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The Next 18 Months - The Red Wings’ Road Back - Part 1

NHL General Managers Media Opp Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

As the Detroit Red Wings watch their magnificent 25-year playoff streak come to a close, there is an aura of uncertainty surrounding the organization. For years, the Wings have been the NHL’s model franchise, shining as a beacon of excellence. The Wings found a way to be successful despite three lockouts, two expansion drafts, institution of a salary cap, and multiple rule changes.

The biggest driver of the Red Wings’ success was finding ways to strike gold in the later rounds of the NHL Entry Draft. They found Nick Lidstrom (3rd round), Sergei Fedorov (4th round) and Vladimir Konstantinov (11th round) in the 1989 draft. They landed Pavel Datsyuk (6th round, 1998) and Henrik Zetterberg (7th round, 1999) in successive drafts. Lidstrom retired in 2012. Datsyuk returned to Russia last season. Zetterberg, at 36 years of age, is in the midst of one of his finest campaigns but he doesn’t have the talent around him to carry this team to the playoffs one more time.

Ken Holland and his management team have their hands full entering this offseason

Now the task falls on general manager Ken Holland to get this team back into the playoffs. Once esteemed, Holland has increasingly come under fire from the Red Wings’ fan base for his recent transactions. The question remains - is he up to the challenge of rebuilding this team?

I thought I would take a stab at providing a blueprint for how the Red Wings should manage the next 18 months. Part 1 will focus on the NHL Expansion Draft, the NHL entry draft, and this summer’s free agency period. Part 2 will focus on moves the Wings should make during next season, at next season’s trade deadline, and next offseason.

The NHL Expansion Draft

The NHL expansion draft will take place June 18th-20th, just prior to the NHL Entry Draft. Each team has the option of protecting either 7 forwards, 3 defensmen, and 1 goaltender OR 8 skaters and 1 goaltender. While Peter Flynn and Mike McGraw picked who they think the Wings will protect, I will focus on who the Wings should protect.

Red Wings Expansion Draft Protection List

Who To Protect

Forwards Defensemen Goalie
Forwards Defensemen Goalie
Frans Nielsen (NMC) Mike Green Petr Mrazek
Henrik Zetterberg Xavier Ouellet
Andreas Athanasiou (RFA) Nick Jensen
Anthony Mantha
Tomas Tatar (RFA)
Gustav Nyquist
Riley Sheahan

Let’s start with the easy part - Frans Nielsen has to be protected because of his no-move clause. Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha should be no-brainers because of how well they’ve performed this season. Mantha has been extremely impressive as a rookie, ranking 17th among all NHL forwards (>300 5v5 minutes played) in control of on-ice shots relative to his teammates.

Top-20 F's in Rel CF

Player 5v5 TOI 5v5 Rel CF60 5v5 Rel CA60 5v5 Rel Sc Adj CF%
Player 5v5 TOI 5v5 Rel CF60 5v5 Rel CA60 5v5 Rel Sc Adj CF%
Nino Niederreiter 932.25 6.6 -12.68 8.8
Timo Meier 343.38 10.31 -9.81 8.75
Matthew Tkachuk 829.42 14.83 -3.93 8.18
Patrice Bergeron 940.41 10.57 -8.08 8.1
Ryan Johansen 1025.56 13.64 -4.94 7.78
Taylor Hall 971.18 11.81 -4.02 7.73
John Tavares 1123.87 10.91 -7.18 7.7
Blake Wheeler 1060.89 10.15 -6.55 7.65
Michael Frolik 955.6 12.95 -4.33 7.64
Mark Stone 901.8 9.08 -8.47 7.59
Brad Marchand 1030.33 11.62 -6.16 7.49
Derick Brassard 1002.8 9.54 -7.72 7.44
Andrew Cogliano 956.62 11.83 -4.68 7.24
Chris Kreider 939.76 9.34 -6.92 7.23
Beau Bennett 656.66 9.42 -5.38 7.14
Antoine Roussel 704.75 8.13 -8.77 7.1
Anthony Mantha 740.04 5.91 -9.09 7.06
Anders Lee 930.62 9.57 -6.89 6.97
Artemi Panarin 1152.94 6.11 -8.08 6.43
Brandon Saad 1008.95 7.84 -6.69 6.38

