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Soapbox: Red Wings prepare to compete at the bottom

Red Wings

The Red Wings are a cap-tight rebuilding team that needs to look towards the future. However, with no money to spend, and a veteran-laden roster, the rebuild isn’t progressing as quickly as fans would like. Much like the Vancouver Canucks, the Wings seem stuck in a mix between old-school and new-school roster philosophy.

Off-Season Moves

Update 8/10/18: The Detroit Red Wings have signed Dylan Larkin to a five-year deal, worth $30.5 million. Larkin’s annual cap hit of $6.1 million becomes the most expensive hit on the Red Wings roster. It also pushes them above the cap ceiling, foreshadowing the Wings need to trade.

Red Wings
Photo credit: Rick Osentoski, USA Today Sports.

The Red Wings brought in/back a few veterans for the upcoming season. I am one of many fans that had a mixed reaction to this. Thomas Vanek, who was a great fit back in 2015-16, is back for another year. A constant deadline acquisition, GM Ken Holland made a head-scratching move handing Vanek a full no-trade clause. I think with a solid 20-30-point campaign before the deadline, and a chance to play for a contender Vanek could waive his no-trade. If that’s the case, and the Wings can get some picks out of it, it would be a solid move in my opinion.

Tending the Net

To fill the backup goalie position, Holland signed Jonathan Bernier to a reasonable 3-year, $3 million contract. It’s a hefty pay for a back-up, but I think Bernier is challenging to start. While he has been shaky in the past, Bernier put up a respectable campaign as Colorado’s back-up last season. He posted a .913 save percentage and 2.85 goals against average.

Photo by: Rick Osentoski, USA TODAY Sports

Starting around 20 more games than Bernier, Red Wing’s starter Jimmy Howard posted a .910 save percentage and 2.85 goals against. Having two capable goalies could help the Wings be competitive night-in and night-out. As a fan, I always like watching my team try every night. Sadly, the future of this team would be much brighter if the Wings weren’t so competitive this season. With Howard in a contract year, Bernier has the chance to reestablish himself in the NHL. At age 29, we’ve seen goalies have a resurgence, and Holland will certainly hope Bernier does.

Offensive Mentoring

The last acquisition, or retention, was to sign Mike Green to a two-year extension. This was a move that I personally loved. Green has been a great veteran presence on the d-line for the Wings, and they have many blue-chip prospects waiting to play in the NHL. With Green’s $5.375 million contract, it is also a huge payout for a 32-year old veteran.

With last season’s neck injury, I’m surprised that Green cost the Wings so much, but he was one of the few offensive d-men available on the market. Green’s offensive ability, and long career could help mentor some of the younger for the next two seasons. My bet is that Holland sees Green foster offensive ability in prospects like Filip Hronek, Joe Hicketts or Dennis Cholowski. These prospects may see playing time in the NHL at different moments, learning from the veterans so they can know what to expect when they join full-time. Below is a look at Green’s first career hat-trick, as well as some nifty apples from Vanek.

Holland committed money to older players this off-season, with the youngest addition being Bernier at 29. With the rest of the league fully embracing the youth movement, I think that Holland is afraid to take the risks associated with younger, raw talent. With Little Caesar’s Arena entering its second season, the novelty will begin to wear off. If the Wings can’t compete on home ice, the Red Wing’s organization will start to look bad. I imagine that by the time Green’s contract, and by extension, Holland’s contract as GM is over, the Wings will have a big shakeup in the management of the team.

Will Z play?

Red Wings
Photo by: Claus Andersen: Getty Images NA

The next biggest question many fans are looking at is if Wing’s captain Henrik Zetterberg will play this upcoming season. Both player and coach Jeff Blashill have been non-committal on the topic. With Z’s history of back-related injuries and issues, it’s no wonder that at 36 he is taking his time. However, Z has been able to perform and play consistently the past three seasons. For this, I imagine that he plays this coming season. I also think that it will be his farewell tour. There’s no question that Z loves the team and loves the fans. The team has changed drastically in the past decade, and with so many familiar faces gone or leaving after this season, Z will leave with them.

Veterans on the Way Out

Pavel Datsyuk left for his family two seasons ago. Nicklas Kronwall’s contract is up at the end of this season, and with his knee troubling him the past two seasons, he probably will call it a career. Gustav Nyquist was mentored by Zetterberg since joining the Wings, and there’s no guarantee he resigns after this season. That’s if he doesn’t get moved to a contender at the deadline. Even Tomas Tatar, traded last season to the Golden Knights, isn’t with the team anymore.

