The only constant in today’s NHL is change.
Take a look at Detroit’s 2021-22 roster. Now, look at today’s. A lot has changed. Gone are the days of Nick Leddy and Vladislav Namestnikov. Free agent signees David Perron and Dominik Kubalik have been some of the greatest success stories of the new season for the Detroit Red Wings. With that said, the most impressive — and somehow overlooked — success story is the tale of Jonatan Berggren.
The Swedish forward, selected in the second round of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, had all but locked down a roster spot before the start of free agency. Then, Elmer Söderblom struck. From out of nowhere, the 6-foot-8 winger snatched up the final spot on the team’s roster. Berggren was sent back to the Grand Rapids Griffins to work out the last few kinks of his game.
He didn’t stay long.
To call his time in the AHL fortuitous is an understatement. In just seven short games, he scored as many points, immediately cementing himself as one of the Griffins’ best forwards. During that time, the Red Wings began to suffer a slew of injuries. Between Robby Fabbri’s season-ending injury last season, Tyler Bertuzzi’s wounded hand, and Matt Luff’s gruesome puck injury, the Wings were suffering.
Enter Berggren, who wasted absolutely no time establishing himself in Detroit. In his first game, he assisted on one of two goals against the New York Rangers in a brutal 8-2 beatdown. Following this, Berggren would go on to remain one of the most consistent Red Wings on the roster during a painful skid through November. The longest time he’s gone without scoring at least a goal or an assist was during the team’s five-game losing streak in early December, where the entire team suffered for a lack of offense.
As of today, Berggren has 12 points in 21 games. To put that into an 82-game perspective, that’s a pace of around 47 points on the season. For a rookie playing fourth-line minutes, that’s beyond a promising sign. But can he sustain that level of production throughout the rest of the season? Will he earn a promotion on the roster? And — most importantly — where will he play when Bertuzzi, Fabbri, Jakub Vrana, and the rest of the injured crew come back?
The case for Berggren
According to our friends at Left Wing Lock, Berggren has played most or all of his ice time in the NHL with Joe Veleno, Austin Czarnik, and Pius Suter. Of the three players mentioned, Joe Veleno has benefitted the most from Berggren’s arrival. Nine of Veleno’s 11 points have come since Berggren joined the Red Wings on November 10th. His other linemates, Suter and Czarnik, have just 10 and one point on their seasons, respectively. Berggren isn’t just a quality player — he’s the star of his line, elevating his teammates both offensively and defensively.
Some may attribute Berggren’s meteoric rise in point totals due to a low quality of competition. When the team faced off against the Ottawa Senators earlier this season, the Senators deployed their star forward line (Brady Tkachuk, Alex DeBrincat, and Claude Giroux) over 60% of the time Berggren was on the ice. These players are no slouch offensively. While it’s a small sample size, Berggren’s above-50% Corsi For (CF%) and Fenwick For (FF%) show that the team controls the puck more when he’s on the ice. I may not be paid the big bucks to be a professional hockey analyst, but I’m told that strong offense and defense is a good sign.
Why Berggren might still get sent to the AHL
Even with his remarkably consistent offense and strong defense, there’s still a chance he gets sent back to the Griffins. You might be asking yourself “why?” or “seriously?”. It all comes down to one thing: roster spots. As of today, the Red Wings have seven players currently injured. Of those seven players, four of them are forwards: Jakub Vrana, Tyler Bertuzzi, Robby Fabbri, and Filip Zadina. Of the aforementioned four players, the only one that Berggren could hypothetically beat out for a spot on the roster is Zadina.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here — let’s look at the lines as they stand right now, according to Daily Faceoff:
Now, factor Vrana, Bertuzzi, Fabbri, and Zadina into this lineup. Who’s out? Who sticks around? If we follow the trends of earlier this season, Suter will likely remain an extra along with Zadina. Slotting Bertuzzi onto the top line would move Rasmussen down to the 3C spot, replacing Suter. If Vrana takes Erne’s spot on the second line, he’d likely play on the fourth line again, forcing either Söderblom or Berggren back to Grand Rapids. From a pure production standpoint, it looks like that name would be Söderblom. That leaves Robby Fabbri, the player that throws this entire lineup into whack.
There are two hypothetical scenarios I see with this. I’ll call them Keep Berggren or Bye Bye Berggren.
Scenario 1: Keep Berggren
If Berggren sticks around, another player will need to bid adieu to the lineup. Despite his niche popularity on Twitter, Adam Erne’s place on this roster becomes ever-muddled with the return of more and more players. This would make him one of the extras on the roster, either forcing one of Zadina or Suter to clear waivers or reducing one extra slot for a defenseman or goaltender. Here’s how the lines would look (assuming everyone’s healthy):
Extras: Suter, Zadina, Erne
Not a bad roster!
Scenario 2: Bye Bye Berggren
Due to Jonatan Berggren’s contract, he’s able to avoid the waiver process without any worries of being claimed. This offers the team a little additional flexibility while avoiding the risk of losing a player. While this might not be the sexiest of solutions, the team may opt for this conservative approach as Yzerman considers trade deadline opportunities. Berggren’s full-time position on the Red Wings is a when, not an if, and this 21-game stint has more than proven this. Having said that, this is what the roster would look like without his presence. This option frees up an extra roster spot and avoids the dreaded waiver claim:
Extras: Suter, Zadina
While the option to put Berggren back in the AHL is there, it doesn’t make sense from an operational standpoint. The team is simply better when he’s on the ice. He’s been a pivotal player in providing Detroit some depth scoring and has shown more than enough of what it takes to wear the Winged Wheel. If he’s sent back down to Grand Rapids, his time there will be incredibly short lived. He deserves to play meaningful minutes in the NHL. It’d be a shame to see his time in the spotlight delayed.