After sour ending, Red Wings’ Ville Husso ready for challenge of larger workload

Detroit News

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series breaking down the Detroit Red Wings at each position group. Today: Goaltenders.

Detroit — Goaltender Ville Husso thought hard about accepting Finland’s invitation to play in the recently completed world championship.

Husso wanted to play, as players always want to represent their countries in the tournament like that.

But Husso declined the invite. Husso wanted to return to Finland for a bit, then return to Detroit and begin preparing for next season.

“It’s going to be a big year next year,” Husso said. “I need to start to focus for that.”

Goaltending, which appeared to be a position of strength after some shrewd acquisitions by general manager Steve Yzerman, continues to look somewhat hazy.

Two seasons ago, Alex Nedeljkovic looked like a starting goaltender the Wings could lean on during the first half then faltered and led Yzerman to acquire Husso during the NHL Entry Draft last year.

The Husso-Nedeljkovic tandem looked potentially intriguing on paper two goalies who could push each other to become bona fide NHL full-time starters.

But Nedelkovic never could get on track and was eventually demoted to Grand Rapids.

As for Husso, he was among the NHL’s best for much of last season. But then faltered while playing in a career-high 56 games. Husso won just three of his final 14 starts and had an unsightly .857 save percentage during that span.

” I just need to be better at the end of the day,” Husso said. “I’m not happy at all with how it ended.”

Said coach Derek Lalonde: “He kind of hit a little bit of a physical and mental wall. You could see it in his play. He was not the same goalie at the end of the year.”

Husso was hampered with some sort of nagging injury late in the season that forced him out of the lineup briefly. Husso returned and played through it, only to struggle and leave a sliver of doubt as to whether he can play through a big workload.

The injury, though, could have been a factor.

“At one point, we weren’t sure if he was going to play again,” Yzerman said. “Then the plan became, ‘Hey, let’s get out there and see how you do for the rest of the season.’ Physically, he did fine, but 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.”

Husso finished with a 26-22-7 record, with an inflated 3.11 goals-against average and .896 save percentage. With two more years left on his contract and a $4.75 million per cap hit, the Wings are optimistic Husso will be better equipped to handle the starter’s role.

But Husso will need to prove he can handle the heavy workload of an elite No. 1 goalie and sustain top-level goaltending over an entire regular season.

“When we make the playoffs, you play even more games,” Husso said. “It’s going to be good mental challenge. I need to be in better shape.”

▶ Depth: Alex Nedeljkovic, Magnus Hellberg. Or, at least it was behind Husso in 2022-23.

It likely won’t be next season, as both Nedeljovic and Hellberg are unrestricted free agents. It would be surprising if either were to return to the Wings.

Nedeljkovic returned to the NHL when Husso was unavailable in March because of injury. Nedeljkovic finished the season well, winning three of five starts and posting a .925 save percentage, giving the Wings something to consider in regard to a new contract.

It wouldn’t be shocking if Yzerman were to bring back Nedeljkovic for organizational depth. But there are likely to be better NHL opportunities for Nedeljkovic on the open market.

Hellberg (4-8-1, 3.29 GAA, .885 SVS with Detroit) struggled to put together competitive, consistent 60-minute games.

Yzerman is likely to search for an alternative either on the trade or free-agent market, although the free-agent market looks relatively slim compared to the last couple of summers.

▶ In the system: Could Sebastian Cossa be ready to back up Husso?

Not yet. But the former 2021 first-round draft pick had a successful rookie pro season in Toledo (ECHL), going 26-16-1 with a .913 SVS percentage, and 5-2, .917 in the playoffs.

The natural step for Cossa, 20, is to go up a rung and play in Grand Rapids next season. Cossa struggled (.783 SVS) in a three-game AHL fill-in, so he’s far from proven himself at that pro level.

But for any goaltender, it’s usually a long, slow climb to reach the NHL, with painstaking twists and turns. The way Cossa responded after a sluggish start in Toledo was a promising and exciting result.

“His attitude has been unreal,” Yzerman said. “He relished the opportunity to go to Toledo and play a lot. His determination has been excellent. When we see him in Detroit, honestly, your guess is as good as mine at this stage. But he has shown that he’s a good prospect.”

Cossa is the leading Wings’ goaltending prospect, but keep an eye on Carter Gylander (2019 seventh round).

A senior at Colgate, Gylander is coming off his best season (19-15-5, 2.46 GAA, .914 SVS) and shown consistent progress. The Wings have until next summer to sign Gylander, and a strong senior season could make the decision a bit easier.

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tkulfan

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