Henrik Zetterberg is more of a sentimental pick for me, but he’s demonstrated that he can still be productive, ranking 9th in 5v5 primary points per 60 minutes.

data via

However, Zetterberg still has four more years left at $6.083 million per year. Given that he’s already 36 years old, it’s unlikely that he plays out the rest of his contract. His salary will drop to $3.35 million in 2018-2019 and then $1 million for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 seasons. My assumption would be that he hits long-term injured reserve prior to the 2019-2020 season (the Wings could probably cite his back injury) and as such, the Wings can obtain some cap relief. It’s worth pointing out that Zetterberg’s contract is subject to a cap recapture penalty if he retires early, so LTIR will have to be the way around his cap hit.

While Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist have been much maligned for their recent play, both are still young (26 and 27, respectively) and relatively productive. Over the past three seasons, Tatar ranks 75th and Nyquist ranks 91st in 5v5 primary points per 60 minutes among the top-390 forwards in ice time. Essentially, that’s low 1st line production from both players. Both are worth keeping through the expansion draft.

This brings me to my most controversial selection - Riley Sheahan. Some of you may be screaming about Sheahan and his zero goals and wondering if I’ve gone off my rocker. I haven’t - I think. The reason you protect Riley Sheahan is to force Vegas to take one of the bad, long-term contracts off of your hands. How do you do that? By utilizing one or more of the 3rd round draft picks acquired at the trade deadline this year.

This quote from Las Vegas’ general manager, George McPhee suggests that Vegas would be willing to take certain players in exchange for a price. My suggestion? Send Las Vegas one or two of those 3rd round picks to take either Darren Helm or Justin Abdelkader. The oft-injured Helm is signed for four more years at $3.85 million per season while the 30-year-old Abdelkader is signed for six more years at $4.25 million per season. Looking at Abdelkader and Helm from a wins above replacement perspective (DTMAboutHeart model) neither player is in line to age well.

From @EvolvingWild’s most recent piece on NHL Aging Curves, we see that both Abdelkader and Helm are entering the “precipitous decline” phase.

Looking at Abdelkader and Helm specifically, we are seeing that decline has begun.

It is imperative to get out from one, if not both of these contracts as soon as possible before the decline becomes abundantly obvious to all NHL teams. This “bribery” of Vegas may work as they will need to hit the cap floor and will be looking to acquire as many picks as possible to build up their prospect pool.

As far as the defensemen, it’s a no-brainer to hang on to Mike Green. He was Detroit’s top defenseman and with one season remaining at $6 million, he will be a valuable trade asset come next season. The Wings will not want to lose him for free to Las Vegas.

As for the other two selections, Xavier Ouellet has proven to be the best of Detroit’s current crop of young defensemen. Using the aforementioned goals above replacement model, Ouellet has been Detroit’s 2nd best defenseman this season, trailing only Green in overall unadjusted goals above replacement.

As you can see, Ouellet has functioned at the level of a low-end, top-4 defenseman, and at 23 years of age, I’m optimistic that he will continue to develop. We can see from the above aging curve that defensemen start to decline at age 24 but experience a much slower rate of decline as compared to forwards. Ouellet is also younger than Ryan Sproul, Robbie Russo, and Nick Jensen. I’ll speak more on this in Part 2, but the Wings should only keep one of these guys on the roster past the 2019 offseason. Ouellet would be my pick.

As for Jensen, he’s established himself as a solid skater and puckmover and at $812,500 for the next two seasons, Jensen can provide good value. He’s shown more promise than either Sproul or Russo and deserves that final protection slot. It will hurt to lose Sproul, but at the end of the day I don’t think he develops into an NHL regular.

