The 2013 NHL free-agency period is upon us. For so many ardent hockey fans, the next couple days is the lead up to Christmas–this is essentially the holiday season. But no matter how good and patient the eager fan bases are, it’s the general managers who earn us the spoils. How many presents will us Red Wings fans have waiting under the tree after spending the late-evening of July 4. tossing and turning not just because we may have drank too much.
While the Wings used to be notorious for making marquee signings in the free-agency period, since the 2009 delivery of Marian Hossa, we’ve become accustomed to hearing one of three lines Ken Holland picks out of a hat:
1) Players were simply asking too much.
2) We feel the market will be better at the trade deadline.
3) Getting our current players healthy will be as good as any free-agent addition (my favorite)
Yes, the Wings standard has been to stand pat for the four off-seasons (and trade deadlines). Despite this, Holland continues to be celebrated by the lemming portion of the Wings fan base as the best general manager in all of sports–not just hockey. I’m trying to figure out how being brutalized and continuously overmatched in a cap-based market constitutes this merit bestowed upon him, but hey 2008 wasn’t THAT long ago, neither was 2002–actually the Wings have won all their recent Cups in the past 20 years and that’s pretty damn impressive! NO MORE 42 YEAR DROUGHTS! FREE PASSES FOR ALL!!!!
Sorry, I expect either a legitimate contender or a complete dismantle and rebuild. Since Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Kronwall are still anchoring here, I’m inclined to think the Wings are not in a true dismantle and rebuild, but signing Bertuzzi and Sammuelsson doesn’t send me a “reload” message either.
Despite the elderly-to-mediocre free-agent market that sits before Holland and the Wings, I believe they can still make a splash out of a puddle, making a savvy move to compliment a younger and more blissfully ignorant core of players that took the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks to a game 7 overtime of the Western Conference Finals (after blowing a 3-1 series lead).
Lets go over the Red Wings cap room, needs and potential targets on offense and defense.
WHAT THEY CAN AFFORD:
The Wings hold approximately $10,500,000 in cap space with a projected approximate opening of $3,500,000 per signee. This number is expected to shrink as the Wings reportedly have an offer out to re-sign aging, oft-injured forward, Dan Cleary at three years, $9 million per Helen St.James of the Detroit Free Press.
Hmm, giving a multi-year deal to an aging forward who is very familiar with the surgery-ward but ONCE did great things for this organization? Sounds EXACTLY like the logic put into bringing back Samuelsson and even Bertuzzi. Yes, I know Cleary is coming off a great playoff and has had some great seasons, but you’re about to give a pretty sizable cap-hit to a 34-year-old with a history of knee and shoulder problems. As tough as Cleary is, he’s still human and he’s still not scoring at a pace that dictates this money. I doubt any other team would offer him this type of a deal, making Holland’s stubborness all the more frustrating.
We heard the Wings halted talks with once-premier forward Vincent Lecavalier because he wanted more than two years. We’re also hearing Holland doesn’t want to give Suise-sophomore Damien Brunner more than three years, $2.5million. Yet Cleary–who is a year older than Lecavalier with more of an injury history and half the offensive skill and seven years older than Brunner with nearly half the offensive output in 2013–will get more years and money than the Wings offered them.
This organizational approach of loyally rewarding players for past accomplishments shows a lack of gumption by Holland and it’s hindering progress of the Wings moving forward–I mean literally, Holland keeps trying to recreate the past with the same players. The money he has tied up in Bertuzzi, Samuelsson and now Cleary (assuming he gets more upfront) equates to $8 or even 9 million in cap space that could’ve been put into addressing the holes on forward and defense.
Jamming up the roster with older, oft-injured players then over-paying them, has left the Wings with not much space to be creative. The Wings will be forced to target a second-line center as Valteri Filppula (thankfully) will be expected to sign elsewhere. This is the biggest priority and where they will likely spend their money.
TARGET AT FORWARD: A second-line center who can also play second power-play unit and kill penalties. Price range, $1.5 to 2.5 million cap-hit.
