2017 Detroit Red Wings Free Agency Preview

Another summer, another silly off-season finale to prepare for. A time for overpayments, deals that eventually have players overstay their welcome, an investment in the grit and hard-nosed grinders that Twitter defecates all over, and, the occasional shrewd and smart move. Unrestricted free agency is nearly upon us, and the Detroit Red Wings are reportedly looking to be ones to dip their feet in the proverbial waters. Now, this isn’t a major strength for general manager Ken Holland post-salary cap as we all know.

Dan Cleary (after 2011), Stephen Weiss, Mike Modano, Jordin Tootoo, Carlo Colaiacovo, and Mikael Samuelsson (the second time) are among recent misses, and Frans Nielsen could join that list as he ages. However, in the midst of these flops, there were some successes. Brian Rafalski, Samuelsson (the first time), Daniel Alfredsson, Todd Bertuzzi, and Thomas Vanek were all solid moves that aided the Wings when they were a relevant contender or thought to be one with the last example.

However, it is now 2017, the playoff streak is gone, and Detroit is backing into a new arena with cap restrictive contracts and an uncertain future with Holland’s enigmatic mission.

Detroit Red Wings Free Agency Preview

Holland also told The Athletic Detroit that he “wants the fans to see a playoff game in Little Caesar’s Arena this season.”

It is an intriguing course of action for a general manager entering the last season of his contract. He knows this really could be it for him after two decades at the position that he declined to step away from to take on a higher role in the organization. This would have made room for one Steve Yzerman. At the “Farewell to the Joe” ceremony fans serenaded Yzerman with “Come home Stevie” chants as Holland watched from his box, alone. In Tampa Bay since he took over in 2011, the team has won five playoff series including an Eastern Conference crown; despite missing the playoffs three times. Holland’s Wings have won one in that span. This debate is for another day, however.

With Holland’s unwillingness to proceed through a rebuild and continue to live in hockey purgatory, the Wings will look to be pretty active on July 1st, already reportedly in the market for a defenseman or two. Here’s the cap situation as of now. The team received an additional $2 million in space from the recently voted on cap increase.

Detroit Red Wings Silly Season Financials

Projected Cap Hit:
$67,554,545

Projected Cap Space:
$7,445,455

Team Restricted Free Agents:

Tomas Tatar
Andreas Athanasiou
Xavier Ouellet
Robbie Russo
Martin Frk

Team Unrestricted Free Agents:

Joe Vitale
Drew Miller
Jake Paterson
Mitch Callahan
Edward Pasquale

Housekeeping

On the restricted side, the Wings will need to pay Tomas Tatar. It’s no secret. With Gustav Nyquist making $4.75 million per season, Tatar will likely command above that in the $5 million range, especially coming off of a 25-goal season. He was the only forward on Detroit to score at least 20 this season. He is also arbitration eligible, so this could drag out into the summer with the amount of space Detroit has.

As for Athanasiou, his contract will be relatively smaller, but he’ll likely want in the range of $1.5-$2 million with his 18-goal performance this season. He did it amid low ice times and with a less than impressive supporting cast. Defenceman Xavier Ouellet will not be that expensive making just $715,000 last season, and likely will hover around $1 million. This will also hold true for Russo and Frk. These roster hopefuls who will make a shade above $750,000 most likely. The former had a second consecutive 30-plus point AHL season earning a call-up. The latter scored 27 goals for the second consecutive AHL season getting re-acquired on waivers.

Happy Trails…Mostly

Ben Street, Dylan McIlrath and Brian Lashoff were each re-signed in the past few days, leaving just five unrestricted free agents remaining. Vitale will leave having never played a game for the Red Wings due to injury. He was acquired as a contract dump in the Pavel Datsyuk trade. Miller’s time with Detroit should be over, as between being a low-quality possession player, and non-existent goal scorer, others are ready to climb over him on the depth chart. Just being a penalty killer will not cut it for him anymore.

Paterson, a former third round pick, was not given qualifying offer. With the signing of goaltender Matej Machovsky his spot is essentially filled. The same goes for Pasquale, Jared Coreau‘s back-up in Grand Rapids last season. Callahan looks like a career AHLer at this point. The Wings will probably bring him back yet again on a short-term deal unless he wants a shot at the NHL elsewhere on a possible one-way deal. To his defense, he has only been given five games of NHL experience.

