July 1, 2016
Red Wings shore up middle by landing
Nielson, Helm in free-agent trolling
By KEITH GAVE
Plan B turned out to be A-OK. Arguably better, in fact, than Plan A, though Red Wings fans mesmerized by the fantasy of Steven Stamkos coming to Detroit will find that hard to swallow.
Truth be told, after the first out of free agency this afternoon, the Wings are infinitely better than they were just seven days earlier – before General Manager made that improbable deal to rid the club of the $7.5 million cap hit on the remaining unused year of Pavel Datsyuk’s contract.
For an encore, Holland signed free-agent center Frans Nielson, who will fit rather nicely – he’s younger, healthier and nearly as productive, equally responsible defensively and just as dangerous in post-game shootouts – into the cavernous hole vacated by Datsyuk.
Nielson, 32, signed a five-year deal worth $31.5 million – a cap hit of $5.25 million. He recorded 20 goals among 52 points in 81 games for the New York Islanders last season. In 606 career games, he has 119 goals among 349 points. He is the highest-scoring Danish-born player in NHL history. He has missed just seven games in the past five seasons, while injuries have limited Datsyuk to an average of just 58 of 82 games the past three seasons.
In other words, Nielson (6-foot, 191 pounds) may not be a great Dane, but he’s a pretty damned good one.
Stamkos, the only superstar available in this year’s crop of unrestricted free agents, decided to stay with Tampa Bay for an eight-year deal worth $8.5 million a season. He would have cost the Wings – or any other club – upwards of $10 million to $11 million, and there reports that Buffalo was willing to through $12 million per season at him.
With the extra cash, the Wings were able to keep versatile forward Darren Helm, who two hours before the deadline agreed to a five-year deal worth $3.85 million to stay in Detroit. They also added Austrian Tomas Vanek, 32, a two-time 40-goal scorer limited to just 18 last season, after which the Minnesota Wild bought him out. He’s a right-shot winger who can play on their top two lines and bolster their meager power play. The Wings got him for one season at $2.6 million
Helm can center one of the best third lines in the NHL, or play the wing on one of the top two lines.
One of the fastest skaters in the NHL, he has the kind of speed to put defenses on their heels. There’s a reason why Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg wanted him on their flanks. Keeping Helm was more than a surprise; it was a bit of a coup. To be sure, he had other offers, some of them more substantial than what he’ll be paid in Detroit.
The Wings previously signed defensive forward Drew Miller, a shot-blocking, penalty-killing specialist, to a one-year, $1.025 million deal – another no-brainer.
Also Friday, the Wings re-signed defenseman Alexey Marchenko for $2.9 million over two years and diminutive free-agent winger Matt Lorito to a two-year, two-way contract worth up to $1.2 million -- $250,000 next season if he plays in Grand Rapids, as expected, and $575,000 if he plays in Detroit.
Marchenko was the first of four RFAs Holland needs to sign. The others, in order of priority: goalie Petr Mrazek, defensemen Danny DeKeyser and winger Teemu Pulkkinen.
That’s hardly the end of Holland’s to-do list, however. His team remains desperate for help on the blue line, but with a thin crop of free-agent defenseman, help more likely to come via trade. Salary cap implications make that a more difficult process these days – trading the money is much more complicated than players in today’s deals – but Holland has made no secret of his intentions to improve his team’s defense.
He’d also like to find a new home for goaltender Jimmy Howard, but the market softened considerably after last weekend, when Calgary and Toronto filled critical needs. Holland’s best bet now is to hold his cards until training camp, or early in the season, when injuries or poor performances by expected No. 1 goalies force teams to look elsewhere for help. Until then, Howard’s nearly $5.3 million cap hit will be a drag on the franchises finances.
Meanwhile in Tampa Bay – a Stanley Cup finalist two years ago and a Western Conference finalist this spring – GM Steve Yzerman somehow managed to convince Stamkos to stay on a serious hometown discount, but he also signed his best defenseman Friday, inking Victor Hedman to an eight-year deal worth $7.875 million per season.
That’s among the best one-two punches in hockey, and they’re both on board for eight years. Yet another example of why Yzerman finds himself among the ranks of the best executives in hockey – and the leading candidate to succeed Holland when Yzerman’s contract expires in 2019.