Stephen Weiss- Played his junior hockey with the Plymouth Whalers and was drafted fourth overall by the Florida Panthers in 2001. The 30-year-old center seems to have hit his stride the past five seasons, putting up around 60 points three of those five years. He’s scored 20-plus goals four times in his career and has playmaking ability, tallying 47 assists in the 2008-09 season. His began his career with several knee and shoulder problems but has stayed relatively healthy recently, though he missed most of last season with a wrist injury. Weiss would be economical and would fit perfectly with Mike Babcock’s two-way style of play. I would deem him a poorman’s Zetterberg, which isn’t bad for a what the Wings can afford.
Mason Raymond- A one-time second but now third/fourth-liner in Vancouver who is entering his prime at age 27. Raymond is known as one of the fastest skaters in the league and could spell the injury-troubled Darren Helm, who frankly may never be the same after a back injury that kept him out all but one game this past season. Raymond himself suffered a scary back injury in game 5 of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals that caused him to miss a significant chunk of the 2011-12 season but was mostly healthy last season. He has the ability to put the puck in the net, scoring 25 goals paired with current (sort of) Red Wing Mikael Samuelsson in 2009-10 and had a solid 10 goals in last year’s lockout shortened season. Raymond hasn’t accomplished enough to earn a raise and was paid $2.6 million last season, so he should fit right into the Wings budget. He should be looking to break out and would be playing in a similar quick, puck movement offense that he (at-times) flourished in.
Michael Ryder- He doesn’t come close to filling the responsibilities left by the impending departure of Filppula, but he fills the raw goal scoring touch needed since Hossa left in 2009. The Red Wings simply do not have a consistent goal scorer and Ryder has demonstrated on past teams he can be the man for that job. While playing three seasons in Boston, Ryder’s goal totals bottomed out at 18–a product of the Bruins north-south grinding offense that he never quite fit into. Despite low regular season goal totals in Boston, he had a solid 8 goals in 25 games, contributing to a Stanley Cup. He went from being considered a locker room “cancer” at the beginning of his career in Montreal, to a “glue guy” on a Cup team in Boston. On the Red Wings, he can sit on the wing and snipe, fitting well into their offensive system, being fed pucks from Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Ryder made $3.5 million last season. Despite having 35 points in 46 games, at his age (33), he’ll be inclined to take a pay cut, falling into budget.
Nik Antropov- The gigantic (6’6) veteran center is on the south end of his career after showing flashes as a highly-touted prospect early with the Toronto Maple Leafs. But like all Leafs prospects, the expectations were not fully met. Since his time in Toronto, Antropov poked through with 67 points for a bland Atlanta Thrashers team in 2009-10, but appears to have descended in production since, hovering around half-a-point per-game the past three seasons. The thought is bringing him on a team with a strong puck-possesion system would re-energize him and his point totals. Antropov can use his size as an asset to the Wings, who desperately lack it. He’ll no doubt be subject to a pay cut and should fall nicely into the second or even third wave of signings, where the Wings could scoop him up at half or even a third of his current $4.75million cap hit.
EXPENSIVE FORWARD FANTASY SIGNING:
Derek Roy- The undersized but highly skilled Roy has been somewhat of an enigma through out his career. He was the cornerstone to a revitalized and highly-powered Buffalo Sabres team in 05-06, 06-07 that made back to back Eastern Conference finals runs. When the Sabres had an organizational meltdown under a new ownership free-agency spending spree in 2011, Roy was singled out as the star player not willing to play a team game. He concluded that season by openly criticizing then-coach Lindy Ruff, which led to him being shipped to Dallas. His production has been poor to mediocre the past two seasons–partially due to injury, combined with the stigma of openly criticizing a coach, all of which will drop his value but not his asking price. Roy slides into the Wings system exorbitantly as Filppula’s replacement on the offensive end, which is what the Wings top priority has to be. He would be a 60-70 point producer for the Wings and significantly strengthen their power play. The two biggest road blocks will be his asking price; likely around $5 million and whether Babcock would be willing to work with a player known to have an attitude problem. I would try to lure him on a one year $4.5 million deal, similar to what the Carolina Hurricanes did with Alexander Semin last season.
