2019 Free Agency Thoughts: Day One

I noted my thoughts about each of the Red Wings free agent signings yesterday as they were announced.  Since then, Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman has spoken and explained some of his plan.

I’m not sure I buy it, so I’m going to revisit those thoughts a bit.

Calvin Pickard

Yzerman confirmed that Pickard is bound for Grand Rapids, not competing with Jonathan Bernier for the backup role in Detroit, as was suggested when rumors of the deal broke on Sunday.  That makes significantly more sense.

My only concern is how Pickard (along with Curtis McElhinney) was claimed on waivers at the start of last season, leaving the Toronto Marlies without any goalies.  That said, veteran goalies make it through waivers every year, it’s last year that was the outlier.  I think it’s safe to blame my concern on recency bias.

Patrik Nemeth

I honestly don’t know much about Nemeth.  At first glance he seems like a good fit for the Red Wings.  Yzerman specifically mentioned that he could play with either Mike Green or Filip Hronek.  I imagine that whichever of those two doesn’t pair up with Nemeth gets Danny DeKeyser and, while not great by any means, that could be a solid top four.

The problem is the ever-present logjam.  Assuming a third pair of Trevor Daley and Jonathan Ericsson with Madison Bowey as the seventh defenseman, that means there’s no room for Dennis Cholowski or Oliwer Kaski or anyone who might surprise in training camp.

I’ve seen a lot of people saying that it’ll be okay because there will be injuries, which was the case to start the season last year.  In all likelihood, yes, players will get hurt.  If you are counting on that, though, you have to count on someone getting hurt badly enough that they go on injured reserve, otherwise their roster spot isn’t cleared and no one can be called up to fill in.  So to get significant time for anyone outside that top seven, you have to hope for significant time lost due to injury to someone, which doesn’t sit well with me.

By the end of the season things might be different.  Ericsson and Daley and Green could all be gone.  Of course, there’s most of a season to play between now and the trade deadline and the last time the Wings expected to see a veteran defenseman moved in February, he got hurt and ended up signing an extension.

Valtteri Filppula

Oh, here’s the big one.  Yzerman says that Filppula was brought back to give the Red Wings depth at center, allowing them to shift Andreas Athanasiou back to his natural position at wing.

Obviously the organization thinks Athanasiou’s try-out as second-line center to end last season didn’t go well enough.  That’s fine.  I don’t think it was enough time to tell but I’m willing to accept their conclusion.  The issue is that I don’t accept that Valtteri Filppula is a second-line center.

The Wings now have a top line center in Dylan Larkin and bottom-six centers in Filppula, Frans Nielsen, Luke Glendening, Christoffer Ehn, and Jacob de la RoseDarren Helm can fill in at center and Yzerman mentioned Justin Abdelkader as well, which I think would be awful.  Helm and Abdelkader can be ignored anyway, though, because that’s six centers for three lines, none of which is the second line.

If the choice is between playing Athanasiou out of position and seeing how it goes or playing Filppula up a line, I’d pick Athanasiou.

I have nothing against Filppula as a third line center.  If Yzerman were to find a way to move Nielsen and slot Filppula in there, I’d be all for it.  Especially with Filppula coming in cheaper than Nielsen.  But that’s not the move that’s happening.

Red Wings Add Blueliner Nemeth

The Red Wings signed defenseman Patrik Nemeth on Monday, as NHL free agency opened.

The deal was first broken by Frank Seravalli of TSN.

The two-year term gives the Red Wings some depth going into next summer, when much of their blue line corps will hit free agency.  Between now and then, though, it adds to a logjam that already includes Madison Bowey, Dennis Cholowski, Trevor Daley, Danny DeKeyser, Jonathan Ericsson, Mike Green, and Filip Hronek.  Additionally, free agent signee Oliwer Kaski will look to contend for a roster spot and veteran Niklas Kronwall may choose to return for another season.

This could be a sign that one or more of that group won’t be back with the Red Wings in the fall.  At this time, however, that’s a lot of defensemen for not enough roster spots.

