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Red Wings in futile pursuit of top free agent Stamkos

 

June 27, 2016

 

After dumping Datsyuk contract, Red Wings

in futile pursuit of top free agent Stamkos

 

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

BUFFALO, New York – Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland reminded the hockey world once again why he’s widely ranked among the best in the business, opening up $7.5 million in salary cap space by dumping Pavel Datsyuk’s contract without giving up much.

 

But that challenge pales in comparison with his efforts this week to sign Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos, the top unrestricted free-agent who has inspired a budget-busting bidding war the likes of which the NHL hasn’t seen in years.

 

Holland better have a Plan B, because it’s highly unlikely that Stamkos – who could slide right into the top-line center role vacated by Datsyuk – will wind up in Detroit. For myriad reasons.

 

Foremost, the money. Even if the Wings offer Stamkos the $10 million a season he may think he deserves, they’re likely to get outbid. Toronto and Buffalo are among the most serious suitors, with some suggesting that Buffalo could offer as much as $12 million a season. Boston, Montreal, the Islanders and Rangers in New York and Vancouver also are in pursuit.

 

And Tampa Bay has made what GM Steve Yzerman described as a “take it or leave it” offer believed to be in the range of $68 million for eight years, or an average of $8.5 million a season. When Stamkos involves his accountants in the process, he may learn that this might be his best offer considering that Florida does not have a state income tax.

 

Consider, too, that it’s been a long time since the Wings have signed a top free agent. Hockeytown isn’t exactly a destination city these days as the franchise has taken to considering just making the playoffs and continuing its impressive streak to be a successful season. A few years ago, the thinking was that players didn’t want to come because of coach Mike Babcock. But based on the debacle behind the bench last season when an inexperienced coaching staff took the team backward, it’s not a good look from the perspective of a player who has a choice.

 

If the Wings ponied up $10 million to $11 million a season, there’s not much left in the $19 million of projected cap space to do everything else on Holland’s list. That includes signing restricted free agents Danny DeKeyser and Petr Mrazek, both of whom have earned hefty raises, and trying to re-sign UFA’s Darren Helm. The Wings re-signed penalty-killing specialist Drew Miller on Monday, a good move, but signing Stamkos almost certainly will cost them Helm.

 

All this ignores the fact that despite Datsyuk’s departure, a top-six center isn’t Detroit’s most pressing need. Dylan Larkin can anchor a top line along with Henrik Zetterberg. What the Wings need most is a top pair defenseman – and none are available in the free-agent market, suggesting

Holland may wind up trying to consummate a blockbuster trade – and he’s been talking. The top names out there are Kevin Shattenkirk of St. Louis (impossible if the price is Larkin) or Cam Fowler of Los Angeles – who is more of a No. 3 defenseman than a top-tier guy.

 

In other words, the four defenseman the Wings drafted in Buffalo a few days ago can’t grow up fast enough. Which takes us back to the trade in the middle of the first round Friday night that stunned the NHL. The Red Wings were on the clock, which read double-zeroes, and still Holland sat at the head of the Detroit table with a blank look on his face. At the Arizona table, rookie GM John Chayka, the youngest NHL boss at 26, was in his first high-stakes poker hand.

 

Fifteen other teams had made their selections, and now it was Detroit’s turn. Both GMs were deliberating a move that was only possible because defenseman Jakob Chychrun – who had been rated by scouts as high as second overall with the season began – was still on the board. To be sure, Chychrun might have looked good in a Red Wings uniform one day.

 

But Chayka, an analytics expert, saw this as an opportunity to put his rebuilding process into overdrive, eventually agreed to take the Datsyuk contract, swop first-round picks with Detroit and throw in a second-round pick to take Chychrun, who scouts say could play in the NHL this season for the Coyotes. Four picks later, the Wings also took a defenseman, Dennis Cholowski, a fleet skater with well-rounded skills who is probably four years away from the NHL. At 6-foot-1, 176 pounds, he needs to fill out some to survive in professional hockey. He’s signed to play college hockey at St. Cloud State.

 

With their two second-round picks, the Wings added gritty right wing Givani Smith (46th overall) and defenseman Filip Hronek (53rd overall). Later, they selected defenseman Alfons Malmstrom (fourth round/107th overall), defenseman Jordan Sambrook (fifth round/137th overall), goaltender Filip Larsson (sixth round/167th overall) and left wing Mattias Elfstrom (seventh round/197th overall).

 

While it’s nearly impossible to evaluate the success of a draft, since the players are so young, trading the Datsyuk contract made this an A-plus event for the Holland and the Red Wings.

 

Now comes the hard part. Open season on free agents begins at noon on Friday, which means that a week from today we should have a pretty good idea where the Red Wings are headed next season.

 

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Men against boys?

 

At the top of the fifth inning of Sunday’s Cleveland-Detroit game at Comerica Park, the good folks at Fox Sports put up a graphic of mind-numbing statistics. The Indians were 8-0 against the Tigers to that point, outhitting Detroit .301-.187; with 31 extra-base hits to 11 for Detroit; scoring 6.4 runs per game to Detroit’s 2.1; with a 1.71 ERA to Detroit’s 8.53.

 

And then it got ugly. Tigers ace Justin Verlander gave up back-to-back homers, erasing a Detroit lead. Then he gave up two more in the same inning en route to a 9-3 loss and dropping to 0-9 against the Indians. The Indians have outscored Detroit 60-20 in those games. The sweep dropped the Tigers to fourth in the Central Division, seven games back of first-place Indians.

 

Verlander, who had been pitching very well the last six weeks or so, tied a career-high by allowing eight runs. It was the 15th time a Tigers starter gave up at least six runs this season, most in the American League and just one behind San Diego.

 

The Tigers have a much-needed, if not entirely deserved, day off today before concluding their home-stand with two games against Miami. Then they head out on 11-game road trip – four at Tampa Bay, three at Cleveland and four at Toronto before breaking for the MLB All-Star Game.

 

Then GM Al Avila will have to figure out whether his team will be a buyer or seller again at the Aug. 1 trade deadline. The smart money (or the diehards) say they’ll be buyers. They’d better buy some pitching.

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