Others to look out for: Viktor Stalberg, Kyle Wellwood, Matt Cullen, Tyler Bozak
TARGET AT DEFENSE: A cheap veteran defenseman with a right-handed shot and good vision to move the puck. Price range, $900k to $2 million
Joe Corvo- A 36-year-old looking for one last good contract, Corvo brings a strong right-handed shot and good vision to a young defensive group. The Wings could use his shot on the power play and his passing ability to get their stalled break-out going once again. When the Wings offense was at its best, they relied on their defensemen to start the play with a crisp first past–Corvo can be the man to deliver that pass. He fits in well for all the Wings needs defensively, it’s just a question of whether he’s lost too much speed to still be steady as they would need him to be in the neutral zone back. He’s been a healthy scratch a handful of times over the past two seasons. But if the Wings want a guy they could probably get at one year, $1 million dollar deal (maybe even cheaper) he’ll be a good bargain for his attributes alone. Holland took a similar risk on Carlo Coliacovo last season and while injuries continued to haunt him, when he played, he played solid. No reason not to take another chance at throwing scraps at a defenseman.
Ryan Whitney- If Holland wants a super-cheap reclamation project, Whitney would be perfect. He was once a highly sought-after young defenseman, who played the power play and produced offensively with the Pittsburgh Penguins, amassing 137 points in his first three seasons. Since, he only has 112 points in five injured-plagued seasons. When healthy, he’s proved to still be a physical (6’4, 210lbs), puck-moving defenseman but the problem is staying healthy has been near impossible for him. He’s missed 137 games due a series of foot injuries. The good news is he’s only 30 and will come down to likely no more than $2 million on a short-term deal. Whitney played for the U.S. in the 2010 Olympics, he’s played in the 2008 Stanley Cup–this is a defenseman who’s played in some big games and is still young enough to prove himself again at a bargain.
Michal Rozival- At 34, Rozsival won his first Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks, playing increasingly key minutes alongside fellow veteran Johnny Oduya. While his right-handed shot was never really put to use–he only scored one goal all year for Chicago–he ate minutes, cleared out ice for goaltender Corey Crawford, and was among hit and shot block leaders for Chicago in the playoffs. The Hawks should strongly consider bringing him back, he proved to be vital to a Cup at only $2 million last season. If the Hawks do let him walk, the Wings should get a bit gamey and rip him right off the market. Rozsival won’t contribute offensively but he’ll be everything else you could ask for in a defenseman at an affordable price.
(NOT THAT) EXPENSIVE DEFENSE FANTASY SIGNING:
Andrew Ference- He was apart of the toughest portion on the toughest team in the NHL. If you want grit on the blue line, you want Ference. He’s 34, undersized and doesn’t produce much offense, but he hits especially hard, is rarely out of position and manages the puck. He one of the smartest defensemen in the league and one of the game’s best leaders. I’m normally not an intangibles guy, but Ference is a player I’ll make an exception for. I’m not doubting Kronwall’s leadership or smarts, I’m saying the addition of Ference to Kronwall would stabilize this locker room and its young defenseman. You want Dekeyser, Smith, Kindl and Lashoff playing with and learning from a guy like Ference on and off the ice. He’d play good position, he’d play big minutes, he’d play gritty, he’d teach along the way. You would love him. At his age, he’s probably not getting a raise, but I expect his pay to stabilize as he has cache around the league and he’ll look for and be offered around $2 million. Depending on what the Wings can find offensively and how many years he wants, he could fit, I just doubt this will be as good of a match in Holland’s mind as it is in mine.
Others to look out for: Jordan Leopold, Rob Scuderi
TRADE TARGET: A second-line center, sniping power forward or puck-moving defenseman.
An excuse you’ll often hear for Holland’s inactivity during the pivotal free-agency period is, “OOOOOO Kenny’s just waiting for that trade deadline to strike!” Then he doesn’t do a thing during the deadline and then you’ll hear the inversion of that classic excuse for being out-witted.
Yet this season, with this free-agency market being underwhelming and the Wings carrying two extra forwards on their roster, some players will have to be moved. I think it’s likely the Wings will deal two forwards, a prospect and a defenseman for one of their three needs; second-line center, puck-moving defenseman, sniping power-forward.
Holland showed his hand at last Sunday’s NHL Draft, as it was heavily rumored he was in talks with Vancouver and Toronto for a defenseman. The Wings have always coveted Canucks Swedish defenseman, Alex Edler, and reportedly made a bid for him that fell through. While it was never specified what Leafs defenseman the Wings inquired about, GM Dave Nonis told Toronto Sports radio station The Fan 590, “…the assets coming back didn’t make sense.”
