Now that we’re past All-star break, it’s time to really take stock of the Detroit Red Wings’ season thus far. With the trade deadline just a few weeks away, now is the time to determine the team’s trajectory for the remainder of the season so that adequate planning can take place before the trade market really heats up.
I believe that the Red Wings will be best served long term by accepting the fact that they are completely out of the playoff race this year and selling a few pieces to give them the best possible draft pick in the 2023 Draft. I’m not saying they should go full-on tank mode like the Chicago Blackhawks did last year, but a deliberate tank for the rest of this season with an eye on making the playoffs in the 2023-24 season is what I believe is best for the long-term outlook of the team. Allow me to explain.
Among the Toughest Remaining Schedule
The Atlantic Division is incredibly tough and deep this year, even with the Florida Panthers underperforming expectations by a wide margin. The Metropolitan Division has also been remarkably competitive this year, meaning that Detroit was always going to be in tough to make the playoffs this year. I’m generally an optimist but I didn’t expect the Red Wings to make the playoffs this year so I’m not particularly worried that they’re on the outside looking in just after the All-star break. The Red Wings have a ton of remaining games against Atlantic and Metro division teams, giving them one of the least enviable second-half schedules in the entire league.
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“Strength of Schedule” (SOS) is a metric that finds the average points percentage of every team left on a team’s schedule, so a high SOS means you’ve got a rough stretch ahead and that you can be expected to lose a lot of games. Detroit has one of the five toughest schedules remaining in the NHL (second toughest at the time of writing), with two games each against the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Carolina Hurricanes (via. Tankathon).
With that reality in mind, I believe Detroit’s goal from here on out should be to maximize the value of their 2023 first round pick by making a few strategic moves to enhance their draft lottery odds (although we all know Detroit doesn’t win draft lotteries). The sooner you commit to the tank the better, as we’ve seen with teams like the Arizona Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks. They’ve got a real head start in the Connor Bedard sweepstakes and the league’s bottom five will be a tough group to crack, but I believe Detroit has a real chance at landing a pick in the 7-10 range which would be a massive improvement from the 11-15 range they find themselves in right now.
The Value of Draft Position in the 2023 Draft
The obvious answer is that even earning a small chance at landing an elite prospect like Bedard, Adam Fantilli, or Leo Carlsson is worth losing. Currently, Detroit has the 11th best odds of winning the draft lottery, meaning a lottery win would net them either the first or second overall pick (all percentages from Tankathon). Where they stand now, Detroit has a 3% chance at first overall and a 3.3% chance at second, a combined 6.3% (or roughly 1-in-16) chance of winning the lottery. If they were to find themselves with the eighth best odds at the end of the season, they would have a 6% chance at first overall and a 6.4% chance at second, a combined 12.4% (or 1-in-8) chance at winning the lottery, nearly double their current chances.
I know Red Wings fans have become disillusioned with the draft lottery after missing out so many times, but a few extra losses this year could easily double their chance at adding a gamebreaking forward to their team. What do they have to lose (other than the draft lottery again)!? The worst case scenario if they have the eighth best odds is that they fall to 10th which is still more valuable than the 11th overall pick they’re projected to have as the team sits now.
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A player added in the top 10 (or even the early teens possibly) of the 2023 Draft could very well become the best player on Detroit’s roster someday, that’s how many excellent prospects are available. They could add a smooth skating two-way center in Oliver Moore, a sturdy two-way defender in David Reinbacher, or an electric offensive winger like Andrew Cristall. This team’s best shot at being a real contender in the near future is to add an elite NHL player to their team in this draft, and they should do everything they can to make that happen.
How to Tank While Still Having a Chance at Next Year’s Playoffs
Now, with all of my reasoning out of the way, this is my best guess at what Detroit could do in a practical sense in order to get worse for the remainder of this year while not impairing the team too much going into next year. The first step is a bit obvious and that’s extending Dylan Larkin, the team’s captain and first line center. Next, they need to decide what they’re doing with players on short term deals like Tyler Bertuzzi, Jake Walman, and David Perron. Finally, they need to make some shrewd additions in the offseason on short deals to maintain the long term cap space necessary to extend Seider and Raymond.
If the rumors are true that Larkin’s camp is looking for $9M/year and Detroit is hoping for $8M/year, then I’m not worried about this contract situation one bit. The Red Wings will do what it takes to keep their captain. Let’s assume that they split the difference and Larkin signs an eight year deal worth $8.5M/year, that’s just $2.4M/year more than he’s currently making, which is about the same amount of cap space that would be saved by letting Adam Erne walk as an unrestricted free agent this summer.
At the moment I’m leaning on the side of extending Tyler Bertuzzi simply because he likely has little to no trade value at the moment, having played just 18 games this year, scoring six points along the way. However, Bertuzzi did look like his old self in Detroit’s first game back from the All-star break so there’s a chance he increases his value on the trade market before the trade deadline. Steve Yzerman has signed Bertuzzi to two contracts in his time as the Red Wings’ general manager, with a total length of three years. I expect he’ll sign Bert to another short term deal, giving him a chance to either prove he can stay healthy or at least to recoup some of his trade value. Bertuzzi proved in the 2021-22 season that he can be an excellent top-six winger, and the Red Wings are in no position to lose him to free agency or to trade him when the market isn’t really there for him.
I believe that Detroit should trade any of their pending UFAs not named Jake Walman that they can find a buyer for, including Olli Määttä, Adam Erne, Pius Suter, and Oskar Sundqvist. I think it’s unlikely any of these players (outside of maybe Määttä) will be back next year, at least not at anything resembling their current cap hits, so it would be best to get something out of them in a trade, no matter how small the return. Detroit should also hold onto guys like David Perron and Dominik Kubalik who are both on pace for 50-60 point seasons and have an extra year left on their contracts, while extending Walman for at least three or four years. If it gets to this time next year and the Red Wings are still not in the playoff race, any of those three players could fetch a pretty penny at the trade deadline, but until then they are very valuable offensive contributors on a team that lacks offense.
Detroit went on a bit of a spending spree during last year’s free agency, with several of the deals expiring before the offseason following the 2023-24 season, leaving that future cap space open to accommodate the raises due to Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond. Any additions made by the Red Wings in this summer’s free agency should be made with the same plan in mind, improving the team while maintaining cap flexibility going forward.
Who Knows What the Final 30+ Games Will Hold
To be honest, Detroit probably doesn’t need to make their NHL squad much worse in trades this year to land the eighth best draft lottery odds, their brutally difficult schedule might just do the trick on its own. However, the Red Wings should do everything in their power to maximize their chances on lottery day because adding a player like Bedard, Fantilli, or Carlsson to the fold would decisively end the rebuild and signal that it’s time the NHL feared the Red Wings again.