July 1st Outlook

The Tatar contract won’t be signed right away, citing Holland’s mission in pursuing some free agent defensemen. He doesn’t have to be salary cap compliant until the end of training camp in September. He’ll have plenty of time after July 1st to evaluate the roster financials. This could involve moving one of Jimmy Howard or Petr Mrazek or even perhaps a trade of Gustav Nyquist for some defensive help. It’s hard to guess where Holland will go with either.

Reported Targets

Dan Girardi

Defense, Shoots Right
6’1″, 212 lbs
Age: 33 (This Past April 29th)
2016-17 Cap Hit: $5.5 million

Bought out of his six-year, $33 million contract signed in 2014 with three years remaining, Girardi fell out of favor with the New York Rangers fairly quickly. Not an offensive defenseman to begin with, he saw his third consecutive year of declining point totals from 20 to 15 this past season.

He didn’t back things up defensively either. Since signing the deal, Girardi has posted a 44.13% Corsi-for percentage in the last three years combined. That number is fifth-worst in the NHL among defensemen that played at least 1500 minutes. His Corsi-against per 60 in that span was 63.30, the second-worst mark among blueliners. Reportedly, he looks to be signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning. This saves the scare of the Wings taking a chance on him. He’d likely slide in the $2.5-3.5 million price range on a one or two-year deal.

Ron Hainsey

Defense, Shoots Left
6’3″, 210 lbs
Age: 36 (This Past March 24th)
2016-17 Cap Hit: $2.8 million

Hainsey would likely slot next to Mike Green on the first pairing. He would fill the role Danny DeKeyser could not graduate to last season. He was a part of arguably the best pairing the Penguins had in the playoffs on their way to the Cup. Hainsey slotted with Brian Dumoulin. It was also Hainsey’s first Stanley Cup Playoff run in his career. He logged 21:07 per night. Since 2011, he’s logged at least an average of 21:00 per game. Overall, however, he’s an average defenseman on both sides of the puck and will not provide much offense with just 17 points last year.

Hainsey’s never topped ten goals offensively. He has posted over 30 points in a season three times, all coming from ’06-09. Out of 133 defensemen that played 1000 minutes this season, he ranked 66th in overall possession at a 49.98 Corsi-for percentage. This includes being 96th in Corsi-against per 60 minutes at a 57.19 mark. He did rank 45th in terms of Corsi-for per 60 at a 57.14 mark, but played in excellent shot attempt-generating systems in Carolina and Pittsburgh. He’d still get a raise from his $2.8 million though, and would be in the $3-$3.5 million range after his playoff.

Brian Campbell

Defense, Shoots Left
5’10″, 192 lbs
Age: 38 (This Past May 23rd)
2016-17 Cap Hit: $1.5 million

Campbell is not getting any younger. He is coming off of a season in which he finished with 17 points. It is the lowest mark for him in a year of playing 60 games or more in his 17-season career, and is living proof of the decline. It’s a far-cry from his prime that included eight 30-plus point seasons.  Normally a solid possession defenseman, his mark dipped to 48.94% this season in 80 games with Chicago. This also included a 55.23 corsi-against. The previous three years combined in Florida, his Corsi-for percentage was 53.28%, 17th among 140 defensemen to play at least 2500 minutes.

His even strength defense was also a plus, posting a 47.02 Corsi-against per 60 to rank seventh amongst that group. He did shift around the lineup with four different partners this season. He’d be a mainstay on the power play as well, carrying a pedigree that carries four 20-plus man advantage-point seasons. However, he’s only posted 37 power play points total since 2013. The Wings power play needs all it can get, as Mike Green has 30 5-on-4 points combined in in the two years he’s played for Detroit, more than the rest of the blueline combined (27). Given a consistent partner and a power play role, Campbell could work as a short-term option and shouldn’t cost north of $2 million.

