Detroit Red Wings: How Steve Yzerman turned a weakness into a strength

(Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
(Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) /

The Detroit Red Wings had a laundry list of issues when Steve Yzerman arrived, but there was nothing more glaring than the backend.

The Detroit Red Wings were in dire need of an overhaul on their backend, which included the defense and the goaltending from Detroit to Grand Rapids. And while the process isn’t complete, the organization is in significantly better shape in both areas due to an influx of young talent. Yzerman has made a conscious effort to inject the organization with high-end talent selected early in multiple drafts combined with sifting through the trade market and free agency.

The days of hoping Dennis Cholowski or Madison Bowey would become something were quickly over. Also, it was time to move off veterans Jonathan Ericsson and Danny DeKeyser, not to mention the retreads of Trevor Daley and Mike Green.

The Detroit Red Wings used premium resources to revamp their backend.

In 2019, Yzerman selected star defenseman Moritz Seider as the sixth overall pick. At the time, it was a bit of a shocking selection as many Red Wings fans hadn’t heard of the sturdy German-born defender, but in Yzerman, we trust. What a player this young man has become for the organization. After a season in Grand Rapids, Seider joined the Detroit Red Wings and skated his way to a Calder Trophy awarded to the league’s top rookie skater. It was the first time a Detroit Red Wing had won the award since Roger Crozier back in 1964-65. Seider, 22, has cemented himself as Detroit’s top defender and will only improve in the coming years. Seider totaled seven goals and 50 points as a rookie, averaging just over 23 minutes of ice time per night. He’d follow up that production with a five-goal, 42-point campaign this past season, averaging a few seconds per game more.

Yzerman followed that ’19 draft by selecting winger Lucas Raymond fourth overall in the 2020 NHL Entry Level Draft. Detroit’s general manager returned to the defensive well in 2021, adding another towering defenseman Simon Edvinsson with the sixth overall pick. Edvinsson, an intimidating 6-foot-6, had a cup of coffee with the Red Wings playing nine games down the stretch, recording a pair of goals following a stellar year with Grand Rapids. The left-handed Edvinsson totaled 27 points with the Griffins, including five goals over 52 games. That’s a solid first year adapting to the North American game.

Over the past couple of seasons, the Detroit Red Wings also added Jake Walman, who blossomed this past season paired with Seider. Walman was buried on a stout Blues roster when Yzerman sent veteran defenseman Nick Leddy and Luke Witkowski to St. Louis ahead of the 2022 trade deadline in exchange for Walman, Oskar Sundqvist, and a second-round pick in the upcoming 2023 NHL Draft.

The Detroit Red Wings also added veteran defensemen Ben Chiarot and Olli Maatta in free agency to help stabilize the backend. At the time, Detroit had Filip Hronek, which rounded out the Red Wings’ top five. Yzerman saw an opportunity to sell high on Hronek and sent him along with a fourth-round pick in ’23 to Vancouver ahead of the deadline for a first and second-round pick in 2023.

The move opens up a hole filled by Chiarot playing his off-hand for the remainder of the season, but the right side on the second pairing is a void that Yzerman needs to fill this summer through free agency or trade. Chiarot did not perform well during his first season with the organization, but let’s hope he can rebound in year two. With the emergence of Walman and the steady play of Maatta, Chiarot doesn’t need to play above his head. Detroit can limit his time on ice, which should limit his errors, and utilize him on the third pairing and in a penalty-killing role.

The Detroit Red Wings must overhaul their third pairing regardless of where head coach Derek Lalonde elects to play Maatta and Chiarot. This past season the Red Wings rotated Gustav Lindstrom, Robert Hagg, and Jordan Oelsterle, all of which likely won’t be back next season. Hagg and Oesterle are pending unrestricted free agents, and Lindstrom, a restricted free agent, is reportedly exploring his options in Europe.

Edvinsson figures to draw into Detroit’s regular lineup next season, filling a spot. Also, the Detroit Red Wings have prospects like William Wallinder and Albert Johansson on the doorstep, with others like Jared McIsaac and Donovan Sebrango not far behind.

Detroit also had an issue in goal trying to replace long-time starter, Jimmy Howard. Detroit went through veterans such as Jonathan Bernier and Thomas Greiss before Yzerman landed Alex Nedeljkovic from the cap-stricken Carolina Hurricanes for the rights to pending free agent Bernier and a third-round pick (via Vegas). Nedeljkovic performed well a year ago as Detroit’s primary option in goal but took a step backward this past season. Now the pending free agent’s future with the organization is in question.

Yzerman mirrored the Nedeljkovic transaction again a year later, sending a 2022 third-round pick to the Blues for eventual starter Ville Husso. Husso seems like the real deal coming off a tremendous first season in Detroit (all things considered). Still, Yzerman will likely exhaust all options this summer to assure the organization has a stable backup next season. Husso appeared to run out of gas down the stretch for Detroit in his first season as a clear number-one netminder. Detroit must find someone to take some of the workload off Husso’s shoulders.

The Detroit Red Wings also elected to upgrade the goaltending pipeline in 2021 when Yzerman traded a first, second, and fifth-round pick to Dallas, moving up from no. 23 to no. 15 in the draft to select goaltender Sebastian Cossa. In his first professional season this past year, Cossa struggled in limited action with the Griffins and was reassigned to the Toledo Walleye of the ECHL, where he excelled. The battery of Cossa and John Lethemon has played exceptionally well for Detroit’s affiliate. There is a good chance this tandem will be the pair of goaltenders in Grand Rapids next season.

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All in all, Yzerman quickly identified a weakness and used premium resources to revamp Detroit’s backend. Again, it’s not a finished product, but the franchise is undoubtedly a lot better off than they were a couple of short years ago.