings an imposing back end, with a possible addition in Edvinsson (6-6, 205).

Goaltending looks promising, even though the resumes are somewhat sparse for both Alex Nedeljkovic (88 career games) and Ville Husso (57). But they’re in their mid-20s and come in at a combined $7.475 million salary cap hit, which is a reasonable situation in today’s NHL.

In short: The Wings have depth at all positions. There are always injuries (forward Robby Fabbri and defenseman Jake Walman already have been ruled out for the start of the season because of surgeries for a knee and shoulder, respectively) but Yzerman has forged a roster that blends core players in their mid-20s with an influx of young players and a selection of veterans.

A .500 finish would be impressive in deep Atlantic Division

As improved as the Wings look, they’ll be hard-pressed to deliver on playoffs at LCA next spring. The Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers aren’t likely to miss the postseason; that’s two spots in the Atlantic Division. The Toronto Maple Leafs have a new goaltending duo in Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov, and while that looks like a gamble, the Leafs have so much scoring power they project to make the playoffs, too.

The Boston Bruins, the fourth Atlantic team to make the playoffs in 2022, look like they’re on a downward trend, but the Ottawa Senators look to be on an upward trend after trading for Alex DeBrincat and signing Claude Giroux, who join a top six that also features Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, Tim Stützle and Josh Norris. The Montreal Canadiens drafted Juraj Slafkovsky at No. 1, and acquired Kirby Dach.

In the Metropolitan Division, the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins all project to return to the playoffs, though one of them could be pushed into a wild card spot now that the Columbus Blue Jackets added Johnny Gaudreau. The New York Islanders had a catastrophic start last season, but in the second half they played like the team that was projected to make the playoffs.

What it adds up to is this: As challenging as it will be to finish in the top three in the division or as a wild card, this is the best the roster (on paper) since Yzerman took control. The Wings possess speed, skill and size, youth and experience, and at the very least look poised to compete.

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. 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 AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

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