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Because It’s The Cap: Detroit Red Wings Offseason Preview

The Detroit Red Wings 2016-17 season was nothing less than a disappointment. Finishing with less than 80 points for the first time since the 1990-91 season, the team ranked 25th in the league, missing the playoffs for the first time in a quarter century and securing themselves a top-10 draft pick. They had the sixth worst Corsi For percentage at even strength, the fifth worst shot differential, the sixth worst team save percentage, and the fourth worst power play percentage. No matter how you cut it, the Red Wings were in the bottom third of the league.

There are a few reasons for this, one of which is injury. The Red Wings were third in the league for man games lost to injury with a total of 38. For long stretches of games they lost the likes of Jimmy Howard, Darren Helm, and Thomas Vanek. Another reason is the poor power play, which didn’t really get going until February. Until then, the team had a league worst 11.4% power play conversion.

Really though, the real problem with the Red Wings is management’s old school philosophy on loyalty and roster management. Due to offseason moves made last year, the team is pretty paralyzed going into next season. Ken Holland has gone on record saying he has no desire to tear it all down and rebuild. Instead, he favours the “retool on the fly” method that has worked for nobody in the Red Wings position. This hints at the fact that Holland feels like his team just had a bad season and, with a bounce-back, this same roster can provide a challenge in the playoffs. Well, let’s see.

Roster Analysis

Going into last season, the Wings had a few players who were starting on new contract extensions, including Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, and Petr Mrazek. Abdelkader, who signed on for seven years, had an underwhelming season that saw him put up point totals far below his career average. It became painstakingly clear that without Pavel Datsyuk to prop him up, Abdelkader is not the point producer the team thought he could be. Helm, who signed on for five years, had a career average season, but missed over thirty games to injury. Mrazek, on a two-year bridge deal, was far too streaky for a starting goalie. He lost the job to Jimmy Howard pretty early on and then, when Howard fell to injury, took a back seat to the call-up Jared Coreau.

Speaking of Howard, he was one of the bright spots on the Red Wings roster this season. He was putting up numbers that were Vezina-worthy before he fell to injury in December. He didn’t return to the roster until mid-March, at which point the season was already too far gone. It was nice to see Howard do well, but his tendency to miss so much time to injury every year is frustrating, especially considering his cap hit is north of $5 million per year.

The other veterans on the Wings, for the most part, underperformed. Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar didn’t have terrible seasons, but they have yet to reach the status of EuroTwins 2.0 that was expected of them. They have so far proven to be solid top-six players, but nowhere near the scoring talent the Red Wings were looking for. Newcomer Frans Nielsen slightly underperformed this year vs. his career average, but he is not, and never will be, a suitable replacement for Pavel Datsyuk. Niklas Kronwall is succumbing to age and missed a chunk of games due to his bad knee. Jonathan Ericsson had a strong start to the season but fizzled out quickly before being sidelined for the remainder of the season in mid-February.

One veteran, though, was the brightest spot of all. Henrik Zetterberg had an unbelievable year, carrying the team as far as he could. He put up over 60 points and his level of energy and intensity rivaled that of the young crop of forwards coming up from Grand Rapids. Both Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou played great hockey, when they were allowed to play. The players led the team in P/60 and G/60 and should be staples on the Wings lineup for years to come. Dylan Larkin experienced a sophomore slump as he struggled to find his groove as a centreman. His performance at the World Championships this May, though, suggested that he may be close.

Conclusion: This was a really bad season for the Detroit Red Wings. Most of the roster underperformed to their potential. The scary thing is, I don’t see next year being much better. The powerplay should pick back up, which will help tremendously, but their roster of mid- to bottom-6 talent will be pretty much the same. They can’t make a splash in free agency and making any trades will be extremely hard because they are right up against the cap ceiling.

Cap Situation

The Red Wings cap situation is dire.

Ken Holland hands out these loyalty deals where he rewards players who have proven themselves as Red Wings with long-term, cap-heavy contracts. Henrik Zetterberg is signed until 2020-21, Justin Abdelkader until 2022-23, Darren Helm until 2020-21, and Luke Glendening until 2020-21. On defense, they have Danny DeKeyser until 2021-22, Niklas Kronwall until 2018-19, Jonathan Ericsson until 2019-20, and Jimmy Howard until 2018-19. Add to that Frans Nielsen’s free agent contract which lasts until 2021-22 and the fact that you have to sign your next generation in the coming seasons and you’ve got a cap-strapped team!

Tomas Tatar, Andreas Athanasiou, and Xaiver Ouellet all need new contracts this offseason and only Drew Miller and an expansion contract are coming off the books. After those signings, they’ll be right up against the cap ceiling for next year. Then, the following season, with Mike Green coming off the books, they’ll need to re-sign Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, and Petr Mrazek. We’ve seen Holland work some magic via trades before, but it always comes at a price (Jakob Chychrun vs Pavel Datsyuk’s cap hit). Going forward, the price may not be worth it to clear some of these contracts.

Conclusion: Can I just say, “They’re fucked” and leave it at that?

Offseason Game Plan

The expansion draft this summer provides the Red Wings a really good opportunity to kick-start their rebuild. By strategically protecting certain players, the Wings could force Vegas to take one of the bad contracts off of their books. This would help tremendously in accelerating the development of some of their more exciting players while freeing up some cap space in the coming years. Realistically, though, due to the loyalty factor mentioned above, it’s not likely that the likes of Justin Abdelkader or Danny DeKeyser are left unprotected. Instead, the Wings are going to lose either Riley Sheahan or Darren Helm to expansion and they’ll be able to just barely squeeze under the cap ceiling. To read more about the Red Wings expansion draft potentials, check out the Wings Nation staff predictions here and here.

That being said, the best thing for the Red Wings to do right now is stand pat and ride out some of these contracts. This offseason should be a “maintenance” offseason for Ken Holland. Don’t re-sign any of the expiring contracts (*cough* Drew Miller *cough*) and certainly don’t bring back any of your traded assets from last year. Extend the players that will make up your core for the next few years (Tatar, Athanasiou, and Ouellet), but certainly don’t do it for seven years a piece.

Conclusion: There likely won’t be any big or surprising offseason moves for the Red Wings. Ken Holland has gone on record saying he believes this team is a playoff team that simply underperformed last season.

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