NHL Entry Draft

As of 03/26/2017, the Wings own a 20.8% chance of landing a top-3 pick, good for 7th best.

Unfortunately, this means that the Wings will likely not have a chance to land either Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier, the top two players in this draft. The Wings are very thin at both center and defense and would be wise to address this need in the 1st round. My recommendation would be for the Wings to target Timothy Liljegren if he falls or the best available center. Hypothetically, let’s say the Wings draft 7th overall. The list of players I would be willing to take at 7 (assuming Patrick and Hischier are gone) include:

  • Timothy Liljegren, D
  • Gabriel Vilardi, C

If neither of these guys are available, then I would strongly consider trading back (cue nightmare flashbacks to the 2016 draft and Jakob Chychrun). I’d consider trading back into the 12-18 range to see if the Wings could acquire a late-1st round to early-2nd round pick either in the 2017 draft, or ideally, in the 2018 draft. This concept is based on the expected value of a draft pick as derived by Michael Schuckers et al.

Looking at this visual of Schuckers’ data created by Sean Tierney, we can see that the expected value of the 7th pick is 538 while the value of the 12th pick is 377. Using this, if the Wings were to hypothetically trade the 7th pick for the 12th pick, they would want to obtain a pick with a value of ~160 +/- 10. That means they should be looking to also add a pick between 26 and 38. One interesting team to deal with would be the St. Louis Blues who currently hold the 18th and 31st (via Washington) picks. The Wings could work out a deal where they swap the 7th for the 18th and 31st, which would send 538 in expected pick value to the Blues in exchange for a return of 451. In a weaker than usual draft, that may be a viable option for the Wings to add more talent.

In a draft with no “elite” talent but several good players, the Wings should consider trading back if none of the higher-end guys are available. I proposed the Blues as team that could work for the 2017 draft, but other teams may pop up as more deals are made. If the Wings were able to move back and got a late 1st to early-2nd round pick in the 2017 draft, I’d target the following players in the 10-18 range:

  • Cody Glass, C
  • Nick Suzuki, C
  • Miro Heiskanen, D
  • Casey Mittlestadt, C
  • Juuso Valimaki, D

I think the Wings would do well to acquire one of these guys if neither Liljegren nor Vilardi is available given that there is a drop off after those two at their respective positions. The addition of an late-1st round to early-2nd round pick would allow the Wings another chance at acquiring more talent, with players such as Nic Hague, Aleksi Heponiemi, Joni Ikonen, and Ian Mitchell potentially available.

NHL Free Agency

Now...the fun part. This is the part where Holland has struggled over the past decade. Here’s a list of the 25 free agents Holland has signed since 2010:

Red Wings Free Agent Signings

Player Year
Player Year
Steve Ott 2016
Thomas Vanek 2016
Frans Nielsen 2016
Daniel Alfredsson 2013
Stephen Weiss 2013
Luke Glendening 2013
Danny DeKeyser 2013
Kent Huskins 2013
Daniel Cleary 2013
Carlo Colaiacovo 2012
Jordin Tootoo 2012
Mikael Samuelsson 2012
Jonas Gustavsson 2012
Damien Brunner 2012
Fabian Brunnstrom 2011
Ty Conklin 2011
Joey MacDonald 2011
Chris Conner 2011
Garnet Exelby 2011
Ian White 2011
Mike Commodore 2011
Kirk Maltby 2010
Ruslan Salei 2010
Mike Modano 2010
Joey MacDonald 2010

Needless to say...that list isn’t very pretty. I have a very simple recommendation for Holland this offseason - keep it simple. The Red Wings will enter this offseason with $67,709,545 already committed to the cap (not accounting for Franzen on LTIR) leaving them with just over $5 million in cap space (~$9 million with Franzen on LTIR). The Wings will have four restricted free agents (Tatar, Athanasiou, Ouellet, and Russo) and two unrestricted free agents (Drew Miller, Joe Vitale). Both Miller and Vitale should be told upfront that they will not be re-signed. That’s the easy part.

