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Big decisions loom for Holland ...

 

Big decisions loom for Holland,

Wings as trade deadline approaches

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

Seven days remain before the National Hockey League’s Feb. 29 trade deadline. In other words, this is the week when general managers start to separate themselves from the pack by making sound decisions about the future of their teams. Or not.

 

Are they buyers looking to upgrade in hopes of earning a post-season berth or improving their playoff seed, or sellers dumping salary or upcoming unrestricted free agents in hopes of adding assets to build on?

 

This week is when Red Wings GM Ken Holland consistently reinforces his reputation as one of the best executives in professional sports. His team is in a cage match with a handful of other Eastern Conference teams for a trip to the playoffs for the 25th straight year. The pressure only intensifies. Trying to make a deal for the right players and fitting them with so little room to maneuver under the salary cap makes the job even more difficult.

 

That said, Holland rarely stands pat at the deadline. Expect him to make at least one trade, perhaps two as the club looks to upgrade its top-six forwards with a big body that can provide some net-front presence to help out Justin Abdelkader – the only one willing to go in the tough areas on a consistent basis. Holland also would like a bottom-six forward, particularly a penalty killer, in an effort to upgrade the fourth line. Wings fans are starting to realize now what a valuable asset the team had in Drew Miller, who is out for the season after a knee injury.

 

As for prospective trading partners, look no further than Columbus, which has a stunningly disappointing season and is looking to unload. The Wings logged a lot of miles down and back with scouts and team executives – including Holland – to assess the Blue Jackets.

Among the notable Columbus names to keep an eye on: Scott Hartnell, 33, a 6-foot-2, 214-pound left wing who likes to crash and bang and score goals. Another player the Wings covet – along with myriad other teams – is Winnipeg captain Andrew Ladd, 30, a 6-3, 205-pound left wing.

Hartnell has three years remaining on a contract that has a cap hit of $4.75 million this season. But his salary declines in the final two years, down a more favorable $3 million in 2018-19.

 

Ladd also knows how to use his size to his advantage by providing some scoring from in close He has a strong all-around game and would be an excellent complementary addition to Detroit’s top two lines and especially its power play. He likes to hit, is a natural leader and his teammates love him. He’s also an unrestricted free agent who in his next contract should get a raise in his next deal.

 

Other forwards whose names have been linked to Detroit: Michael Grabner, 28, 1 6-1, 187-pound right wing who has six goals and 11 points in 55 games with Toronto; Kerby Rychel, 21, a 6-1, 213-pound left wing and former first-round pick who wants out of Columbus, where he has two goals and nine points in 28 games; and former Wings forward Jiri Hudler, a 5-10, 183-pound center with nine goals and 32 points in 50 games with Calgary.

If the Wings are looking to upgrade their defense – and the smart money suggests they should with Niklas Kronwall showing signs of wear at 35 (and because longtime partner Jonathan Ericsson often looks lost without him), there are some quality guys on the market.

 

In the short term, they might consider veteran Dan Hamhuis, 33, a 6-1, 210-pound left-shot defender with Vancouver, who is on the last year of a deal that includes a cap hit of $4.5 million this season. He may not be a top-four guy, but he is a smart defenseman with great hockey sense, skates well and has a good point shot from the right side. He also can still log big minutes in a shut-down role, precisely what the Wings need more of if they have any hope of a playoff run. That explains why several other clubs, including the San Jose Sharks, are phoning Vancouver these days.

 

If Holland is to make a move for other than a rental on the blue line with an eye on the future, he may consider taking a run at Jacob Trouba, the Rochester-born defenseman who played at the University of Michigan. His name has surfaced recently as being available simply because the Winnipeg may not want to pay him what he can command, even as a restricted free agent.

 

Trouba, just 21 and the ninth overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, will expect something in the neighborhood of $35 million over six years – which may be too rich for Detroit’s asking, too, considering where they are with the salary cap. But Trouba, who had four goals among 13 points in 56 games with the Jets, has tremendous upside as an aggressive, physical skater with a good point and some offensive acumen – the perfect successor to Kronwall in a few years.

 

Holland has said repeatedly he won’t make a deal unless it results in a dramatic upgrade to his team. This would be it.

These are but a few names, and each of them has been linked to rumors involving several other teams, which drives up the price. Again, this is where managers put their reputations at risk. Deadline deals are almost always a roll of the dice.

 

Last year, the Wings gave up a third-round pick in this summer’s draft to New Jersey for free-agent defenseman Marek Zidlicky – a player they should have kept. They also gave up two 22-year-old prospects and a second-round pick for Erik Cole, who couldn’t finish the season because of a career-ending neck injury. One of those players, center Mattias Janmark, is a budding star in Dallas. That’s a huge chunk of the future for two guys who, in the end, couldn’t help push the Wings past the first round of the playoffs, again, in the final year of Mike Babcock’s coaching tenure in Detroit.

 

How much more of that future is Holland willing to risk in order to bolster a roster that can make the playoffs and do some damage in Jeff Blashill’s first season behind the bench? The Wings have plenty of prospects, especially on defense.

 

Kronwall’s return this week should push Xavier Ouellet out of the lineup again, and all he’s done in the past two seasons is shown he can play in the NHL. Ryan Sproul, Detroit’s second-round pick in 2011, is another Grand Rapids defenseman who is NHL ready. So is Nick Jensen, recalled by Detroit earlier in the season, though he didn’t play. All three lose their waiver eligibility before the start of next season; each could bring a decent return, if traded. And Jakub Kindl, who cleared waivers early in the season, could help several NHL clubs.

 

Also in Grand Rapids, Anthony Mantha’s first professional hat trick this week couldn’t have come at a better time. If Holland is willing to entertain offers for the team’s first round pick (20th overall) in 2013, he’ll have plenty of trading partners. Mantha, an offensively gifted 6-5, 200-pound center from Longueuil, Quebec, would look good in a Montreal Canadiens sweater, and GM Marc Bergevin, the former Wings defenseman, is in a trading mood after falling out of the playoff picture.

 

Winger Teemu Pulkkinen, a scoring machine in the American Hockey League, hasn’t been deployed consistently enough to show off his booming slapshot in Detroit. Every team building for the future should be interested in a young scoring winger like him.

It’s not just about the future, though. More than likely, Holland won’t be able to add NHL talent to his roster without subtracting some, simply to make the money work under the salary cap.

 

Which players might be available? Brad Richards hasn’t exactly been the second-line center the Wings were hoping he’d be when they signed him as a free-agent in July. And his pro-rated $3 million contract doesn’t subtract much. Plus, there’s probably not much of a market for a guy who has just six goals among 19 points in 45 games.

 

The one core player who has drawn plenty of interest in the past is Gus Nyquist, but he’s slumped this season with just 14 goals among 32 points in 59 games this season. And with three years and $15 million left on his deal, he may draw barely lukewarm interest. It looks now like the Wings vastly overpaid him.

 

Who else? Defenseman Jonathan Ericsson seems to have become the Red Wings’ version of Brandon Inge; fans just love to complain about him. But he isn’t going anywhere, nor should he. The guy is second to Danny DeKeyser among all Wings defenseman with a plus-8 rating. Tomas Jurco remains an enigma, but his upside is so high the Wings are understandably hesitant to move him just yet.

 

Decisions, decisions, with so much at stake. And nobody understands that better than Ken Holland, whose moves before Monday’s 3 p.m. deadline could make or break this Red Wings franchise.

 

 

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