Red Wings’ Youth Are Challenged By Free Agent Additions

The Hockey Writers

“Trust the Yzerplan.”

It’s the mantra heard throughout Detroit Red Wings fandom since Apr. 19, 2019 when Steve Yzerman was officially named the team’s general manager (GM). “The Captain” was already a franchise legend – his number hangs in the rafters of Little Caesars Arena – and that day he returned to the organization to pave the way back to Stanley Cup glory, just as he had as the team’s captain decades ago.

Everyone that understood the task ahead of him knew that this wasn’t going to be a quick fix. After all, he came out of the gates preaching patience as he worked to rebuild the team’s roster and prospect pool.

Steve Yzerman, Detroit Red Wings General Manager
Steve Yzerman, Detroit Red Wings General Manager (Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

July 1 officially marked the beginning of Yzerman’s fifth offseason in his current position. On that day, much like July 1 of 2022, he went on a bit of a spending spree. He added no less than five players that will be on the NHL roster this season, and it sounds like there may be a few more moves completed over the coming days. On some level, this was expected; the Red Wings’ lineup had noticeable holes in it, especially after the 2023 trade deadline, and free agency was always going to be the easiest way to fill those holes.

But now that the deals have been signed and Yzerman has spoken to the media – signaling that the GM is mostly done for the summer – a fair amount of head scratching has taken place on social media and elsewhere.

Even among the fanbase, Yzerman’s decision to spend almost $20 million by filling out the roster with a bunch of good, but not great players has many wondering what the “Yzerplan” really is. On several occasions, Yzerman has stated his plan is to “acquire good players” and the rest will sort itself out.

As the Red Wings’ rebuild enters its sixth offseason, give or take, it is fair to wonder why Yzerman’s plan has mostly revolved around adding veterans to the lineup while assembling a prospect pool that is practically bursting at the seams. Are things sorting themselves out? Sooner or later the kids have to be handed the baton, right?

Yzerman Has Been Building Through the Draft

Yzerman’s first legitimate move as the Red Wings’ GM was to draft defenseman Moritz Seider at sixth overall in 2019. One Calder Trophy and 92 points later, it’s safe to say that Seider is the shining star of Yzerman’s rebuild so far. Aside from the German defender, the Red Wings have also added the likes of Lucas Raymond (fourth overall, 2020), Simon Edvinsson (sixth overall, 2021) and Marco Kasper (eighth overall, 2022) in the first round, and all three have shown promise at the NHL level – Raymond, specifically, is already a functional member of the team’s top six forward group.

Related: Red Wings’ 2023 Draft Class Provides Depth & Debate

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But teams aren’t built exclusively through the first round. To that point, the Red Wings have added 51 prospects at the draft since Yzerman took over in 2019, cementing one of, if not the deepest prospect pool in the NHL in terms of pure quantity. The Red Wings have not won a draft lottery during their rebuild, but that hasn’t stopped Yzerman and his scouting team from assembling a deep pool of talent that should yield several NHLers over the next five years and more. It also helps their cause when they are able to add a top-three talent in the draft despite picking outside the top-five – that’s what happened with Seider, and they’ll need it to happen a few more times for this rebuild to enter its final phase.

Perhaps that’s why Yzerman has made some polarizing selections in the draft in recent years. In 2021, the Red Wings made Sebastian Cossa the first goalie off the board at 15th overall despite most draft analysts listing him as the second-best goalie in his draft class. In 2022 and 2023, the team’s first selection was a two-way centerman with high compete levels (Kasper in 2022, Nate Danielson in 2023) though, again, most draft analysts had other players listed as the best available. To overcome the team’s lack of lottery luck, it appears Yzerman is targeting players that will be a pain in the neck to play against in the NHL and are capable of neutralizing those game-breaking talents that teams like the New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres have been so lucky to stockpile.

Nate Danielson Detroit Red Wings
Nate Danielson, Detroit Red Wings (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Yzerman has also been an effective trader in his current position. He’s been able to add steady contributors such as Robby Fabbri and Jake Walman on the cheap by simply giving them an opportunity in Detroit that they didn’t have with their previous team (both came from the St Louis Blues, but in separate deals.) Yzerman has been able to bring in young faces for the current roster while also adding the draft picks that led to the depth their prospect pool contains. To that point, the Red Wings are already positioned well for the 2024 draft as they hold extra picks in the first and fourth rounds.

But here we sit in the summer of 2023, and the Red Wings’ pool of prospects is characterized by their willingness to compete and love for the game. A handful of them, led by Edvinsson and Kasper, appear ready to challenge for NHL spots beginning next season. This is the point of a rebuild: gathering young players and handing them the keys once they’re ready for it.

Yet, for the time being at least, it appears the team’s youth must continue to wait for their time to take the lead.

