There were seven teams that did not qualify for the NHL’s expanded 24-team playoff field this past season. Over the next few days we are going to take a look at each of them to examine whether or not they are capable of bouncing back this upcoming season. We continue today with the Detroit Red Wings.
During his Hall of Fame playing career Steve Yzerman was one of the driving forces behind the Red Wings’ climb out of the NHL’s basement.
He has a chance to lead a similar turnaround as an executive.
How bad has it been for the team in recent years?
They have missed the playoffs four years in a row. Their .275 points percentage from the 2019-20 season was the third-worst in franchise history. During this four-year playoff drought no team (including Vegas, which has only existed for three of those seasons) has won fewer games than the Red Wings’ 112. It has been rough.
As a result, the franchise has been completely stripped down to its most basic foundation over the past two seasons. The bad contracts that littered the roster have either been jettisoned, bought out, or expired. All of that has left the team in a situation where it has almost no long-term commitments to worry about, and a massive amount of salary cap space to work with in the future.
[Related: Bertuzzi’s deal part of promising Red Wings’ offseason, flexible future]
As of this moment there are only eight players under contract beyond this season. Only one of those players (Dylan Larkin) is signed for more than two seasons (his contract expires after the 2022-23 season).
It has given Yzerman and the Red Wings a clean slate to work with. Now they can finally start building back up.
How will he do it?
Next summer could be big
This offseason was about piecing together a short-term roster with cheap, short-term free agent signings that could turn into a trade deadline assets. Players like Bobby Ryan, Vladislav Namestnikov, Troy Stecher, and Jon Merrill. None of them figure to be long-term pieces, just like most of the current roster.
As of now, the Red Wings only have $29.9M in salary cap space committed to eight players for next season, per CapFriendly. You have to assume the youth movement continues into next season and some of those open spaces are filled with entry-level contracts and rookies, which would leave them a significant amount of salary cap space to fill out the roster.
That presents Yzerman and the Red Wings with a number of different options.
Go big in free agency?
Next year’s potential UFA class looks fairly deep, even when taking into account some (or many) will ultimately re-sign with their current teams. There is always a risk in going big in the free agent market, but the Red Wings would have the salary cap space to make a run at quite literally any player (or multiple players) on the market to complement their prospect core.
Unlikely as it may be, the RFA market should also be an option.
The Red Wings have had so many draft picks over the past two years (23 to be exact) and already have nine for next season with the potential to add several more at the trade deadline. Given all of those recent picks, as well as their massive amount of cap space, they should be at least willing to explore the possibility of giving up future picks and putting the clamps on another team for a potential offer sheet.
Take advantage of teams that need salary cap relief
All of that salary cap space can be weaponized in their favor to take advantage of teams that need salary cap relief. They already did that this offseason with the Marc Staal trade (netting them an additional second-round pick) and will have plenty of opportunities to do it again next offseason.
With so much cap space, no long-term commitments, and the potential for what will still be a young, cheap roster the Red Wings would be in a position to take on more undesirable contracts and accepting a dumping fee in the form of a quality draft pick or prospect for doing so.
With a flat cap there will no doubt be teams desperate to dump contracts and to pay a price for doing so. They can — and should — use that to their advantage.
The Red Wings are looking at another season in the NHL’s basement. The biggest key for this season is that the short-term free agents work out individually to give them additional trade chips and they see progress from young players (Filip Zadina, Filip Hronek, any other rookies on the team).
They have one of the league’s best general managers, more salary cap flexibility than any team in the league, collected a bounty of draft picks over the past couple of years, have even more coming this year, and have three recent top-six picks (plus what almost certainly be another one in the 2021 draft) to hopefully build around.
They are still a long way from contention, but with the GM and resources (draft picks, prospects, salary cap space) at their disposal they are finally in a position to start building.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.