Welcome to our latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. The Puck Drop Preview series takes you through each team as the season is fast approaching. The preview will focus on the narratives surrounding the team ending last year, during the offseason, and heading into the 2021-22 season. Puck Drop Preview also focuses on what the season has in store for each team from a roster and expectations perspective. Join us as we look at all 32 teams before the season starts. Today, we take a look at the 2021-22 Detroit Red Wings.
2021-22 Detroit Red Wings
The shortened season showed marginal improvement while also highlighting how far the organization still has to go. In 2019-20, they hit rock bottom, winning just 17 games in a 71-game schedule. Anything beyond 17 wins was seen as a massive improvement for the organization. They managed to live up to expectations, winning 19 games in a 56-game season. Marginal improvements from younger forwards helped the team make positive strides, while several of its most undesirable contracts reached their end.
The biggest change came in the form of the Anthony Mantha trade. In exchange for Mantha, the Red Wings earned a 2021 1st-round pick, a 2022 2nd-round pick, Jakub Vrana, and Richard Panik. Vrana immediately excelled in Detroit, putting up 11 points in 11 games. This addition was a huge get for the rebuild, combining a younger forward with a similar skillset to Mantha and a slew of draft picks. This upcoming year, similar to 2020-21, will center around the development of the prospects. Several highly-touted names seek their spot on the roster — and the Red Wings have just enough openings to accommodate a few of them.
In a season where Tyler Bertuzzi went down with an early season-ending injury and Dylan Larkin suffered a bad hit from Jamie Benn, the Red Wings’ offense suffered. Barring injuries, the offense should see a major improvement from its top line. The Red Wings are likely relishing the opportunity to have a full year of Vrana following his outstanding debut last season. He showed significant promise when paired with Larkin, who managed to lead all Red Wings forwards in offense. Despite a low shooting percentage of 6.7%, Larkin was still able to generate strong numbers on his own. With Bertuzzi back and Vrana ready to take the next step, the top line looks very promising.
For the first time since the retirement of Pavel Datsyuk, the Red Wings finally have offensive depth. Gone are the days of Frans Nielsen or Valtteri Filppula manning the second line. Now, newcomer Pius Suter will center the second line between Robby Fabbri and Filip Zadina. This is a big year for all three forwards. Fabbri is entering the last year of his contract and will need a very strong season to justify a pay raise. Suter, who was signed after being released by the Chicago Blackhawks, will have his first taste as a full-time 2C. Zadina just finished a very promising rookie season. He’ll look to build on the lessons of last year while generating much more offense in 2021-22.
The bottom-six, on the other hand, still needs a bit of work. Michael Rasmussen will handle centre duties on the third line, flanked by Namestnikov and Smith — though it’s likely Smith and Erne will periodically switch as the season continues. There’s a lot to like about the third line. Rasmussen improved vastly on his two-way game following a stint with the Grand Rapids Griffins. Namestnikov remains a reliable bet for depth scoring. Smith played a few very strong games against the Florida Panthers last season, even holding his ground against Radko Gudas, one of the tougher players in the NHL. If he can strengthen his game on the ice, he may become a powerful physical presence for the Red Wings.
The fourth line is where things get muddy. Sam Gagner was a solid defensive forward for the Red Wings last season. Having said that, he turns 33 this upcoming season. Whether he’s able to keep that momentum up or not remains to be seen. Mitchell Stephens, acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning, is a young centre on an affordable contract. He was originally drafted by general manager Steve Yzerman when he was with Tampa, which leads many to believe that Yzerman sees something in the forward. On the right side, Adam Erne returns for his third year in Hockeytown after leading the Red Wings in goals last season. It is incredibly unlikely that he repeats this feat; his 15.5% shooting is unsustainable at best. All in all, there’s hope on the bottom end, but it’s hard to tell exactly what to make of it just yet.
Nick Leddy – Moritz Seider
A logjam has emerged in Detroit. This offseason, the Red Wings obtained Nick Leddy and Jordan Oesterle while re-signing Marc Staal. In addition, they protected Gustav Lindstrom in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft over Dennis Cholowski. It’s hard to make out what the team will look like, especially considering the debut of highly-touted prospect Moritz Seider. There’s a strong chance that there will be an odd man out this season. All signs point to Danny DeKeyser, who was waived twice by the organization in 2020-21. This move would likely send the entire defensive backend into a state of change, moving up a player like Stecher to the top.
