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Dan Cleary, Ken Holland and How Far Loyalty will Stretch

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I thought we could be done with this. I really hoped that when the St. John's Telegram, a Newfoundland-based local paper reported that Dan Cleary would be talking with Ken Holland in hopes of getting a new contract that it was little more than a reminder that Cleary still wanted to play. I hoped it worked without the ominous implication that the handshake agreement which netted Cleary $2.5M last year was still good for another season.

Then the diggers started picking it up. Right around the joyous time that Jeff Blashill was officially announced as Detroit's head coach, Ansar Khan slipped in his reporting of the news that Cleary and Holland still had much left to discuss after a report about Chris Chelios potentially joining Blashill's coaching staff.

"Dan Cleary, I need to talk to," Holland said. "Certainly two years ago when he made a decision to stay in Detroit and he's been offered three-year contracts in Winnipeg and Florida and Philadelphia, I know what he walked away from.

"So my management philosophy, part of it is being loyal and holding up my end of the bargain. So I need to sit down with Dan Cleary, so I don't have an answer on Dan Cleary. Could he possibly re-sign? He possibly could re-sign."

Yikes.

While it's as noncommittal and diplomatic as Ken Holland ever is, the worried pit in my stomach sure feels as though when Dan Cleary hopped on a plane at the last minute and followed his heart to Traverse City to stay with the Wings despite a (now disputed) report that he was leaving more than $6M on the table for three years in Philadelphia that part of the agreement to fit him under what was then a tight cap situation for Detroit involved two follow-on years' worth of promise, doesn't it?

Unfortunately, if that's true, then it seems like Ken Holland is playing a gentleman's game in a crooks' parlor and that could end up forcing more wasted space. Here are the problems with this situation:

1. "Future Promises" aren't allowed

When we went through this situation last year, I wrote about the idea of verbal agreements and, while there isn't anything specifically preventing teams from talking about the future, the Standard Player's Contract absolutely voids any verbal agreement while the rest of the CBA prevents them from counting. Here's Article 19 of the SPC, which Dan Cleary and Ken Holland have signed two times since the summer of 2013.

19. The Club and the Player represent and warrant that there are no undisclosed agreements of any kind, express or implied, oral or written and that there are no promises, undertakings, representations, commitments, inducements, assurances of intent, supplements or understandings of any kind between the Player or his Certified Agent and the Club that have not been disclosed to the NHL, with regard to: (i) any consideration of any kind to be paid, furnished or made available during the term of the SPC or thereafter; and/or (ii) and future renegotiation, extension, amendment or termination of this SPC.

While this article does say "no undisclosed agreements", there's not a way to have a disclosed handshake agreement that's enforceable. Any attempt to legalize an agreement for a future contract would be rejected, as the CBA and the SPC prohibits a handshake agreement (a contract in itself) from coinciding with the existing player's contract. Cleary has no potential ground to stand on for a complaint that a contract was breached because he's signed TWO contracts which have stated there never was a contract to breach in the first place.

In other words, Ken Holland can have "I promise to sign Dan Cleary through the year 2069" tattooed on his lower back and as far as NHL legality is concerned, it means nothing.

2. Dan Cleary isn't a valuable player anymore

When Cleary was brought back in 2013, it made him the 17th forward on a team and led to Gustav Nyquist spending more time in Grand Rapids than he should have. This was all for the hope shared by Ken Holland and Mike Babcock that he could be healthy and productive. That season, he put up eight points in 52 games. When Cleary was brought back last season, he was either forward #14 or #15 on a team that had a defensible need for a guy who could sit in the press box for 80% of the season and be a good veteran soldier. He answered that charge by earning $1.25M for each point he put up in 17 games.

This season, the Red Wings are not in a position to need a "character" guy to waste the #14 forward spot. This year, the Red Wings are in a spot to have as many kids competing for positions as they can so the roster can play as hungry as the 2007-08 team did.

Cleary had two years to prove he could still hack it at the NHL level and he didn't prove that. There's no need to give him a third.

3. Roster Space

Here are the 10 forwards the Red Wings currently have under contract for next season who are waiver-eligible

Pavel Datsyuk Henrik Zetterberg
Stephen Weiss Tomas Tatar
Johan Franzen Darren Helm
Justin Abdelkader Drew Miller
Riley Sheahan Luke Glendening

Here are the seven RFA players who could be re-signed and are also waiver-eligible

Gustav Nyquist
Tomas Jurco
Teemu Pulkkinen
Joakim Andersson
Landon Ferraro
Louis-Marc Aubry
Mitch Callahan

Here is a list of forwards who have a good chance to get a shot at the big club next season at some point

Dylan Larkin
Anthony Mantha
Tomas Nosek
Andreas Athanasiou
Tyler Bertuzzi

That's 20 forwards for a team that has space for 14. Granted, guys like Aubry and Callahan are probably not going to find room on the roster, but Aubry is literally the only forward of those 20 I might put close to on-par with Dan Cleary on the ice for Detroit, and there's a chance he gets made a UFA this summer. You might also find some space depending on what happens with Johan Franzen or Stephen Weiss. Heck, the Wings could trade a few guys away too.

The bottom line is you need to belong close to the top 14 forwards to deserve a contract. With where we sit right now, Dan Cleary is #21. I don't see seven guys moving out of his way.

4. Loyalty means being loyal to everybody

While I've yet to see anybody actually argue in favor of Cleary being owed special favors, the concept that Ken Holland owes some sort of loyalty to Dan Cleary keeps getting brought up as though it's a potential positive. It's not. For all the good he's done for the club and all the sacrifices Dan Cleary has made, what he's owed is a fair shot. I don't think it particularly looks good to give a guy like that an unfair advantage over a group of kids trying to prove themselves. Loyalty means being willing to tell a guy he's done being a player when it's the truth.

For any idea that being "loyal" to Dan Cleary tells potential free agents that you treat your players well, you're also telling them that you'll play favorites and that chances to earn that kind of loyalty aren't consistent.

The Road Out

From everybody inside the locker room who's been willing to talk about him, Dan Cleary is a good guy to have on your side and in your practices. I've never heard a negative rumor about how he treats fellow players, and we've heard lots about his leadership.

This is fantastic, but it's not actually a requirement that a guy who pushes the players to perform better actually be a player. They actually have a title for that kind of person: coach.

When the Red Wings were ready to move on from the remnants of the Grind Line, they offered Kirk Maltby a fair chance to compete for a job on the ice by way of a two-way contract. In October of 2010, Maltby lost the competition for a spot on the Wings' roster and decided to retire instead of being placed on waivers and joining Grand Rapids. If that's what loyalty meant to a four-time Cup-winner with the Wings back in 2010, I don't feel like Dan Cleary is a good reason for that model to have changed. The Red Wings don't owe Dan Cleary a roster spot and they don't owe him cap space. If they feel he's owed a chance to compete for a spot, then he can sign a two-way deal.

Anything else isn't loyalty, it's cronyism.