Red Wings' free-agent spending casts justified doubt on 'Yzerplan'

The Red Wings are spending a lot of money to take baby steps — if they even move forward at all.

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Faith in “The Yzerplan” hit an all-time low after the Detroit Red Wings kicked off 2023 NHL free agency with a questionable spending spree.

A year ago, Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman indulged in an ill-advised and expensive buffet of free agents (Ben Chiarot, Andrew Copp) and just about anyone would agree he didn’t get his money’s worth. Instead of turning over a new leaf in 2023, Yzerman basically decided to get right back in line for seconds.

As a result, fans are feeling indignation (if not indigestion).

The Red Wings signed J.T. Compher to a deal that’s eerily similar to the underwhelming (and overpriced) pact for Copp. While it’s easier to defend signing Justin Holl than it is to justify Chiarot’s bloated contract, the team keeps investing significant money in insignificant players.

In a vacuum, you can talk yourself into one or more of those free-agent moves, either now or when the signings were made. Zoom out on the big picture, though, and it feels like the Red Wings are spending a lot of money to take baby steps — if they even move forward at all.

Red Wings' ‘Yzerplan’ doesn’t look like anything special right now

In assessing Yzerman, it’s crucial to realize that few of the decisions are as explosively bad as the mistakes that doomed the most derided GMs in recent memory such as Mike Milbury and Jim Benning. That said, it’s been disappointing to realize the "Yzerplan” looks uninspired and typical.

You might say it’s a crude copy of a crude copy of typical rebuilds, particularly since Yzerman himself admitted the Red Wings are behind the likes of the Sabres and Senators.

When you’re in the middle of the pack rather than ahead of it, you’re that much more likely to fall victim to bad luck at the draft lottery and beyond.

Again, not every misstep is totally Yzerman’s fault. The recently waived Filip Zadina was the last first-rounder from the Ken Holland era, and seemed like a wise pick at sixth overall in 2018. Some blame the Red Wings’ development process for the 23-year-old’s current poor standing in the NHL.

That could ultimately be a matter of hindsight, particularly with perception about the Red Wings especially low right now.

Either way, Holland didn’t leave Yzerman much to work with in Detroit, and a mixture of factors have worked against the Red Wings’ rebuild. Don’t forget their lottery luck was poor enough to (arguably) convince the league to tweak how far a team can fall.

Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman has been making some questionable decisions lately. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman has been making some questionable decisions lately. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Red Wings’ longer-term future a mix of hope and frustration

Even with that poor lottery luck, the Red Wings formed a farm system that ranked fourth by multiple outlets, even before a hit-or-miss 2023 NHL Draft where they at least lined up plenty of “dart throws.”

It’s not outrageous to picture a strong core built around players who’ve already bolstered their NHL resumes (Moritz Seider, Lucas Raymond) and those who’ve received a cup of coffee or less (Simon Edvinsson, Marco Kasper and Sebastian Cossa).

That said, the Red Wings’ recent free agent moves haven’t always lined up well with that future focus.

Although the Red Wings have locked down sought-after traits (rare abilities for big defensemen in Edvinsson and Seider, with the latter being a coveted right-hander), it still feels like this team could use more offensive punch. The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler acknowledged that he didn’t see “game-breaking skill or finishing” in prospect Kasper’s game. That feels like a theme for the Red Wings and something you could even argue about established star Dylan Larkin (relative to the absolute best players in the NHL, at least).

Looking at Hockey Viz’s heat map, the Red Wings’ (lack of) offensive attack conjures images of a frozen lake, something that’s been a problem for about a decade.

One could approach that lack of punch by either accepting that you’re simply not that close to being a contender yet (especially with fairly average defense and goaltending) or by targeting more dynamic offensive players. There are worse ideas than rolling the dice to trade for and sign Alex DeBrincat. The Michigan native is just 25 and has already authored two 41-goal seasons. With things looking tense between DeBrincat and the Senators, such a move may not even cost that much in futures.

Instead, the Red Wings handed a rather rich deal to Compher, a nice forward whose larger track record points to strengths on defense.

There’s value to Compher, but his offensive outburst this season (52 points) carries red flags of contract-year motivation and the bump you get skating with the likes of Mikko Rantanen, Devon Toews and Cale Makar. You risk overpaying for a good-but-not-great player in a way that parallels the poor value of banking on Copp after his contract year.

Such investments can clog things up in a couple ways for the core players who matter.

For one, every dollar that goes to inessential players could make it tougher to retain the essential ones. Entering the last year of their rookie deals, it’s difficult to say how much Seider and Raymond will cost. It wouldn’t be ideal if all of that poorly-spent money might translate to bridge deals where long-term contracts may be more team-friendly for Detroit.

Also: when you spend money on veterans, you open the door for tricky situations that could hinder development.

Did Seider suffer a partial “sophomore slump” last season, or did he mainly languish when he was attached to Chiarot? Many believe it wasn’t a coincidence that Seider’s numbers looked a lot better with Jake Walman.

Stacking up veteran defensemen who may just be incremental upgrades could mean blocking someone like Edvinsson. Maybe Yzerman was merely providing lip service on Tuesday when he said that Edvinsson needs to earn a spot in the team’s top six. However, NHL coaches are notorious for giving veteran players far too much benefit of the doubt while failing to give up-and-comers room to grow (and occasionally make mistakes).

Frankly, those growing pains might even set you up with a better shot at that extra dynamic prospect who can truly raise the ceiling of a franchise. It seems like a wiser path than Detroit’s most likely destination: the murky middle.

Red Wings’ best free agent moves were the short ones

It’s somewhat exasperating that the Red Wings’ brightest free agent spots revolved around the types of moves they should have been making instead of throwing reckless term at the likes of Compher, Copp and Chiarot.

Shayne Gostisbehere has his warts defensively and maybe $4.125 million is a bit much for a player who’s divisive in league circles, but he instantly becomes one of the Red Wings’ most dangerous offensive weapons, and underlying numbers point to the good outweighing the bad.

Maybe most promisingly, Daniel Sprong is dirt cheap ($2 million), in his prime (26) and scored 21 goals and 46 points despite being limited to 66 games in just 11:25 of ice time per contest. Sprong brings so much to the table that it’s honestly confusing the Seattle Kraken let him go, at least for a low-risk contract.

Moves like these point to a more forward-thinking and less sweaty-and-desperate offseason for the Red Wings. Why not target value like that, rather than signing so many players who are almost inevitably overpriced in free agency (especially considering all of the no-trade clauses Detroit threw around to not just Compher, but also James Reimer)?

A more proactive “Yzerplan” might not lean so much on free agency at all. Merely consider the New Jersey Devils, a team that enjoyed one of the best offseasons while largely staying out of the fray. It’s basically a trope that free agency is “silly season,” so why force it at all?

For the most part, the past few years make the Red Wings' plan look disjointed. Even reasonable moves (selling high on Filip Hronek if you don’t fear his next contract) seem less enticing after Detroit spent its money more recklessly in free agency.

In the end, maybe Yzerman gets the last laugh. It’s certainly happened before.

Nonetheless, it’s never been more reasonable to put the “Why?” in the “Yzerplan.”