January 23, 2017
Wings GM Holland has few options
as NHL trade deadline approaches
BY KEITH GAVE
The Red Wings have put together an improbable winning streak against three of the best teams in the Eastern Conference to pull within four points of a playoff berth.
That has a lovely ring to it, but do not be fooled. A closer look at the NHL standings suggests the Wings remain a very, very long shot to make the Stanley Cup tournament of 16 teams for the 26th straight season.
Indeed, with 46 points Detroit is four points back of Toronto and Ottawa, tied for third in the Atlantic Division. But both those teams have three games in hand on the Wings. Second-place Boston – the team the Wings beat in a shootout Wednesday night by overcoming a pair of three-goal deficits – is technically closer. The Bruins sit at 52 points, six ahead of Detroit. But in this matchup, the Wings have three games in hand. Win all of them and they can catch Boston – while both Toronto and Ottawa are more likely to battle for second and third.
And let’s not forget two other teams still in the race: Florida, last season’s Atlantic Division champs, and recent nemesis Tampa Bay. Both clubs, beset by injuries to key players much like Detroit has been all season, remain in contention.
So six teams sit separated by six points, and any of them, technically, still has a chance to claim a playoff spot. But then there’s this: Detroit’s total of just 14 regulation or overtime wins – an important factor as a playoff tiebreaker – is better than only Arizona (9) and Colorado (13).
The Wings have been lights-out good in the skills competition this season, with a league-best 6-0 record in shootouts, but they have to stockpile more points by winning in regulation, or at least OT. And they cannot afford to give up any more points, especially to divisional opponents, by allowing their wins to go past 60 minutes. Starting with Friday night’s visit to Buffalo for a 7 p.m. face-off.
So despite all outward appearances, we should be talking less about Detroit’s chances of making the post-season and more about what they should be doing now, or soon, to begin a new streak when they move into the spectacular new Little Caesars Arena next fall. The NHL trade deadline is at 3 p.m. on Feb. 28.
With the longest active playoff appearance streak of any pro sports team almost certain to expire, it’s unlikely in the extreme that the Wings will be buyers. That could change, obviously, if they get healthy and string together enough wins to get a lot closer to a playoff berth than they are now. But we’ve seen this act before, eh? Swapping talented young players who are enjoying nice careers with other teams now for rentals that help the Wings eke into the post-season only to lose in the first round.
If they’re not buyers, however, to they sell or stand pat?
The smart money is on GM Ken Holland trying to shed salary, which is a lot harder than it sounds. The team has no cap space, the result of over-paying too many players for contracts that have done nothing but ensure mediocrity for years to come unless Holland can get the payroll in order.
Problem is, the only player of any interest to playoff-bound teams – among those the Wings would even consider trading – is Tomas Vanek. With a team-high 12 goals and 31 points in 34 games, the 33-year-old Austrian has done all the Wings could have asked of him when they signed him to a one-year deal worth $2.6 million. That’s a cap-friendly number for a lot of teams.
But if the Detroit Red Wings – with a full roster of healthy players – are closer to the upper-echelon teams than they are to the bottom-feeders, then shouldn’t Vanek be considered as a player worth more than a bargaining chip, a hired gun to trade away for a package of prospects or draft picks? If he wants to stay in Detroit as he has said publicly, wouldn’t it be prudent to try to keep him with a contract extension?
Beyond Vanek, the Wings have their nucleus of much-coveted youngsters like Anthony Mantha, Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou they have no intention of trading, and a whole bunch of other ones that, by virtue of their age, health, contract status or performance, are pretty much un-tradeable. No longer is there much interest in Tomas Tatar or Gus Nyquist, as there was a year or two ago. Those two have proven definitively that they are, at best, very average wingers in the NHL.
Who else? Tomas Jurco, a ridiculously overpaid spectator at $950,000, has merely proven he can’t play in the league. Riley Sheahan? Once thought to be the prototypical second-line center the Wings thought they were getting? He, too, is proving he can’t compete at this level: No goals and just seven assists in 43 games, with a minus-13 rating. All that for a mere $2.075 million a season?
Goaltenders Jimmy Howard or Petr Mrazek? You can bet Holland would part with either one of them for a bucket of pucks, just to shed salary. Yes, Howard was the team’s MVP until he went down with another injury after taking the starter’s job from Mrazek. But at $5.2 million a season and injury-prone the last three years, Howard is Kryptonite in the trade market. But so is Mrazek, who after signing a two-year deal worth $4 million – again way too much considering his track record – just continues to struggle with consistency.
As well as he played before he was hurt, Howard ranks 34th statistically among NHL goaltenders. But Mrazek, Detroit’s so-called goaltender of the future, ranks 56th. Rookie Jared Coreau, at 5-1-1 with two shutouts to his credit, ranks 13th.
Bottom line: Don’t expect the Wings to do much at the trade deadline, only because Holland doesn’t have many options. His hands are tied, but he twisted the knots himself.