Red Wings
Courtesy of SKA St. Petersburg

Z has done his duty as the Red Wing captain since Lidstrom retired. He’s done his best to teach the kids responsibility and work ethic. He’s ready to pass the torch to Dylan Larkin, who is poised to lead the Wings. Some fans think that Justin Abdelkader could be the next captain, but if the Wings were smart, Abbie won’t be on the team for much longer either. Larkin is a young leader already, and with the team and league continually getting younger, he’s the obvious pick. Z has a storied career, and he’s won a cup. To save his health, he’ll leave with the other veterans after this season.

The Money Situation

The Red Wings are one of the teams in a terrible cap-crunch. They’ve invested money and term into a lot of middling players. Some of these contracts are coming off the books at season’s end. With a lot of key players recently drafted and developing in the AHL, next season could be looking extremely bright for the Red Wings. Here I’ll lay out who’s leaving, who might be traded, and who I think they’ll be stuck with for a while.

One Season Left
Red Wings
Photo by: Getty Images NA

If there’s one good thing to look forward to, it’s next season. A lot of money will be coming off the books in the form of expiring contracts. Kronwall’s entering his final season. Realistically with his health issues lately, this will be it or his career. With his $4.75 million gone, the Wings may start looking to young d-men in free agency. Nyquist is also likely gone, whether in trade or next summer. It’s highly unlikely he sticks around the retooling Wings, and Holland would be smart to grab some assets for him at the deadline.

Vanek’s deal will expire, as will Howard, Luke Witkowski, Nick Jensen, and Martin Frk. For this upcoming season, the Wings had little more than $2 million in cap space. With Larkin’s re-signing, the Wings will need to shed around $4 million to be cap compliant. For the 2019-20 season, the Wings have a projected cap space close to $24 million. They’ll need to have more players join the roster that season, but with younger players taking on greater roles on cap friendly deals, the Wings may be able to make an enticing offer towards some free-agents.

Gone in a Trade

The Red Wings are rife with potential trade bait, and there are deeper contracts they’d love to get rid of. First off, the number one trade target going into the season will be Andreas Athanasiou. AA has been a fan favorite, flashy moves and lightning speed have easily made him a must-watch. Problem is, they’re not always on display every game. Many have criticized AA’s commitment and work ethic, but his season can be explained away. AA missed all of training camp and the beginning of the season, which I believe accounts for his slow start.

The Wings recently signed AA to a one-year extension, teams will be looking for a low-risk, high-reward trade option to obtain his skill set.

Next up, we have the prime trade-deadline skaters. Gustav Nyquist has floated around deadline day for the past two seasons now, and with Tatar taken, Nyquist will be the Red Wings best bargaining chips. Vanek will be a close second if he strings together a good campaign and waives his no trade. Both wingers could be scoring threats that competitive teams may be looking to add to bolster their goal-scoring.

Red Wings
Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

Dark-horse candidates for teams with a bit more cap-space would be Abdelkader, Darren Helm, or Luke Glendening. Glendening’s name has also been used, as he is perfectly suited to a bottom-six, grind, and penalty killing style of play. Teams looking to add defensive responsibility to their forward group should target Glendening’s skill set. It’s hard to see any of the d-men targeted by teams, but if Trevor Daley or Jensen can string together an impressive season, there may be teams looking for the kind of depth they may offer.

Who’s Sticking Around

It’s hard to see the Wings losing a defenseman due to trade unless it’s a throw-in to reduce the cap hit. Danny DeKeyser gets $5 million through 2021-22, and his advanced stats don’t paint the best picture. I was a huge fan of DK when he first joined the team, as he and Jonathan Ericsson formed a formidable shutdown pair. Since that first season, DK and Ericsson haven’t been performing great. They’d work well as d-men on the third pairing, occasionally taking on second pairing minutes. Ericsson is also unlikely to go anywhere, as he is getting $4.25 million for the next two years.