Trevor Daley

Defense, Shoots Left
5’11″, 195 lbs
Age: 34 (This October 9th)
2016-17 Cap Hit: $3.3 million

According to Elliotte Friedman, he may already unofficially be a Detroit Red Wing. However, negotiations can change, as the Boston Bruins seem to be pressing hard for his services as well. Either way, he’d be the only multi-Stanley Cup ring holder on the team. Times have changed. Holland is likely going for the experience here as well as a piece to play on the penalty kill, where he logged 133:02 in just 56 games. Speaking of durability, outside of an outlying 2015-16 campaign where he suited up in all 82 games, Daley since 2013 has not suited up for at least 70 games in a single season.

At even strength, Daley tumbled to a 46.27% Corsi-for percentage this season and really has not been that impressive in his career in that regard averaging a 48.89% mark the past three seasons. The Toronto native has bagged 25-plus points six times in his career, but that isn’t enough offense to compensate for a declining defensive game, and it’s hard to say if he can put up those totals with Detroit’s lack of superstar talent up front unlike Dallas or Pittsburgh. He will likely cost upwards of $3.5-$4 million and may command a multi-year contract. Nothing can be changed if Detroit has already committed, but if not, they’d be smart not to invest here.

Intriguing Experiments

Mikhail Grigorenko

Center/Winger, Shoots Left
6’3″, 209 lbs
Age: 23 (This May 16th)
2016-17 Cap Hit: $1.3 million

Not qualified by Colorado and a former 12th overall pick, Grigorenko has not had the best development process. He’s coming off of just his second full season with the disastrous Colorado Avalanche and managed to have some decent success as one of their few bright spots, scoring ten goals and 23 points in 75 games. In 68 contests spread over three years with Buffalo from 2013-15 when they were in McDavid mode, he scored just six goals and 14 points. Sure, Grigorenko’s Corsi-for percentage was 45.51% the past two years, but his on-ice goals-for percentage was 47.76%, fourth-best on the team minimum 1000 minutes of ice time. On the rare occasion that the Avs do score, he’s one that’s usually on the ice.

There are questions of his compete level and effort, favorite qualities of Jeff Blashill, and he has not had much to play for to start his career. The Red Wings won’t have much to play for this season either, but may be able to utilize Grigorenko effectively as a fresh starter on a one or two-year contract on the cheap. There are a actually a few solid complementary forwards on Detroit that could aid the Khabarovsk native in growing his game. The depth chart is clogged with centers already, so Detroit may have him move to the wing or make a corresponding move to deal one of their centers away if they truly have interest in trying to revitalize him. The best bet would be to give him a shot at his natural position of center.

Sam Gagner

Center/Winger, Shoots Right
5’11″, 200 lbs
Age: 28 (On August 10th)
2016-17 Cap Hit: $650,000

This would be strictly power play help. Gagner last season had the Columbus Blue Jackets take a chance on him and he was one of the best value signings of the year next to Jon Marchessault. He tied a career high in goals with 18 and broke through for a new career-high in points with 50, 18 of them on the man advantage including eight goals. He’s one that can play up and down the lineup and, primarily staying in the bottom six, actually had some possession success.

Sure, Gagner only played 860 minutes of even strength time signifying his reliance as a PP specialist, but in that time he complied a 54.14% Corsi-for percentage including 60.21 Corsi-for per 60 minutes, with a +5.8 shot attempt relative rate when he’s on the ice. That would be a huge upgrade to Detroit’s relative black hole bottom six group. His power play contribution as a right-handed shot cannot go unnoticed either. He’ll likely be commanding a significant amount of money after a career season, as he isn’t far removed from a three-year contract with Edmonton that paid him $4.8 million per campaign.

Radim Vrbata

Right Winger, Shoots Right
6’1″, 194 lbs
Age: 36 (This Past June 13th)
2016-17 Cap Hit: $1,000,000

It would be nice to have more than two NHL-caliber right wingers in Detroit, and Vrbata on a one-year deal would fit that bill. He’s a six-time 20-goal scorer and five-time 50-pointgetter that could slide onto the top line with Henrik Zetterberg and contribute on the power play, scoring four goals and 15 points last season on an Arizona man advantage (16.2%, 26th) that saw him as the only forward to score more than ten 5-on-4 points. He was also the only 20-goal scorer on his team leading the Coyotes in points with 55. Only three other forwards on his team scored at least 30 points.

