Updated: May 23, 2022
In his opening press conference to the Detroit fans in April 2019, Steve Yzerman stressed patience. After finishing in the bottom-eight for the third consecutive season, Yzerman now enters the offseason with arguably the highest expectations he's faced since taking over as general manager. While the focus of his first three seasons was geared towards fixing Detroit's cap situation, the pressure is mounting for this team to turn the corner and become competitive.
A couple of disclaimers for this exercise:
A lot of this (maybe even all of it) will be wrong and I am ok with that.
The foundation of this is based in my analysis of statistics and video. I will attempt to link explainers to statistics along the way but if you aren't familiar with a term or concept, please ask!
With those disclaimers laid out, let's get started! This will be a four part series that will cover the following topics:
Part 1: Where are we now and where do we want to go?
Part 2: Head coaching search and NHL Draft philosophy
Part 3: What does scaling up look like?
Part 4: What does tearing down look like?
Where Are We Now?
Before we can talk about what the Red Wings should do, we first have to take stock of where the team is at right now.
Yes, this is the painful part.
In order to do this as objectively as possible, we will rely on Dom Luszczyszyn's Game Score Value Added (GSVA) which is his version of a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) model. I've selected Dom's model for the bulk of my analysis as his model annually ranks among the best public models at predicting NHL game outcomes. For now, we'll focus on the skaters and set aside goaltenders until parts 3 and 4 given the season-to-season volatility in results for non-elite goaltenders.
Shown below is each skater for the Red Wings with their offensive, defensive, and overall GSVA scaled to a percentile for forwards and defensemen from this past season. This graphic helps give us a sense of where each skater ranked relative to their position. Of note, the offensive and defensive numbers here are NOT adjusted for usage, but the overall GSVA does incorporate the difficulty of minutes each player faced.
There are a couple of items that immediately jump out:
Nearly every Red Wing skater ranked in the bottom-half of the league in defense. That should come as no surprise given the overall team defensive struggles.
Six forwards and four defensemen ranked among the bottom-20% of the league in GSVA at their respective positions. It's extremely difficult to remain competitive on a nightly basis when 50% of the skaters in the lineup rank in the bottom-20% at their position.
There is a dearth of elite talent. Only two forwards (Bertuzzi, Larkin) and one defenseman (Seider) ranked among the top-20% of players at their position. Contrast this with a Cup contending team such as Colorado, which has seven forwards and two defensemen amongst the top-20% of players at their position, and you'll get a sense of just how far the Red Wings have to go in their rebuild.
Now that we understand our starting point, we have to understand where we are going. Our goal with the Red Wings should be to build a sustainable, Cup-contending team that can contend for years to come. The first gap that the Red Wings must close is between being a bottom-tier team and a playoff contender. Again using Dom's GSVA model, shown below is a graphic depicting the makeup (shown in GSVA percentiles) of the average playoff team with an acceptable range of one standard deviation on either side from this season.
From this graphic there are a few things we can identify as being key pieces of a playoff team, most of which we already knew:
You need an elite center and two elite wingers
You need at least one elite defenseman
Your supporting cast (forwards #4-#9 and defensemen #3/#4) need to be above average players
You can get away with a wide variety of skill on your 4th lines/3rd pairings
Using this as our frame of reference, let's first start by seeing how well the Red Wings roster from this past season aligns with the average playoff team. Please note that players are arranged in order of GSVA percentile, not by line/pairing.
Okay yeah, that hurt a little.
Let's start with the positives. This is going to get better even if the Red Wings return with the exact same roster. Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider are coming off of terrific rookie seasons and both just barely missed receiving gray checkmarks, indicating passable on a playoff contender. Their continued development next season will almost assuredly provide the Red Wings a top winger and a top defenseman. Additionally, both Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi just missed earning passable grades and likely would have if both had played the entire season. With Raymond's improvement next year and that line's chemistry, I would expect the Red Wings to at least have a passable first line on a playoff contender.
Both Jakub Vrána and Robby Fabbri missed significant time this season which limited their ability to reach the thresholds of the 3rd and 4th wingers on a playoff team. If both can remain healthy next year (and that is a big if with Fabbri coming off his 3rd ACL injury) the Red Wings may also have a passable 2nd line of wingers. That right there would allow the Red Wings to have a competitive top-six and one piece of a top pairing on defense.
Now the bad part - there is still a significant amount of overhauling that needs to be done. Even if everything breaks in the Red Wings' favor, the Wings need to improve dramatically at the following positions:
2nd line center
#2, #3, and #4 defensemen
Again, let's start with the positives - there's the potential that some of these spots can be filled internally. On defense, prospects Simon Edvinsson and Albert Johansson are both expected to be in North America next season (and contending for NHL spots). Edvinsson, the SHL rookie of the year, and Johansson of the SHL champion Färjestad BK, both had terrific seasons in the SHL, ranking among the best defensemen in the league.
At forward, prospects Elmer Söderblom and Jonatan Berggren are expected to contend for NHL spots. This past season, Berggren set the Grand Rapids Griffins rookie scoring record with 64 points in 70 games played. The skilled winger was dominant offensively at times for the Griffins, finishing the season 10th among AHL rookies in Game Score per game played.
Söderblom, the 6'8" Swedish forward, finished with 21 goals in 52 games for Frölunda, becoming the sixth player under the age of 21 to record 20+ goals in a season.
Finally, the last piece of positive news for the Red Wings is that they are entering this offseason with the opportunity to turn over a significant portion of their roster (10 free agents), a lot of money to spend ($36.5 million), and another top-10 draft pick to work with.
With all of the above laid out, the stage is set for this offseason to be the most critical the Wings have faced thus far under Steve Yzerman. The Red Wings GM will find himself with two different paths that can be taken. Option 1 is to buy into the positivity laid out above and push his chips all-in on revamping the team this offseason. This would entail being an aggressive spender in free agency and/or the trade market. Option 2 is to push his chips all-in on a different basket - the top of the 2023 NHL Draft. With the changes to the draft lottery now providing the worst team in the league with the best odds ever for the #1 overall pick, the appeal of Connor Bedard may be too much to resist. If an option is selected in between, Yzerman runs the risk of being stuck in mediocrity: not good enough to make the playoffs, but not bad enough to earn reasonable draft odds. The hope with option 1 or 2 is to avoid this "no-mans land" although there are no guarantees. In parts 3 and 4 of this series, I will outline feasible plans for option 1 and option 2, as well as offer my thoughts on which path the Red Wings should take.