As for the forward group, many of the overpaid players will likely stick around. Two of the dark horse trade candidates, Abdelkader and Helm, are two players unlikely to move. At $4.25 million for the next five years and $3.85 million for the next three years respectively, they cost too much for what they produce. Frans Nielsen also fits into this category, as he gets $5.25 million for the next four seasons. However, his ability to mentor a young center and defensive zone ability makes him more worth than some others. It’s hard to find a team willing to take on a moderate to large cap-hit without the deal being sweetened. Unfortunately, the Wings can’t afford to throw in picks or prospects to entice other teams. If anything, one may be packaged alongside AA to reduce the price of the speedy winger.

LTIR

Z may be able to “retire” on the long-term injured reserve after this season due to his back issues. This is the best-case scenario for the Red Wings, as the NHL will investigate how Z’s back actually affects his ability to play. If Z gets to retire without the cap penalty on LTIR, he’ll join teammate Johan Franzen. Franzen had a lively career with the Wings, and his career was sadly cut short due to concussion issues. Recently, his wife detailed how his life has been since he quit playing, and it’s hard to read. I miss Franzen’s on-ice contribution and grit and really hope that his recuperation improves. With these two on LTIR, the Red Wings would get around $10 million in cap-space relief.

Draft Day Steals Make the Future Bright

Filip Zadina and Cole Fraser: Photo by Mike Mulholland

The Red Wings and Holland were prepared and happy with their draft outlook coming into the 2018 NHL draft. Filip Zadina was projected as a number three or four pick, and it was up to the Montreal Canadians to decide whether they wanted a scoring winger or to pick more down the line for a much-needed center. They went with the center, Jesperi Kotkaneimi, and then the Senators opted for power-forward Brady Tkachuk. That left the Coyotes with the last pick before the Wings, and all eyes expected them to nab Zadina. The Wings, desperately needed talented D, were expected to grab Michigan boy Quinn Hughes. The ‘Yotes, went off-script however, drafting Barrett Hayton. Wings fans around the world lit up, as they realized that a talented sniper would be coming to Motown.

Zadina unexpectedly fell to the Wings, and I was ecstatic. Yes, the Red Wings need defenseman, but they’ve also had trouble scoring since Datsyuk’s last season. Zadina has the bravado and professionalism that comes with years of experience, but he’s still just a teenager. Whether he gets the chance to play alongside Zetterberg in his final season or down in the AHL, Zadina will be in the Wings lineup sooner rather than later.

Late round Steal
Red Wings
Courtesy of Drummondville Voltigeurs

Not much was expected out of the Red Wing’s first-round pick from the Golden Knights. It was the second to last in the first round, but the choice was clear. The Wings took Joe Veleno, and once again Wings fans were happy. In many mock drafts, Veleno was rated around the 15th selection. The fact that a big center like him fell to the 30th pick meant the Wings eschewed their need for d-men to grab a constant area of need in the NHL. Talented centers aren’t easy to find, just ask the Montreal Canadians. Veleno projects well, and if he can become a mid-six center in the NHL it will prove a great steal by the Wings.

While the Wings lost out on some chances to grab a truly talented defenseman, they did the right thing. Ex-GM Brian Burke always stressed the need to draft the most talented player instead of the need, and it was the philosophy Holland used on draft day. With his selections, the Red Wings youth movement has been accelerated a bit.

What I think the upcoming season looks like

Buckle up Wings fans, it’s going to be another rough season. I don’t imagine with the moves and youth learning that the Wings will improve much over last season. As the older veterans continue to wear down, i.e. Kronwall, the kids and prospects will hopefully get more and more ice time. Growing pains are to be expected, and they’ll be very important this season. Kronner and Z will be passing the torch down to other leaders, namely Larkin. His role will only increase, and players like Mantha, Bertuzzi, and one of the many young d-men will need to step-up.

Red Wings
Photo By: Kate Frese

Many of the stronger teams in the league got even stronger this off-season, and some others like the Canucks, Red Wings, and Canadians haven’t done much to improve. Those that were near the bottom last season project to do the same. The ‘Yotes and Sabres are the exception, having achieved more in the offseason that could allow them to move up in the standings. With the Wings adding veterans to the lineup, the lack of speed could push them further down than last season. While it pains me to see a team I love lose, what’s best for the Wings is to play the young guys. With that, falling in the standings helps increase the odds of a top-end prospect for the 2019 draft. Tanking is a word unspoken in the NHL, but the Red Wings look poised to lose more than they win.

Featured image courtesy of Getty Images NA

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