Vrbata is also one not to shy away from firing it on the net, as he lead the Coyotes with 233 shots on a team that averaged only 27.8 per game as a team to tie for 28th in the league. Zetterberg lead Detroit with 195 shots last season. Anthony Mantha enjoyed a career year last season, and could interchange with Vrbata on Zetterberg and Nielsen’s wings without stunting his growth as a top-six forward. There is an opportunity for this to be a nice sign-and-flip at the trade deadline if Vrbata performs. The last time he was up for a contract and left Arizona, he was paid $5 million per season for two years by the Canucks. Though he’s up for a pay raise, the Wings if it gets to that point would be smart to back out.

Nikita Nesterov

Defense, Shoots Left
5’11″, 191 lbs
Age: 24 (This Past March 28th)
2016-17 Cap Hit: $725,000

If the Wings truly want a stop-gap, they could get a cheaper, less-experienced option in Nesterov that they could keep around if they wanted to. At 24, he’s never played more than 57 games in a season to this point, but is a yeomen’s defenseman. He won’t wow, but will quietly go about his business and actually provide some offense from the back-end, scoring four goals and 17 points in just 48 games last season.

In 132 career games, his Corsi-for percentage is at 52.56%, with a 51.31 Corsi-against per 60. There obviously will be some questions on whether he can perform the same way in a full season, and he’s gotten some sheltered minutes playing an average of 15:38 per night so far. Nesterov wouldn’t cost much however, and would be depth when the Wings trade Green at the deadline. In the future, he could be a strong depth defensemen when Jonathan Ericsson and Niklas Kronwall‘s days as Wings are over and Dennis Cholowski, Vili Saarijarvi and Joe Hicketts graduate.

Not Going to Happen

Names like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Kevin Shattenkirk, Alexander Radulov, Jaromir Jagr, and Justin Williams will all be out of the price range in Detroit’s limited cap. Do not count on any of those names being linked to Hockeytown with their preference already being cheap, veteran defense. Besides, there is no need for any of these players for the stage the team is in right now. All would want shots on contenders and/or big money, something the Wings cannot shell out willingly at this point. Besides, it is better to wait next year’s free agent class, which will be delved into shortly.

What the Approach Should Be

The Wings are tied in cap crunching contracts already, and this July 1st there is an opportunity to delve deeper and deeper down with warning signs on almost every free agent target the Wings have on their radar. Honestly, the team should do nothing at all unless it involves taking a flyer on a forward to play in the top-nine for trade bait, as their defense is crowded with youngsters needing some minutes. The purpose for any of these possible signees on the back-end would be the role of a stop-gap for youth.

However, there are some already vying for spots like Xavier Ouellet and Nick Jensen, who both logged quite a few games last season playing admirably in their first full NHL campaigns. Joe Hicketts looks to be on the upswing with an impressive first AHL season scoring 34 points. Russo is also another offensive piece. Ryan Sproul may have to be put on waivers if a veteran is signed. Another defenseman would just stunt one of these players’ growth. If Kronwall was on long-term injured reserve or Ericsson was bought out, it would be a different story and one of their targets would be digestible as a veteran presence to stablize things, but that’s not the case.

Predictions, Conclusion

It’s difficult to predict a season as silly as this, but the Wings may have an added advantage with a new building opening up despite their direction towards a rebuild. They will land a defenseman out of Holland’s obsession to acquire one, but don’t count the Wings out of taking a chance on a trade-bait forward like Gagner or Vrbata. Grigorenko is tempting, and Detroit took a chance on a veteran forward that had a slow compete level in Minnesota by the name of Thomas Vanek last season. If anything it’d be a replacement of Riley Sheahan on the depth chart if he doesn’t bounce back next season.

Overall, it’s a very weak class this year versus possibly next when John Tavares, Daniel Sedin, Henrik SedinRick Nash, Paul Stastny, Mikko Koivu, Evander Kane, James van Riemsdyk, Bryan Little, James Neal, Patric Hornqvist, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and John Carlson may be among the names out there come July 1st, 2018. This year is about as little activity as possible, making shrewd moves that could be trade deadline pieces for acquiring more assets.

But, as we’ve learned post-salary cap, one never knows with Ken Holland.

Main Photo:

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