Bultman: Red Wings' quiet opening to NHL free agency has Detroit looking stagnant at best

The Red Wings left the 2024 NHL Draft shrouded in intrigue going into July 1.

They had gone out of their way to clear cap space, attaching a second-round pick to trade Jake Walman last week, with general manager Steve Yzerman explaining that the team “needed to move at least one contract to do some of the things we want to do.” Late Sunday night, the excitement kept building when the team re-signed Patrick Kane on a cap-friendly, bonus-laden one-year deal. What might come next?

The answer in the opening hours of NHL free agency? Not much.

Yes, there are still two and a half months before training camp. The Red Wings have lots of time to tinker. And yes, some of the contracts signed Monday, when free agency opened, were whoppers — long-term, big-money deals Detroit probably would have wanted to stay away from. All of that’s true.

But the fact is, as of this writing, the Red Wings have not gotten any better for 2024-25. And they’ve quite possibly gotten worse.

Coming into the day with more than $28 million in salary cap space — even with more than half of that likely earmarked for pending restricted free agents Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond — Detroit’s moves have instead ranged from modest to mystifying.

We’ll start with the good.

Detroit kept identity-line forward Christian Fischer on a cheap one-year deal, at $1.125 million. He was an underrated piece for the team last season, and they’re keeping him at a friendly number. The Red Wings also signed a potential upgrade in goal, getting Cam Talbot on a two-year contract with a $2.5 million AAV. Talbot’s 37, so there’s some caution required in any analysis, but he is coming off a strong .913 save percentage in 54 games last season for Los Angeles. Even factoring in the Kings’ superior defense, Talbot was worth 15 goals saved above expected, according to Evolving Hockey, and has a chance to be Detroit’s starter — or a solid tandem goalie at worst.

You can see some logic in the team signing offensive defenseman Erik Gustafsson for two years and $2 million annually. He’s a potential Shayne Gostisbehere replacement for the power play on a cheap deal. And it was perfectly fine signing another goalie, Jack Campbell, to a one-year, $775,000 flier as a likely AHL partner for top prospect Sebastian Cossa.

But here’s the thing: If you go down the list of all the things the Red Wings wanted or needed to do this summer, goaltending is currently the only place where it feels like they made any sort of improvement. And really, that improvement comes with the caveat that they now have four goalies under contract (three likely NHLers, with Campbell seemingly ticketed for the AHL), despite having said they didn’t plan to carry three on the NHL roster.

They could still move a netminder, and that’s where it bears reminding that it’s still fairly early in the offseason (though not as early as some might like to believe, as the vast majority of difference-making free agents are now under contract elsewhere).

Look at the rest of the needs, though:

• Did the Red Wings get better defensively? Not meaningfully, at least beyond the crease. As of this writing, the Red Wings haven’t added any new forwards, so thus far it looks lateral at best up front. On the blue line, Gustafsson might be a marginal upgrade on Gostisbehere in his own end, but his numbers playing next to Braden Schneider on the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers are not exactly reflective of what can be expected in Detroit. William Lagesson (who signed for one year at $775,000) gives them some defense-first depth on the left side, but he isn’t expected to be a significant contributor. He played 40 NHL games last season and has played in 100 total NHL games since 2019.

• Did Detroit get harder to play against? No, and while the Red Wings still have some time, at this point they might have gone backward. I don’t think the Red Wings would have been wise to give David Perron the two-year, $4 million AAV deal he got in Ottawa, but that doesn’t change the fact the Red Wings just lost their best down-low and wall-playing piece from last season (and one of the best in the NHL). Perron’s feet were a concern, as were some of his penalties, but there was no doubting that he kept possessions alive for the Red Wings deep in the offensive zone, or that he made life tough on opponents. Now he’s playing for a division rival, and Detroit hasn’t replaced him with anyone.

• Did the Red Wings at least maintain their offensive attack from last season? Also no, subtracting Perron’s 47 points and losing their 56-point power-play quarterback Gostisbehere, whose three-year contract in Carolina has an AAV just $1.2 million above his apparent replacement, Gustafsson. Gustafsson may get an opportunity to quarterback Detroit’s first power play and run with it, making that swap look fine in time — but is that possibility worth such a small difference in the contract between him and Gostisbehere? Consider: The deal Gostisbehere just signed in Carolina is less money (with the same term) than the one to which the Red Wings signed Justin Holl last July 1. They proceeded to scratch Holl for more than half the season.

Those looking for silver linings can hope that Monday’s events make it likelier that young forwards Jonatan Berggren, Marco Kasper, Carter Mazur and maybe even Nate Danielson have a clearer path to opportunities early in the season. Maybe that will come to fruition. But at a minimum, it’s hard to believe that was the plan going in, especially when just two days ago Yzerman said of the team’s young players: “They’re going to have to push somebody out. At this stage, I’m not prepared to leave a roster spot open, maybe not in the top nine, for one of these kids yet.”

There are all kinds of potential theories you can float as to what happened. Maybe Detroit’s big move is still coming, though at this point that would likely have to be by trade. Maybe the Red Wings simply struck out on the top players they wanted. Maybe the team is trying to keep cap flexibility for a highly free-agent class next summer.

The answer could be any of those, or perhaps a combination. Maybe it’s something else entirely.

Add it all up, though, and as of now the Red Wings look poised to take a step back in 2024-25. And while that’s not entirely unforeseen — I wrote about the possibility last month — it’s a bit jarring from a team that had been posturing like one that saw another playoff race on the horizon.

Perhaps that will change in the coming days or weeks. But as the sun begins to set on July 1, the Red Wings instead appear to be heading in the other direction.

(Photo of Steve Yzerman: Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)

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