As for the restricted free agents, the Wings should push to keep Tatar, Athanasiou, and Ouellet. I’ve proposed what I would consider to be ideal contracts for each of these players.

  • Tomas Tatar: 3 years, $13.5 million (AAV: $4.5 million)
  • Andreas Athanasiou: 2 years, $5 million (AAV: $2.5 million)
  • Xavier Ouellet: 2 years, $2.5 million (AAV: $1.25 million)

For Tatar, I’m using a comparable AAV to Nyquist and Abdelkader but focusing more on the term. I would be comfortable paying Tatar as much as $20 million over 4 years, but would target a shorter term to make sure that all options are available. His “down” season should allow the Wings to keep his average annual value under $5 million.

For Athanasiou, this is a standard bridge contract to hand to a player that’s shown a lot of promise and is preparing to take the next step. I expect the Wings to get Athanasiou at a deal cheaper than the one I proposed, but I would be comfortable paying him as much as $7.5 million over 3 years.

Skater Stats: 5v5 Primary Points/60

Player TOI 5v5 Primary Points per 60
Player TOI 5v5 Primary Points per 60
Evgeni Malkin 1665.37 2.16
Connor McDavid 1818.34 2.14
Sidney Crosby 2195.73 2.13
Auston Matthews 1040.97 1.96
Aleksander Barkov 1690.01 1.95
Patrick Kane 2539.18 1.94
Mark Scheifele 2083.7 1.93
Jeff Skinner 2103.56 1.91
Evgeny Kuznetsov 2137.18 1.88
David Pastrnak 1624.95 1.85
Jannik Hansen 1380.03 1.83
Brad Marchand 2092.48 1.81
Johnny Gaudreau 2105.24 1.8
Andreas Athanasiou 934.03 1.8
Patrik Laine 937.39 1.79

For Ouellet, this is another bridge deal taking advantage of Ouellet’s limited NHL experience. I’d expect the Wings to be able to keep his AAV low as Ouellet finishes his first full NHL season and transitions to a full-time roster spot.

As for other free agents, there are very few reasons for the Wings to chase a free agent. If the Wings are able to get everyone at the salaries I’ve mentioned above and one of Helm/Abdelkader is moved, the Wings will still be up against the cap. If they aren’t able to move one of Helm/Abdelkader, the Wings will come in at ~$72.9 million, just $100K under the cap.

I’d like the Wings to say no to all outside free agents and just focus on clearing contracts and replenishing their prospect pool. They can enter next season with the following lineup:

  • Dylan Larkin - Henrik Zetterberg - Anthony Mantha
  • Andreas Athanasiou - Frans Nielsen - Tomas Tatar
  • Gustav Nyquist - Riley Sheahan - Evgeny Svechnikov (spoiler alert)
  • Justin Abdelkader/Darren Helm - Luke Glendening - Tomas Nosek
  • Mike Green - Xavier Ouellet
  • Danny DeKeyser - Nick Jensen
  • Jonathan Ericsson - Niklas Kronwall
  • Ryan Sproul/Joe Hicketts (spoiler alert)
  • Petr Mrazek
  • Jimmy Howard

It’s not a lineup that’s going to contend for the playoffs but it’s a step in the right direction.

To sum up, the keys to the Red Wings’ offseason are the following:

  1. Use the numerous 2017 3rd round picks to move either Helm or Abdelkader to Las Vegas in the expansion draft
  2. Re-sign Tatar, Athanasiou, and Ouellet to short and manageable deals while letting Drew Miller and Joe Vitale walk
  3. Draft Timothy Liljegren, Gabe Vilardi or trade back to add picks in either the 2017 or 2018 drafts
  4. Avoid all outside free agents

If the Wings are able to hit on all of these moves, they could find themselves with ~$9-10 million in cap space, 8-10 2017 prospects, and a young, exciting lineup.

In Part 2, I will discuss more of what the Red Wings should do during next season, at next season’s trade deadline, and in the 2018 offseason.

all data is taken from unless otherwise stated.