Niyo: Red Wings’ Edvinsson knows it’s game on with NHL job in reach

Detroit News

Traverse City — This is not a game of Simon Says, and he knows that.

Others will decide whether Simon Edvinsson, the Red Wings’ top prospect, is in or out of the NHL lineup in Detroit this fall.

But it is up to the 19-year-old Swedish defenseman to make a real game of this for now. And the former first-round pick knows he can do that by listening closely and following the rules. By jumping up when he’s supposed to and knowing when to sit back without being told. By keeping it simple when things get more complicated.

And as the youngster gets his first real taste of NHL competition here at the Red Wings’ training camp, what stands out besides the obvious size (6-foot-6 and 210 pounds) and talent — Edvinsson’s a smooth skater with soft hands and surprising puck skills — is the opportunity.

You’d probably have to go back to 1999 to find a time when Detroit handed a regular NHL job to a 19-year-old defenseman (Jiri Fischer), but as general manager Steve Yzerman indicated earlier this week, it’s entirely possible with Edvinsson this fall.

“I can’t sit here today and tell you he’s definitely going to be in the lineup on opening night,” Yzerman said.

But, the GM added, “I think Simon has a good chance.”

That’s partly because the left side of the Wings’ defense corps was so bad last season. And while Yzerman was aggressive in addressing that area of his roster in free agency — he signed veterans Ben Chiarot and Olli Maatta to play top-four roles alongside Moritz Seider and Filip Hronek — the fact that another left defenseman, Jake Walman, is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery means there’s an opening for a top-six spot on the blue line.

Which is what Yzerman says it’ll take for him to justify Edvinsson beating out experienced NHLers like Robert Hagg and Jordan Oesterle for a spot. Even if it’s only for a brief stint to start the regular season, with Walman due back in mid-November.

“I want him playing regular — I don’t want him in and out of the lineup,” Yzerman said. “Most importantly, I want him playing a significant role. I want him to be obviously in the top six, playing games, and I’d like to see him participating in special teams in some form. And if that’s not the case, we’ll decide where to go from there.”

So, then, here we are, with Edvinsson, fresh off a busy summer that included heavy minutes for Sweden’s bronze-medal team at the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship, auditioning for his dream job during his first extended visit to the U.S.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of different things here in America, but it’s starting to feel like I have a home here,” he admitted with a laugh Friday, while also crowning himself the team’s best putt-putt golfer after a recent outing in Traverse City. “And I started to dream in English, actually. So that’s weird, too.”

Still, Edvinsson turns serious when addressing the prospect of making an NHL roster. He knows the expectations that have traveled with him ever since Detroit selected him No. 6 overall in the 2021 entry draft. And he’s well aware of just how high the bar was raised here last year when Moritz Seider stepped into the Red Wings’ lineup as a 20-year-old defenseman and skated away with the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie.

Seider, of course, already had a year of pro hockey in North America under his belt with the Wings’ AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids before spending a year dominating in the Swedish Hockey League. But for Edvinsson, who had a strong showing as an 18-year-old playing for Frolunda in the SHL last winter, understands the challenge is the same.

“You need to earn your spot, and that’s what they told me,” he said. “That’s what I want to do: I want to earn my spot. I don’t want to have it given just because of some hype that I get. I want to really feel that I can play my game in this league and against these players.”

It’s a game that’s hard to judge, at times. Edvinsson’s talent is obvious, but some of that skill can get him in trouble now that he’s facing NHL talent. He’ll try to drag the puck through a defender rather than dishing it, or he’ll get caught pinching and find himself chasing. And because his skating can seem so effortless, at times, you’re left to wonder if the urgency is really at the level it needs to be.

But that’s what this training camp is for, in many respects. Edvinsson said Red Wings captain Dylan Larkin is chief among those barking out reminders to the rookie on the ice. And there’s a reason new head coach Derek Lalonde is ending every practice session in Traverse City with a lengthy series of battle drills. On Friday, Edvinsson got an up-close look at what the standard needs to be, paired with Lucas Raymond — his former teammate with Frolunda — against Larkin and Jared McIsaac in a 2-on-2 drill that had Larkin angrily firing a puck off the boards after coming out on the losing end.

“Yeah, he likes to battle,” Edvinsson said of Raymond, who last season made the leap straight from the SHL to the NHL as a 19-year-old look easy, at times. “And that’s fun — it kept me going today. I feel like that’s one thing I really learned, that you need to be so much (more) aggressive, harder on the player.”

He knows more hard lessons are yet to come, particularly after the Red Wings break camp and begin their eight-game preseason schedule against other NHL teams. But he also knows he’ll need to be his own hardest critic if he’s going to make the most of this opportunity.

“It’s up to me,” Simon says. “It’s not up to anyone else.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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