Red Wings’ active free agency shows they want to turn a corner: Bultman

For three years, the refrain was the same: Patience. Process. More patience.

Steve Yzerman inherited a big job when he took over as Red Wings general manager back in 2019, stepping into a rebuild still in its earliest stages. And as a result, he did what any shrewd GM would do: He tempered expectations. He took the long view. And he never set timelines.

When free agency would come around every year, the Red Wings’ activity was mostly just around the edges. But when this year’s frenzy began Wednesday, that finally changed — in a big way.

Make no mistake, even on a day the Red Wings signed five players in free agency — including at least three likely to play in the top half of their lineup — Yzerman didn’t abandon his first principles as Detroit continues to rebuild. But after signing Andrew Copp, David Perron, Ben Chiarot, Olli Määtä and Dominik Kubalik, it’s clear the Red Wings aren’t sitting around waiting, either. Detroit made big plays at free agency’s opening bell and now may actually have the pieces to turn a real corner under new head coach Derek Lalonde.

“It’s well known around the league that it’s a young, up-and-coming team,” Chiarot said Wednesday afternoon, explaining his interest in Detroit. “I think today, with all the additions that the team made, it just makes it an even more exciting team. Steve Yzerman builds good teams. I think everyone knows that.”

That wasn’t the only reference to Yzerman’s importance. Perron mentioned how getting a call from Yzerman “catches your attention right away.” After Yzerman’s storied career as a player, and more recently, success building the foundation for a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion in Tampa, it’s easy to understand why.

So far in Detroit, though, Yzerman’s team-building process has been rather slow and methodical. Even last summer, when Yzerman traded for Alex Nedeljkovic and Nick Leddy, the pushes have been incremental at best.

And make no mistake: Wednesday’s moves don’t make the Red Wings instant favorites for the playoffs next season. But this also wasn’t just adding at the margins.

David Perron. (Jeff Curry / USA Today)

Perron has hit a career renaissance in his 30s, scoring on pace for over 25 goals in four straight seasons. Chiarot is a lock for the opening-night top four and is just a year removed from playing a 25-minute-per-night role on a run to the Stanley Cup Final. And Copp — an Ann Arbor product fresh off a run to the Eastern Conference finals with the Rangers — just inked the longest deal a Red Wing has signed under Yzerman at five years, $5.625 million annually.

Copp was the first big splash of the day, signing just after the opening bell at noon, and immediately projects to fill one of the team’s most glaring needs at second-line center. He just posted a career-best 21 goals between the Jets and Rangers, and just as importantly brings strong two-way play to a team that desperately needed to improve its defense.

It’s still a bit early to start guessing line combinations, especially under a new coach, but it’s easy to envision Copp centering sniper Jakub Vrana, who has a deadly release but ideally plays with someone who can do a bit of the dirty work. Copp certainly fits that bill.

And while the term is longer than any other contract we’ve seen Yzerman sign in Detroit to date, Copp has enough versatility that he figures to be a real presence in the top six for much of the deal, even if it means moving onto the wing in the later years, when 2022 first-round pick Marco Kasper should be ready to take over the 2C job. In the meantime, though, Copp fills that spot nicely, bringing a heavy, complete game and allowing Detroit to push for progress quickly under the new coach.

“I think from what I’ve seen, it’s very similar to the teams I played on in Winnipeg and New York,” Copp said. “Where you kind of go from out of the playoffs, and then all of a sudden you’re a contender.”

Copp said he and Chiarot were at a wedding together within the last two weeks and were joking about the possibility of both coming to Detroit. But it was still early, as the market took shape, and he didn’t know just how aggressive Yzerman would be.

“I think (the activity Wednesday) just kind of shows the belief that he has in the group, in the guys that he’s adding,” Copp said. “It feels like the next step is ready to be taken.”

Andrew Copp stares down the competition

Andrew Copp. (Danny Wild / USA Today)

Copp figures to be particularly valuable as Lalonde strives to improve Detroit’s team defense right away. His experience in the playoffs with New York proved he could succeed in a big role in the toughest style of hockey, and he can play in any situation.

The biggest hole on the roster entering the day, however, was at left defense. With Marc Staal and Danny DeKeyser both on expiring contracts, and Nick Leddy traded away at the 2022 deadline, there were a lot of minutes up for grabs opposite Moritz Seider and Filip Hronek.

And ideally, with the way the second half went last season, they’d be filled by defensive stoppers.

Yzerman worked quickly there, too.

Määtä, who is expected to finalize a one-year, $2.25 million deal soon, enters the fold as a classic defensive defenseman who’s turned in solid defensive impacts throughout his career, including as part of two Stanley Cup teams in Pittsburgh and helping Los Angeles go from rebuilding to the playoffs this past season.

Chiarot’s four-year deal at $4.75 million raised some eyebrows, owing in large part to the term for the 31-year-old, who is not exactly beloved by public analytics models. And, on a day that often leads to regret down the line, some consternation is warranted. But Chiarot’s role on a Cup finalist team two seasons ago runs counter to those models — last season, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers gave up a first-round pick, a fourth-round pick and prospect Ty Smilanic to acquire Chiarot as a rental. That should tell you how Chiarot is viewed in league circles, and with a market that was thin on the left side of the blue line, Detroit likely was not getting Chiarot without giving in on term.

And now that they have him, he’s an obvious fit high in the lineup, opposite either Seider or Hronek as a stabilizing presence.

“He doesn’t get beat easily,” Perron said. “He’s extremely physical, big guy.”

There’s one obvious question in the wake of the blue-line signings and with Jordan Oesterle still under contract and Jake Walman an RFA: Is there still room for top prospect Simon Edvinsson? But in reality, this was always the most likely course of events. The Red Wings have not made a habit of reserving lineup spots for prospects.

That said, there is still very much room for Edvinsson, it’ll just mean he has to beat out Walman and Oesterle for a lineup spot. And if he isn’t able to, the 19-year-old is probably best suited to start in the American Hockey League anyway.

If he can, though, Detroit could begin next season with a blue line of Chiarot, Määttä and Edvinsson on the left side, and Seider, Hronek and one of Walman, Oesterle and Gustav Lindstrom on the right. Add in the signings of Perron and Kubalik — both of whom bring serious scoring ability, especially on the power play — and you can see the potential for a serious transformation in one year’s time.

“I think they’re ready to take the next step in their evolution as a team,” Perron said. “And I wanted to be a part of that.”

Will that step be enough to make the playoffs? Even while Detroit sprung for its most aggressive day of the Yzerman era, the path to the postseason in the Eastern Conference still looks daunting. Atlantic Division heavyweights Tampa Bay, Toronto and Florida haven’t gone anywhere. Boston, in spite of its many offseason surgeries to key players, still could be a very real threat once healthy.

And fellow up-and-comer Ottawa has had perhaps the splashiest offseason of any team in the league, trading for Alex DeBrincat and signing Claude Giroux to give the Senators a dangerous top-six forward corps.

That’s just within the division.

From that standpoint, the playoffs still look like a bit of a reach for the Red Wings — at least right now, with time remaining for more activity.

But what Wednesday’s moves did prove is that Detroit’s not coasting as they look to round this corner. Yzerman is accelerating into the turn.

And around here, that’s a welcome sight.

(Top photo of Steve Yzerman: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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