Leddy, acquired from the New York Islanders, will likely serve on a pairing with Seider. This acquisition will greatly help the Red Wings on zone entries, a facet of the game Leddy excels at performing. Having a long-term veteran like Leddy on a pairing with Seider will help the latter get accustomed to the speed of the modern NHL. That way, he can make mistakes and learn from them in a comfortable environment. Seider will either play in the NHL full-time this season or periodically take trips back and forth to Grand Rapids. Whether he thrives or struggles, Oesterle will be there to serve as an emergency replacement.
To say Stecher carried his defensive pairing last year is an understatement. When impacts are isolated, Stecher’s advanced metrics elevated nearly every move Staal made. From an outsider’s perspective, it looked like Staal was having a Renaissance season. Upon closer inspection, Stecher’s hard work helped to make that possible. This season will likely be more of the same as Stecher enters the last year of his contract with the Red Wings. Whether or not he finishes the season with Detroit remains to be seen. At just $1.7M, he would be an affordable depth acquisition for a contending team. The Red Wings could easily fill in either Staal or Stecher with Lindstrom or Oesterle if either is injured or traded. Of the three defensive pairings in Detroit, the bottom pair is the most likely to see high turnover.
The most exciting acquisition in the offseason for Red Wings fans was Alex Nedeljkovic. The Calder Trophy finalist last season finished with the highest save percentage and lowest Goals Against Average (GAA) in the NHL. He backstopped the Carolina Hurricanes to the playoffs, helping the team to finish first in the Central Division. Unfortunately for Nedeljkovic, the Red Wings don’t have a Dougie Hamilton or a Jaccob Slavin to suppress shots on net. It’s entirely possible that Nedeljkovic will not tout the outstanding numbers he did in Carolina — and that’s perfectly fine. Nedeljkovic is young and the team around him is growing. There’s plenty to like about him and much he’ll figure out on his own once he’s in Detroit.
In all likelihood, Nedeljkovic will split starting duties with Greiss. After a tough start to the 2020-21 season, Greiss picked it up near the end, turning in several strong starts. It’s hard to imagine what the 35-year-old netminder will bring to the table this upcoming season. If he can pick up where he left off, the team will be in good hands. If the start of 2020-21 was a sign of things to come, they may be in trouble. It’s hard to say what will happen with Greiss, but having a solid replacement to Jonathan Bernier in Nedeljkovic will likely take much of the stress off Greiss’ shoulders.
Players to Watch
The 2021-22 Detroit Red Wings, despite their shortcomings, will have plenty of excitement. From the return of Larkin and Bertuzzi to the (expected) breakout of Zadina, there are quite a few players to watch this upcoming season. The most exciting, however, may be the debut of Moritz Seider. The German defenceman has excelled in every environment he’s been placed in. Last season, he won both Rookie of the Year and Defenceman of the Year honors in the Swedish Hockey League. He’s seen by many as a Calder Trophy favorite for NHL Rookie of the Year, though it’s likely Seider has his eyes set on more. He’s an easy favorite for Player to Watch this season.
In addition, the possibility of AHL call-ups is sure to fill fans with excitement. Lucas Raymond, Albert Johansson, Joe Veleno, and Jonatan Berggren have all made their way to Prospect Camp. These four prospects will be fighting tooth and nail to make the leap to the NHL. If any trades or injuries happen to occur, one or more of them may make their way to the NHL. It’s likely that, of the four mentioned, Raymond and Veleno are the most likely candidates to graduate to the next level. Expect to see one (or more) of them around the trade deadline.
Prediction for 2021-22 Detroit Red Wings
With so much excitement, it can be easy to lose track of expectations. Realistically, the Red Wings will be in a very similar state to what they were last season. Expect to see improvements, but nothing substantial enough to warrant a huge leap in the standings. Detroit is in one of the toughest divisions in the NHL. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Florida Panthers all headline the standings. Each will likely take their turns racking up points against the organization. For fans that have watched the last few seasons, this should not come as a surprise.
This is a season of development — and, hopefully, draft luck. Shane Wright is the prize to the winner of the draft lottery this season. The Red Wings have had no sign of lottery luck in the last few seasons. If ever there was a time to have a little luck, it would be this season. Wright is expected to be an elite first-line centre, something the Red Wings have craved since the retirements of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. If they can net Wright, the team will be in excellent hands for the coming years. Having said that, expect the Red Wings to finish just a hair shy of the bottom-five in league standings. 25th or 26th place is their most likely destination.
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