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With Priority 1 Free Agent...

June 30, 2016

 

With Priority 1 free agent Stamkos off

the board, what do Red Wings do now?

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

So Plan B it is.

 

The Detroit Red Wings and at least a half-dozen other teams taking a run at Steven Stamkos – the NHL’s top unrestricted free agent – will have to look elsewhere in a tight market for help heading into next season.

 

Stamkos, 26, the Tampa Bay captain and one of the game’s most prolific goal-scorers, is returning to the Lightning after agreeing to an eight-year deal worth a reported $68 million.

 

Free agents can sign with other teams starting at noon Friday, and Wings General Manager Ken Holland has about $20 million burning a hole in his pocket. That’s what’s available for him to spend in available salary cap space. But about half that will go toward signing Detroit’s own restricted free agents: defensemen Danny DeKeyser and Alexey Marchenko, goaltender Petr Mrazek and winger Teemu Pulkkinen.

 

At the top of his shopping list: a center who can anchor a top line to fill a gaping hole left by the departing Pavel Datsyuk; goal-scoring wingers, preferably someone with some size who will show up in the playoffs; and a top-pair defenseman.

 

The market for free-agent defensemen is thin, and the only way the Wings are likely to get one is through a trade – and the price will be steep. The only way they can put Tomas Tatar or Gus Nyquist in a package is if Holland is successful at reeling in some free-agent forwards in the next 48 hours or so.

 

High on his Plan B list: Centers Frans Nielsen and David Backes and wingers Milan Lucic – widely believed to be signing with Edmonton – Kyle Okposo, Loui Eriksson, Andrew Ladd and Mikkel Boedker. All of these players will have many suitors; remember, each of those teams courting Stamkos are on their own Plan B. Bidding is likely to get furious. Some or most will be overpaid.

 

At the top of Holland’s wish list: Nielson, 32, who is an outstanding center proficient in all three zones, and Okposo, 28, who has the size and scoring touch the Wings have long coveted in him.

 

Plan C could include Holland re-signing Darren Helm, who has been talking with other teams, and adding an abrasive winger with size that the Wings could use to add an edge to their bottom two lines.

 

Meantime, by keeping Stamkos at such a reasonable price, Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman as emerged as one of the best in the business. He named his price – an average of $8.5 million for

eight seasons – and stuck to it when other clubs like Buffalo were ready to go as high as $12 million a season for Stamkos. No doubt Florida’s tax policy (no state income tax) played a role, but so too did Stamkos’ realization that he’s a lot closer to winning the Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay than he would be with any of the other clubs in pursuit, including Detroit.

 

That’s the second game of “chicken” Yzerman has won in a dramatic standoff with one of his star players. Last season, Jonathan Drouin thought he was entitled to an NHL salary as the third overall player selected in the 2013 draft. When the Lightning assigned him to the minors, Drouin refused to report and demanded a trade.

 

Yzerman suspended him and let the kid sit – even through the NHL trade deadline last February, when everyone in the league expected Drouin to be traded. Eventually, he reported to his minor-league club, played well, got recalled to Tampa Bay and was one of the Lightning’s best players in the run to the Western Conference Finals this spring.

 

Anybody who knew Yzerman during his Hall of Fame tenure in Detroit is aware of that notorious stubborn streak. It’s what helped make him a great captain, and now one of the best executives in the NHL.

 

Obviously, he learned well under the Holland’s tutelage in Detroit. Now it’s Holland who has to make something good happen with all the money he has available following his sensational draft-day deal to rid the team of Datsyuk’s $7.5 million salary cap it.

 

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