When we checked in with the Red Wings prior to the 2017-18 season, neither their short-term or long-term outlook seemed to be promising.
Not only was it an older roster with a lot of bad contracts, but it was an older roster with a lot of bad contacts that was coming off of a non-playoff season and looked to be in desperate need of a rebuild. With few marketable assets for trade and the lack of a young, foundational player in which to build around, it seemed like the beginning of a dismal stretch for Detroit — especially as the front office seemed to be hesitant to fully commit to an overhaul.
Now that the Red Wings missed the playoffs for a second consecutive season, the mindset seems to have changed. At least a little bit.
The rebuild is beginning and, if nothing else, it is off to an interesting start.
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One thing that stands out so far is even though general manager Ken Holland has finally mentioned the word “rebuild” in association with his team, it doesn’t seem like it is going to be a total teardown to a bare bones roster. He still wants to have veteran players around and attempt to keep things at least somewhat competitive. Their offseason moves so far reflect that approach.
The Red Wings spent the early part of the free agency signing period by adding even more veterans to a roster that was already one of the oldest in the league.
They signed veteran goalie Jonathan Bernier to a three-year, $9 million contract, presumably to compete with Jimmy Howard for playing time this season and perhaps take over the position at the conclusion of Howard’s contract after this season. Bernier is not going to steal a lot of games, but he has proven to be a capable goalie who can at least keep things close and competitive for a rebuilding team.
They re-signed defenseman Mike Green to a two-year contract, giving them four defensemen (Green, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson, Trevor Daley) on the roster over the age of 32 — three of whom (Green, Ericsson and Daley) signed for at least two more years. Along with Danny DeKeyser and Nick Jensen, there is not a single blueliner on the Red Wings’ roster at this moment under the age of 27.
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Along with those two moves, they also brought back veteran winger Thomas Vanek for another go with the team after signing him to a one-year deal back in 2016-17. He was traded toward the end of that season for defenseman Dylan McIlrath and a third-round draft pick.
While these additions would seem to run counter to a rebuild — especially on a “rebuilding” team that is, again, one of the oldest and most expensive in the league — they are relatively low-risk signings. They also do not carry outrageous terms like the four-year deals Vancouver gave depth players like Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle, or the many multi-year deals the Islanders have signed for a bunch of fourth-liners.
Bernier is a solid goalie. Green may not be a Norris Trophy contender anymore, but he can still produce some points. Vanek is only signed to a one-year deal at a pretty cheap rate and is still a productive player. They are all also players who might remain attractive at the trade deadline for contenders because the contract terms are reasonable.
The other thing that needs to be considered when it comes to the Red Wings’ rebuild: While the current roster may not totally show it, they have accumulated a ton of assets over the years that will provide them with tools necessary to restock the cupboards with young players.
The Red Wings had 11 draft picks in 2017, including six in the first three rounds.
They made 10 selection in 2018, including seven in the first three rounds (with four of the first 36 picks in the draft).
They already have stockpiled 11 more for 2019, including three in the first two rounds.
Detroit accumulated those picks by trading the likes of Brendan Smith, Tomas Junco, Vanek, Steve Ott, Jakub Kindl, Scott Wilson, Petr Mrazek and Tomas Tatar, not to mention picking up an extra second-round pick from the Coyotes in exchange for moving back four spots and sending Pavel Datsyuk’s contract the other way.
That means over a three-year stretch between 2017 and 2019, the Red Wings could potentially add 32 young players to the organization, including as many as 14 in the first three rounds. That is a lot. They also increased their odds at finding an impact player or two by loading up the picks.
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Not all of them are going to turn into NHL players, and once you get beyond the first half of the first round the odds of selecting an All-Star-level talent drop significantly. Those picks can be nothing more than lottery tickets. The best way to win in that drawing is to give yourself as many chances as you can possibly get.
The other way to land an All-Star-level player: Pick at the top of the draft. The Red Wings’ top 10 picks the past two years are the first time they have selected in the top 10 since 1991, when they picked Martin Lapointe at No. 10 overall. Their sixth overall pick in 2018 was the highest since taking Keith Primeau third overall in 1990.
It is this year’s pick, used to select goal-scoring winger Filip Zadina, that should give Red Wings fans hope.
Heading into the draft, Zadina was regarded as one of the three or four best prospects in the class. A natural goal-scorer and potential impact player, the 18-year-old Czech warned at least two passing teams — the Canadiens and Senators — he would make them pay over the years by filling their net with goals. Bold statement and a lot of confidence for sure. It obviously remains to be seen if he will be able to back that talk up, but he is the type of potential, top-of-the-lineup impact player the Red Wings’ rebuild has been lacking.
The Red Wings still find themselves in a tough situation. They are paying a lot of money for what will almost certainly be a non-playoff team, and as long as they are trying to maintain a balance between rebuilding and remaining competitive, they have to avoid the temptation of deviating from the long-term plan. They still have a lot of contracts that may be really difficult to move (See: Nielsen, Frans), but they have a lot of premium draft pick assets and a potential superstar with whom to at least start rebuilding around.
It is going to take some time, but the situation looks a little better than it did at the start of the 2017-18 season.