On the State of the Logjam

It feels like every offseason we talk about the logjam on the Red Wings’ blueline.  With Libor Sulak bolting the Griffins for the KHL on Tuesday and Jake Chelios doing the same last week, now’s a good time to take a look at where things stand in the Detroit organization.

Last season, the Red Wings came out of camp with the following 14 defensemen spread out between Detroit and Grand Rapids, excluding players signed to AHL deals:

Jake Chelios
Dennis Cholowski
Trevor Daley
Danny DeKeyser
Jonathan Ericsson
Mike Green
Joe Hicketts
Filip Hronek
Nick Jensen
Niklas Kronwall
Brian Lashoff
Dylan McIlrath
Vili Saarijarvi
Libor Sulak

There were also part-time defenseman Luke Witkowski and signed-but-assigned-to-Europe Gustav Lindstrom but I’m ignoring them for the purposes of this.

With everyone healthy, it made for a nice, even split of seven defensemen each for the Red Wings and the Griffins.  For most of the season, though, not everyone was healthy, leading to everyone on that list with the exception of Saarijarvi playing at least one game in Detroit.

As an aside, it drives me slightly nuts that the Red Wings brought up Chelios – who had no future in the organization even then – late in the season, rather than giving Saarijarvi a look.  In meaningless games, there’s no harm in giving an actual prospect minutes, even if you’re concerned he’s not quite ready.  McIlrath could be swapped for Chelios in this argument as well.

By the end of the season, Jensen was gone but Madison Bowey had joined the group, keeping the numbers the same.

Since then we’ve seen the addition of Finnish free agent Oliwer Kaski and the departures of Chelios and Sulak.  Not much of a difference.  What else could we see this summer?

The big name is Kronwall, whose contract is up this summer.  Ken Holland had stated that, should Kronwall want to return, there would be a spot for him.  Holland is in Edmonton and this is Steve Yzerman‘s team now, so does that offer still stand?  It feels like buzz about Kronwall returning for one more season has died down in the last several weeks.  Is that meaningful or is it just the nature of the news cycle?  My gut feeling is that Kronwall is done.

Hicketts is also something of a question mark.  He’s a restricted free agent so he has limited options but it’s possible he bolts for Europe, seeing few options in the Detroit organization.  I wouldn’t call it likely, though.

Then there are trade options.  Early “What Will Yzerman Do as GM?” stories pushed the possibility of trading Jonathan Ericsson or Trevor Daley before the start of the season.  While I’d like to see that, I think they have more value at the trade deadline and Yzerman will hold onto them until then.

On the flip side, there’s the question of whether or not Lindstrom will come over this season, adding a body back to the mix.  Gut feeling again…  I’m going to say he spends another season in Europe.  That could change if Ericsson or Daley are moved in the summer.

So coming out of camp next fall, that gives the Red Wings and Griffins something like the following:

Bowey
Cholowski
Daley
DeKeyser
Ericsson
Green
Hicketts
Hronek
Kaski
Lashoff
McIlrath
Saarijarvi

That’s still 12 names, so the logjam isn’t gone but there might be some room to work.

Let’s say Detroit starts with Bowey, Cholowski, Daley, DeKeyser, Ericsson, Green, and Hronek.  Bowey could be buried in GR but he can also be your seventh defenseman so we’ll assume he and Cholowski split time.

That puts Hicketts, Kaski, Lashoff, McIlrath, and Saarijarvi in Grand Rapids.  Maybe Kaski has a great camp and swaps out for Bowey…  Whatever.

The thing to see here is that, while the roster is still pretty packed, minutes in Grand Rapids have become available.  The ascension of Hronek and Cholowski, combined with the departures of Chelios and Sulak, means that Saarijarvi and Kaski (again, assuming he’s in GR) could have the opportunity for a decent amount of playing time to prove that they’re ready, which will be important if Daley, Ericsson, and/or Green are moved at the trade deadline.

Of course, it’s still early in the summer.  The Red Wings could make another Chelios-like signing to put a body (or bodies) in Grand Rapids, making those minutes harder to find.  Jared MacIssac could make the jump from juniors over the summer.  As of right now, though, there has been some movement on the logjam.