Ann Arbor is about 43 miles from Detroit. While this is important information for fans of both the Michigan Wolverines (NCAA) and any of the major Detroit sports teams, this has become increasingly relevant information pertaining to arguably the Red Wings’ biggest acquisition on the first day of free agency. You see, much was made of John Tavares and his Toronto Maple Leafs bedsheets when he signed on with Toronto as a free agent in 2018. And while Andrew Copp is not the same caliber of player as Tavares was when he hit the open market, it’s pretty safe to say that Copp signed with the team he cheered for as a kid, growing up just a 45 minute drive away from Detroit.
“My parents might,” Copp answered when ESPN’s John Buccigross asked him if he had any pictures of him wearing Red Wings pajamas. “Hopefully those will just stay away and we can just concentrate on the new pictures.”
It was always pretty easy to picture Copp as a Red Wing. He spent three seasons with the University of Michigan from 2012 to 2015, and he was the captain of the Wolverines during his final season with the program. That same season, there was a highly-touted freshman player on the roster who also grew up on the east side of Michigan. That player was Dylan Larkin, and he and Copp would be roommates throughout that 2014-15 season. Copp was a Winnipeg Jets prospect at that time, and you have to wonder if maybe he was just a little bit jealous that his freshman teammate was a prospect of the hometown Red Wings.
Fast forward to 2022, and the roles have been switched. Larkin is the captain, having just concluded his second season wearing the ‘C’ on his sweater. Copp is the new face in town, eager to make a good impression on his coaches and his teammates. But this is more than just a feel-good story about a Michigan-born player finally coming home to play for the Red Wings. Copp wasn’t signed to a five-year deal because of where he grew up.
Copp was signed to the largest deal general manager (GM) Steve Yzerman has given out during his tenure with the Red Wings because he has the ability to fill a much-needed role in Detroit – and maybe even a few more roles than people realize.
Copp Fills the Elusive 2nd Line Center Role for Red Wings
Since Yzerman took over as GM, Larkin has been firmly entrenched as the Red Wings’ top center. It’s the team’s second line center position where things haven’t been as steady. From Valtteri Filppula in 2019-20 to Pius Suter this past season, a handful of players have been given the opportunity to fill the 2C role in Detroit. Some have been more successful than others, but none have really stood out as viable long-term solutions at that position. The hope is that Copp is the solution to this problem.
Through 483 regular season games in the NHL, Copp has won 51.9 percent of the faceoffs he has taken. In comparison, Suter won 49.3 percent of the faceoffs he took last season while playing in that role. An almost two percent increase doesn’t seem like a lot, but with players such as Jakub Vrana and newly-signed David Perron potentially flanking him on the wings, it will help to start with the puck more often than not.
Regardless of which players become his linemates, Copp has experience playing a variety of roles. During his time with the Jets, he was mostly tasked with playing in a checking role, placing defense above all else and making life hard on the opposition. After he was traded to the New York Rangers ahead of the 2022 Trade Deadline, he took on more of an offensive role, producing an impressive 18 points through 16 games. He finished last season with a career-high 53 points, proving that he is capable of producing steady offense at the NHL level.
“I think I’ve just continued to improve on my game. I think I’ve gotten a lot better over the years, and felt like it was always kind of in there,” Copp said of the step his offensive game took last season. “It just…wasn’t really something I was asked to do too much.”
While his 2021-22 season is noteworthy because of his offensive totals, it is also noteworthy that Copp continued to excel defensively. He received one third-place vote for the Selke Trophy last season, awarded to the best defensive forward in the NHL. He isn’t going to win the Art Ross Trophy for leading the league in scoring, but he’s going to play a ton of minutes based solely on his ability to make a difference at both ends of the ice.
Furthermore, Copp isn’t limited to just playing center. While the intention behind the signing was to give him a shot at filling the 2C role, he is versatile enough to move around the lineup and play on either the left or right wing, depending on the situation. This will become increasingly important over the next few years as players like Joe Veleno and/or Marco Kasper prove that they can hold down the 2C role.
“I think Steve [Yzerman] really likes my versatility, being able to play any of the three forward positions and kind of impact the game (on) both special teams,” Copp said before adding, “I think definitely in the beginning, I’ll probably start off in the middle.”
As new head coach Derek Lalonde begins to piece together his lineup heading into next season, having a player like Copp that can slot-in pretty much anywhere has to feel like a godsent.
Copp Ready to Bring Glory Back to Detroit
Over the last decade, the Red Wings have seen a number of players come through “Hockeytown” that cheered for the Wings when they were little boys. Larkin is the obvious one, but let’s not forget the “hometown hero” tag placed on the likes of Justin Abdelkader, Danny DeKeyser, Jordan Oesterle and others. You can now add Copp to that list, and that’s something he doesn’t take lightly.
“Getting to play for your hometown team is really rare in this league and I’m just…fortunate enough to be able to be one of those guys that gets to do it,” Copp said.
“I’m looking forward to making my stamp on Detroit and taking the next step with [Larkin] and all the guys.”
It may not come right away, but Copp has all the ingredients to become a fan-favorite in Detroit.
Can play in all situations? Check.
Leadership potential? Check.
All of this and more, and you’ve got a player who is poised to make his stamp on Detroit, just as Copp wishes.
But this decision by both Copp and Yzerman is about much more than just a homecoming. This move was made with the intention of leading the Red Wings to more wins and, ultimately, the playoffs. Copp has been to the conference finals twice in his career: 2018 with the Jets and this past season with the Rangers. He may not have a championship ring, but he has first-hand experience with what it takes to go on a long playoff run, and he has experienced the heartbreak that comes with falling short despite going on a successful run. That experience could one day lead to a letter on his sweater, joining Larkin as part of the Red Wings’ leadership group as they look to turn the page on the team’s ongoing rebuild.
Turning the page will be a lot easier given the many additions Yzerman made over the first two days of free agency, but progress rarely happens like a tidal wave – it will take some time before the Red Wings truly enter the conversation as a perennial playoff threat.
“It’s very similar to the teams I’ve played on in Winnipeg and New York where you kind of go from out of the playoffs and then all of a sudden you’re a contender,” Copp said. “…with a bunch of the additions, it’s an exciting time, and [I’m] just ready to take the team to the next level.”
For someone that grew up less than an hour away from Detroit, this the kind of opportunity that dreams are made of. For at least the next five years, Copp will be living the dream.
I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.