The Rookie Some Didn’t Want Now Has a Fan Base Feeling Optimistic
DETROIT — The Red Wings have completed their sixth consecutive losing season, but still there’s a buzz in the Motor City that one of the N.H.L.’s most storied franchises may finally be on the road back to prominence.
Much of it has to do with Moritz Seider — the league’s most pleasantly surprising rookie during the 2021-22 season. A 21-year-old defenseman from Germany whose selection at sixth overall in 2019 initially confounded many draft observers, Seider has proved himself more than worthy of being an early pick.
He has showed a poise and toughness rarely found in first-year blueliners as well as an offensive touch that has inspired comparisons to Nicklas Lidstrom, the Hall of Fame former Wings defenseman. And, after playing all 82 games, leading Detroit skaters in average ice time and topping all rookies with 43 assists, he won the Calder Memorial Trophy for the rookie of the year on Tuesday.
“He’s a star in the making,” said Keith Jones, a former player and a veteran N.H.L. broadcaster. “Any time a young defenseman can come in and play the position that well, and with such maturity, it’s incredible. The kid’s ceiling is so high.”
Seider received 170 of the 195 first-place votes from members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. He said he did not prepare a speech, but he still managed to crack a joke during the awards ceremony in Tampa, Fla., where the Lightning will host Colorado in Game 4 of the finals on Wednesday.
“My parents couldn’t make it,” he deadpanned. “They just got back from Croatia and they thought it was more important to go on vacation.”
Seider isn’t the only reason Detroit’s outlook has brightened. Another newcomer, the winger Lucas Raymond — drafted fourth overall in 2020 — ranked third among rookies with 57 points and finished fourth in Calder voting.
The Wings also have a cadre of other rising stars in their early to mid-20s, including Dylan Larkin, who had 31 goals and 38 assists this season; Tyler Bertuzzi, who scored 30 goals to go with 32 assists; and defenseman Filip Hronek, who had 38 points and blocked 81 shots.
The team was in playoff contention for much of the season and was a game over .500 in February, but injuries and a drop off in goaltending play precipitated a stretch when the team won just seven of 28 games. Three of its wins in April came against some of the league’s top teams, including Tampa Bay, which is vying for its third straight Stanley Cup championship, but Detroit finished sixth in the Atlantic Division and outside the playoffs for a sixth straight season.
The Wings could use another top-notch center and better play in net. Alex Nedeljkovic, who started 52 games, posted a goals-against average of 3.31, up from a league-best 1.90 a year ago when he was a Calder finalist with the Carolina Hurricanes.
“They need a few more pieces but it won’t take them long,” Jones said. “They will get there.”
Drafting Seider and Raymond has fueled fans’ confidence that General Manager Steve Yzerman and his eye for talent will bring Detroit back to the glory it had during his playing days. Yzerman, who brought three Stanley Cups to Detroit as a player, largely built the Lightning’s Cup-winning roster before returning to the city in 2019.
The club has commitments from both of its first-round picks from last year’s draft, after Simon Edvinsson, a promising Swedish defenseman who was selected sixth overall, signed in April. The Wings will also have the No. 8 pick in the 2022 draft in July in Montreal.
“There’s definitely a buzz around the team,” said Evan Lobsinger, a longtime Wings fan and a host of the “Winged Wheel Podcast.” “This is the most excited I’ve seen the fan base in quite some time.”
A Detroit renaissance would be welcomed in many hockey circles. An Original Six team, the Wings are the most successful United States-based N.H.L. franchise, with 11 Stanley Cups. Some of the N.H.L.’s greatest stars — Gordie Howe, Sergei Fedorov, Brett Hull, Pavel Datsyuk — have worn the winged wheel on their sweater.
The Wings last won the Cup in 2008, and lost in the finals to the Pittsburgh Penguins the next year. Since then, they’ve failed to advance past the conference semifinals while trading away draft picks and signing fading veterans as their star players have retired. The Wings managed only 19 wins in a 56-game season in 2021, and just 17 victories in 71 games before the pandemic forced the league to pause the 2019-20 season. With the help of the 6-foot-4 Seider, the team managed 32 wins this season.
Seider grew up in Erfurt, a city of about 200,000 people in eastern Germany. But when he had a chance to join the development program of Adler Mannheim, a club in Germany’s top pro league, the Deutsche Eishockey Liga, his family moved to the western part of the country to further his hockey ambitions. After gaining experience in international competitions andplaying in the D.E.L. as an 18-year-old, he was projected at best to be a late first-round pick.
When Yzerman announced him at the draft, Seider sat slack-jawed and wide-eyed a moment before standing and hugging his mother. “It was the No. 6 spot, so I wasn’t really paying attention,” Seider said in a phone interview late in this season. “I said to my mother, ‘You’re excited, I’m nervous, so somebody keep cool here.’ It was all about not stumbling down the stairs and don’t look stupid.”
Wings fans, many of whom had no idea who Seider was, were flummoxed, especially since several other prime prospects were still available, including Trevor Zegras, the Anaheim Ducks phenom who ranked second among rookies with 61 points and finished second in Calder voting. “When he was picked at six overall, it was pure shock and disappointment,” Lobsinger said.
After spending 2019-20 with Detroit’s American Hockey League affiliate and 2020-21 in the Sweden’s top league, he made the Wings’ roster out of training camp this season. Before long, he was running the power play, killing penalties and delivering bone-crushing checks, all with aplomb. He had eight assists in his first nine games, was named rookie of the month in October and scored his first goal in November to beat the Buffalo Sabres in overtime.
In a game in March, Seider found himself defending a rush by Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, and when the Oilers star tried to turn the corner toward the net, Seider calmly poked the puck off the stick of the best player in the game.
“At the draft, I was like, ‘Stevie Y, what are you doing?’ But Seider has just blown me away,” said Lon Grantham, a high school girls’ hockey coach and Wings fan for four decades. “You’ve got to have strong D to contend. Every Cup team has an elite defenseman. So yeah, I’m feeling optimistic with this guy.”
Seider said he was aware of some of the reaction to the draft and had used that as motivation. “I think it gave me confidence to come overseas and prove everyone wrong,” he said. “That’s just what I’m trying to do.”
As for where the Wings are going, Seider said the team was highly motivated to improve. “We as a team may not look like what we want to be, but the guys are really determined to be a playoff team in the future,” he said. “Everyone is sick and tired of losing. Everyone is working hard to make that next step.”