Detroit will play Colorado on April 2nd this year; it will be their 36th game of the season. The next day, at 3pm EST, the NHL's trade deadline will pass and teams will be more-or-less set for the final month of the season, continuing into the playoffs. Between now and then, Detroit will play 17 more games. Nine of those games will be on the road.
Currently, the Wings sit just one game shy of that magical "20-game snapshot" for the club to know what they're working with and, well, we've got a handful of pretty good guesses and a large nebulous cloud of possibilities looming ahead. The Wings currently cling to the 6th spot in the Western Conference (behind 3 of their Central Division rivals). Wednesday's opponent Los Angeles sits one point back with two games in hand.
By all appearances, Detroit remains a middle-of-the-pack team. Their scoring output is good, but their defense is below average. They're effective at 5-on-5, but still terrible on special teams. The saving grace, at least per GM Ken Holland is that injuries to players like Brendan Smith, Johan Franzen, Darren Helm, and Todd Bertuzzi are at least supposed to be temporary. The expectation there is that when the team gets healthy, they're a noticeably better club. The right combination of luck could strike just right for the Red Wings as far as the postseason is concerned.
That said, the discussion about whether Detroit should sell assets will undoubtedly continue until the trade deadline. Ahhh, who are we kidding? The trade deadline isn't going to stop that talk; at best, it will merely slow it down.
When it comes to selling assets, one name comes up most-often in serious discussion: Valtteri Filppula. The 28-year old two-way center/winger is in the last year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He's struggled at times this season, but still has the benefit of a 66-point breakout campaign for the Wings in the 2011-12 season.
Elliott Friedman uses two of his 30 Thoughts discussing Flip:
12. What a weekend for Detroit, where the Red Wings totaled Nashville and Vancouver to the tune of 12-3. A couple of opponents are eying UFA-to-be Valtteri Filppula, but Ken Holland says they should be prepared to wait. "I'm still trying to find out what we are," the GM said this weekend. "Look at our record in one-goal games (.333 winning percentage, 26th in the NHL.) When we get healthy, will we turn those losses into wins?"
13. For that reason, Holland says he'll wait until very close to the trade deadline to make any decisions on the team's direction. That includes Filppula, one of several important choices the Red Wings will have to make. With few scoring centres available in free agency, Filppula has some leverage to ask for a lot. All Holland would say: "There is a gap in negotiations." The one thing I'm always told about these things is that it's a process. But if Filppula wants to stay, as it's believed he does, he's going to have to find a number the Red Wings are comfortable with.
The small quibble about calling Filppula a "scoring centre" and the reality about how much of Filppula's best point-producing work has come with him on the wing aside, Friedman is right. The Salary Cap's pending decrease will factor in, but Filppula has put in his time and is a well-developed, versatile forward who will get an opportunity to make more money for a larger role on another team if he wants that.
As long as Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk play for the Red Wings, there will not be a #1 center's position available to Filppula. The reality is that GMs simply set aside less salary room for a 2nd-line playmaking winger/occasional center. As that would be the role for Filppula in Detroit, it's just not going to be possible for him to make in Detroit what he could make elsewhere.
If Filppula accepts the role for which he's very well-suited, he's a very good option. There's going to be more than enough room for top-six forwards on Detroit's roster in the coming seasons and I don't necessarily see Filppula being in the way of one of the prospects for whom Wings fans clamor, especially as he's done well recently as the space-making "grinder" on Detroit's all-skill line with Henrik Zetterberg and Damien Brunner.
All that said, if Filppula cannot accept that role and wants to test the market, Ken Holland has some difficult gambles to take. April 3rd is still a long way off. The decision point between now and then is going to be how to get the best value out of the asset at hand. Detroit's status as a contender or not is going to have a lot to do with that. If Filppula is to be traded, his value will be highest just prior to the deadline when a team looking to add a piece for a shot at improving their playoff chances is the most-desperate. If Holland decides that his team is one of those clubs which needs Filppula to improve their chances in a playoff run (rather than merely at a playoff run), he could very well keep him and then accept the results, perhaps trying to trade his rights around Draft time for what is almost sure to be a lesser return.
Of course, if Filppula is really looking for leverage in negotiations, increasing his point output back up to last year's pace would do wonders for him. The added bonus is that it would likely do wonders for the team as well. Through 19 games at last year's pace, Filppula would have 15 points instead of the 10 he's put up. Five more goals for the Red Wings, depending on their timing might go a long way to improving the team's record in one-goal games.
The hectic nature of a shortened season puts added pressure on GMs who can see their teams go from sellers to buyers and back again in a brief time. While Holland has taken criticism in the past for not acting aggressively enough to change the makeup of his team, being overly aggressive this season could be disastrous, whether that means aggressively pursuing contender-status at the expense of the team's future or aggressively selling his team into a rebuild while he still has Pavel Datsyuk on his roster.
The Red Wings have time to make the right decision when it comes to Valtteri Filppula's future with the team. The hard part is the wait between making that decision and finding out whether it was indeed the right one.