This takes me to another problem Holland has had; closing on trades. I could dig up speculation from three years ago but I’ll settle on this past season, when it was heavily reported several teams inquired about Filppula, and they had legitimate shot at steady defenseman Jay Bouwmeester for a first round pick; a move, that if you remember the third period collapse of game 6 against Chicago, probably would’ve made a significant difference.
Players who’ve been rumored to be up for grabs include Anaheim’s Bobby Ryan, Winnipeg’s Evander Kane, Boston’s Tyler Seguin and Minnesota’s Devin Setoguchi, all of whom would be that perfect sniper to fill one of the three off-season needs. Either Holland doesn’t have the assets to move as we’ve been told he does, or he can’t pull the trigger. I’m inclined to be believe he’s stuck dead between untouchables and immovable parts.
NOTABLE PLAYERS ON TRADING BLOCK THIS OFF-SEASON:
Tomas Tatar-The American Hockey League playoff MVP had 7 points in 16 games, while also getting power play time with the Wings in 2013. While cynics and scouts dig for holes in his game (mainly his lack of physique), he’s putting up real numbers. For whatever reason, the Wings have made him a low priority and seem in no-hurry to get him in the show on a regular basis. His two-way option expires at the end of this year, leading me to think he’ll likely be moved. Hopefully other teams view him with more respect, though I fear he’s been shopped and no one is biting. I just don’t want him on waivers. Either he gets a real shot, or the Wings get something for him.
Brendan Smith- He went from untouchable prospect to wildly inconsistent scapegoat for the Wings defensive woes this season. Smith had a couple remarkably rough games in the playoffs–game 1 and 6 against Chicago stick out sorely, but I recall the pivotal game 4 against the Ducks, where he was the best defenseman on the ice. He still has a ton of untapped potential but needs to skirt his lack of confidence. Smith reminds me of the last Red Wing to wear No.2; Jiri Fischer, who had collateral growing-pains before becoming a top-two defenseman right as his career was cut short. The Wings can shop him on this potential which cannot be lost on fellow GM’s.
Petr Mrazek- Some would say I’m on crack for suggesting this, but with Jimmy Howard’s lengthy contract extension and excellent play this past post-season, it’s obvious Mrazek will be nothing more than a steady back-up or quite the insurance plan. He might be the best goaltending prospect in all of hockey. The 21-year-old Czech played up his stock, starting with Toledo in the ECHL, quickly moving up to become the starter in Grand Rapids, even getting a couple emergency starts with the Red Wings. He’s still probably a year away from being a back-up, but he carried Grand Rapids to a Calder Cup, so his trajectory might simply be faster than most thought. Teams usually only trade for NHL-ready goaltenders because it’s such an unpredictable position, but Mrazek is red-hot and maybe could be thrown into a package deal. If he’s not trade-bait this off-season, he will be in the next two years.
Corey Emmerton- He doesn’t have much tangible value but he’s been a favorite of Babcock’s and if he likes you there must be something sound in your game that is liked league-wide. He’s a good penalty killer, decent on face-off’s, forechecks and plays position well and will even chip in a goal here and there. He’s your prototypical grinder and these types of players generate interest for how efficient they are come playoff time.
Patrick Eaves- He played about as hard as anyone in the playoffs and was in on a couple big goals. His impact on the penalty kill and defensively could not be understated. At 29, Eaves is still regarded for his bottom-six scoring potential and a fresh start would probably do him more good than it would the Red Wings to part ways with him. Still, parts need to move and he could have a lot of value, especially for a Western Conference team.
Jordin Tootoo- He only played half of one playoff game in the first round before being benched for taking a dumb penalty that lead to a power play goal. If he has no value in the playoffs, where’s his value in the trade market? He can hit and he can fight, and if you have zero to little skill but can hit and fight, some team somewhere will want you.
Johan Franzen- No, not really, but I can dream.
Thus concludes your off-season, free agency guide for the Red Wings. Hopefully we’ll finally have a transaction to be excited about, I think we all miss that Christmas in July feeling.
– Kyle Bauer
Kyle Bauer is an award winning college sports broadcaster and former Sports Director of WXOU 88.3fm, freelance journalist and radio producer who has been published in The Macomb Daily, mlive.com, Oakland Post and MIPREPZONE.com, follow him on Twitter @kyle_bauer