Detroit — The Red Wings’ goal isn’t just to be playing games that matter next April. It’s to be playing them in May as well.
So for Ville Husso, the goal this summer is to be ready for more.
More games. More pressure. More responsibility.
“Next year, everybody needs to step up a little more,” the Red Wings’ goaltender said Monday, as the Stanley Cup playoffs began without Detroit for a seventh year in a row. “We just need to do it.”
And in Husso’s case, that means doing it from start to finish, following a season that looked a bit like one of those “How it started/How it’s going” memes for the 28-year-old Finnish netminder.
“Yeah, I mean, I think I just need to be better at the end of the day,” Husso said. “I’m not happy at all with how it ended.”
Still, there’s good reason to be encouraged this season was the start of something better for the Red Wings’ goaltending situation, what with Husso establishing himself in Detroit and top prospect Sebastian Cossa making significant strides in his first season as a pro in Toledo.
The Red Wings’ trade for Husso was the first big move Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman made in a busy offseason last summer. He jumped the line in the middle of the NHL Draft and made a deal for a goalie rather than wading into a thin free-agent class that was full of net-needy teams. It cost Detroit a 2022 third-round pick to acquire Husso’s rights from St. Louis, and the Wings quickly agreed to a three-year, $14.25 million extension, locking up a talented goalie the Blues couldn’t afford to keep.
And the deal paid immediate dividends last fall, as Husso quickly asserted himself as the Wings’ primary starter over Alex Nedeljkovic in net. Husso backstopped a 3-0 win over Montreal in the season opener and helped his team take 11 of a possible 14 points in his first seven starts. By Christmas, he’d posted a 12-6-5 record with three shutouts and a .912 save percentage in 23 games. Even in late February, after the Wings had won seven of eight games to edge into the Eastern Conference playoff picture approaching the trade deadline, Husso (23-13-5, .907) remained a big reason why they were, in Derek Lalonde’s view, “overachieving.”
“That first half of the year, he might have been our most valuable player,” the Wings coach said. “And he showed signs of being a legit No. 1.”
But then the roof came crashing down on Lalonde’s team, with back-to-back blowout losses against Ottawa that upended those wide-eyed playoff hopes. And a subsequent trade-deadline sell-off by Yzerman left a depleted roster to play out the season.
It also left Husso, who’d never started more than 42 games in a season as a pro, to test his own limits with a limited supporting cast. And it showed.
“I just think he kinda hit a little bit of a physical and mental wall,” Lalonde said. “You could see it in his play. He was not the same goalie at the end of the year.”
Not even close, really. Husso won just three of his final 14 starts while posting an .857 save percentage, including a five-game span in which he allowed five or more goals four times. During that, he sat out a two-week stretch from late March to early April due to a lower-body injury.
“And at one point, we weren’t sure if he was going to play again,” Yzerman said Friday in his season-ending media session. “And then the plan became, ‘Hey, let’s get out there and see how you do for the rest of the season.’ Physically, I think he did fine, but I think he wasn’t necessarily maybe mentally ready to play these last couple weeks, because he was planning for a completely different plan and then things changed.”
All that helps explain why some of his offseason plans are changing, too.
Husso said Monday he’d considered accepting an invitation to play for Finland in the upcoming IIHF world championships. The Finns are the defending champions and will be playing on home ice next month.
“I was thinking about it, but probably not, I would say,” Husso said Monday. “It’s gonna be a big year next year, and I think I need to start to focus for that.”
Preparing for more
That focus will stay here in Detroit, too. Husso said he’s planning to spend the offseason training here, as are many of his teammates.
“The setup here is amazing,” Husso said. “You know, a lot of guys are staying. I feel it’s home here and I want to be here, too. So it’s gonna be a good summer here and I’m excited about it.
“I mean, it’s gonna be different for sure, staying here. But, you know, here is where I play the game. And Rob (Campbell), our strength coach, he’s gonna be able to help me to play a lot of games next year hopefully.”
At least as many as the 56 games he played this season. Only 10 NHL goalies played more — Nashville’s Juuse Saros led the league with 64 — but when Husso talks about more, he’s talking about something else.
“When we make the playoffs, you play even more games,” said Husso, whose $4.75 million cap hit didn’t even rank him among the 20 highest-paid NHL goalies this season, by the way. “So it’s gonna be good mental challenge, but at the same time, I need to be in better shape.”
Provided he is, the Wings should be as well. Yzerman will have to decide in the coming weeks how he’ll complement Husso on the NHL roster next season. Nedeljkovic struggled for most of this season and spent a few months in the AHL, but he gave the Wings something to think about with a strong finish to his season while filling in for the injured Husso. Yzerman left open that possibility when asked about it last week, but Nedeljkovic probably can find more opportunity elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent.
The future outlook brightened with Cossa’s play for Toledo this season, though. The 2021 first-round pick struggled out of the gate last fall but eventually found a groove — he finished with a 26-16-4 record, 2.56 GAA and .913 save percentage — and now heads into the ECHL playoffs brimming with confidence.
“What I can really say is his attitude has been unreal,” Yzerman said. “He relished the opportunity to go to Toledo and play a lot. He’s worked extremely hard. … His determination has been excellent. And his play has continually improved throughout the course of the season.”
The hope would be for him to grab the starter’s role in Grand Rapids next season, but Yzerman won’t put any timetable on the 20-year-old’s development beyond that.
“When we see him in Detroit, honestly, your guess is as good as mine at this stage,” he said. “But I think he has shown that he’s a good prospect. … And as long as he’s going in the right direction, that’s all I’m worried about.”
And as long as Husso’s staying put, with a promise to do more, that should be enough.