Red Wings’ Roster Filled After Moves in Free Agency

After bringing in four forwards, two defensemen, and two goaltenders, the Red Wings’ roster is topped out. Including newly-signed and returning players, here’s how their roster looks:

Forwards (13): Jonatan Berggren, J.T. Compher, Andrew Copp, Robby Fabbri, Christian Fischer, Klim Kostin, Dominik Kubalik, Dylan Larkin, David Perron, Michael Rasmussen, Lucas Raymond, Daniel Sprong, Joe Veleno (RFA)

Defense (7): Ben Chiarot, Justin Holl, Shayne Gostisbehere, Gustav Lindström, Olli Määttä, Moritz Seider, Jake Walman

Goalies (3): Ville Husso, Alex Lyon, James Reimer

That’s a full 23-man roster, but you can account for Lyon likely heading to the American Hockey League (AHL), creating one more roster slot. Barring any trades or other maneuvers down the line, the Red Wings do not have space to accommodate an influx of youth into their lineup – though that one open spot does offer a glimmer of hope that Detroit will be invested in the Calder Trophy race next season.

Related: Red Wings’ Logjam on Defense Could Be Good For Edvinsson

The last time the Red Wings were participants in the Calder race, both Seider and Raymond had burst onto the scene as top line producers at their respective positions. It was the first season that the league saw tangible proof of the “Yzerplan” coming to fruition. Red Wings fans across the world rejoiced as the “future” Yzerman has been building towards came into view.

Moritz Seider Detroit Red Wings
Moritz Seider won the Calder Trophy in 2022 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Last season, Jonatan Berggren was the team’s sole rookie to play more than 30 games in Detroit. Edvinsson played in nine games after the trade deadline, and Kasper got into a single game late in the season where he played on one good knee. Elmer Söderblom made the Red Wings’ roster out of training camp and played 21 games in Detroit before finishing the season in the AHL with the Grand Rapids Griffins. Defenseman Albert Johansson looked looked as NHL-ready, if not more, as Edvinsson before an injury ended his season prematurely.

It’s a rebuilder’s dream: there is a big group of prospects that seem to be on the verge of taking the next step. But instead of encouraging a youthful takeover, the Red Wings’ transaction sheet suggests that they are content to be right where they are – the murky middle.

Reassessing the “Yzerplan”

Let’s take a step back and look at what the Red Wings are up against. In the Atlantic Division alone, there are the two most recent Eastern Conference champions, two teams whose rebuilds Yzerman has already labeled as being ahead of the one he oversees, a Toronto Maple Leafs team that has finally broken their playoff curse, a Boston Bruins team that will take a few steps back this season but should still be tough to beat, and the Montreal Canadiens. Over in the other half of the Eastern Conference, the Devils, the New York Rangers, and the Carolina Hurricanes are all capable of making a run to the Stanley Cup now and into the foreseeable future.

Simply put: the Red Wings’ window is not open. It won’t open up next season either. Meanwhile, the Red Wings only have six players signed past the 2024-25 season – though that will undoubtedly change over the next year with Seider and Raymond, among others, due for a contract extension.

Between now and then – a timeframe Yzerman and his staff can reasonably project and plan for – the Red Wings will be a competitive hockey team. They look poised to take a step or two forward this season, but not enough to keep pace with the big dogs. That will lead to additional future assets being brought in through trades; Perron, Kubalik, and Gostisbehere are all notable players that will be on expiring contracts when the 2024 trade deadline approaches.

David Perron Detroit Red Wings
David Perron, Detroit Red Wings (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Building for the future year after year is understandably frustrating for fans that have yet to experience a home playoff game at Little Caesars Arena. It feels like a constant practice of moving the goalposts with no end in sight – especially when the fruits of the rebuild are stashed away in Grand Rapids and other cities around the world instead of Detroit.

But this is why Yzerman has been preaching patience since day one. This is why the Sabres haven’t been in the playoffs since 2011. Rebuilds take time; they encounter setbacks, they plateau, and through all of that, the GM and coaches have to make sure that a culture of losing doesn’t permeate throughout the locker room. When you’re trying to build without relying on the draft lottery, it takes even more time.

The best thing Yzerman can do right now, while they’re a third-tier team in the Atlantic Division, is continue to add assets to the organization, both present and future. That will allow them to be competitive today while still building their core of the future. When that core has arrived and is pushing its way to the upper echelon of the NHL, Detroit will have the assets necessary to supercharge their lineup – and still have pieces left over to supplement their future. In the meantime, Yzerman has signed players that are functional now and into the future – placeholders and future complimentary pieces to the core that is marinating in the prospect pool.

It’s the frustrating reality of where the Red Wings are right now. Rebuilding isn’t for everyone, especially in an industry ruled by the law of “what have you done for me lately?” But when teams ahead of them fall off and their core has emerged, the Red Wings will be set up to vault themselves forward and become the sustainable contender they’ve been building towards.

If it happens before then, everyone involved will be happy. If it doesn’t, that’s okay too – after all, patience has been the name of the game since the start.

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