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Should the Red Wings Have their Eyes on John Tavares?

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An unrestricted free agent at season’s end, John Tavares may very well find himself on the open market next summer and the Detroit Red Wings should do everything in their power to sign him.

NHL: New York Islanders at Columbus Blue Jackets Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that the Detroit Red Wings are currently in a rebuild, despite what general manager Ken Holland has in store for this team for the upcoming 2017-18 season. It seems Holland wants to do things the hard way instead of stripping this team down to its core, electing to rebuild on the fly and stock-piling as many draft picks as possible in hopes that they land their next Steve Yzerman. However, the Red Wings opportunity to land that next franchise changing player might come sooner than you think.

The New York Islanders will likely be the talk of the league this season and perhaps the hottest topic that will circle around the rumor wagons is whether or not the team should trade their captain, John Tavares. Of course, that is in fact if he decides not to re-sign with the team at some point during the season. The longer Tavares goes without a contract extension, the more trade rumors will ramp up. If the Islanders are unsuccesful in a playoff bid this year and as the trade deadline creeps closer, then they will have a decision to make on the soon-to-be 27-year-old if they feel their chances to sign him are minimal. One comparison would be defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk making it all the way to last year’s deadline and the St. Louis Blues were forced to deal him to the Washington Capitals for simply a rental price. But, we’re not here to discuss Tavares’ value on the trade market. The question is if he makes it to next summer as an unrestricted free agent, then should Holland have his sights set on landing the all-star center?

The answer should be a resounding yes, but many of you reading this are probably thinking “how could the Wings possibly pull this off?” Holland has handicapped this team with countless contracts that include no-movement or no-trade clauses that it would seem near impossible to ship out some of these veteran players. However, as I’ve touched on before, the Wings have more than one option to clear some salary cap space and have the ability to offer a big money deal to Tavares.

Consider that there will be cap relief after the season through expiring contracts of Mike Green ($6M), Petr Mrazek ($4M), Riley Sheahan ($2.075M) and Ryan Sproul ($625K) for a total of $12.625-million. Now, it’s likely Green is traded by the deadline to a contending team and based of Holland exploring a Sheahan deal at times last season, I can’t imagine he’s in the cards long-term. The biggest decision the front office will have to make is between the pipes and will it be Mrazek as the goalie of the future or will they hold onto Jimmy Howard’s contract with two years remaining at a $5.29M AAV? I’m of the belief that the Wings should stick with Mrazek not only because of his talent, but I think he will respond well this season amidst allegations that he lacked a work ethic that led to his downward spiral last year. The best case scenario for Detroit would be Howard coming out of the gates hot to start the season and building off his 2016-17 campaign — 10-11-1 with a 2.10 GAA and .927 SV% in 26 games. He carries a limited no-trade clause in which he could submit 10 teams that he would be willing to accept a trade to (which doesn’t make things easy on Holland, but he dug himself these types of holes). Here’s what Red Wings goaltending coach Jeff Salajko told the Detroit Free Press’ Helene St. James about Howard’s role this year:

“We’re very comfortable with Jared as a third. I have no problem with him being the back up goalie, either. If we can keep Jimmy Howard healthy to play 50-55 games, I was comfortbale with Jared in a role like that. But we obviously have Petr back — Vegas didn’t have interest in him, so I’m hoping he comes in with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove.”

TRADE

Aside from the expiring contracts next summer, Holland will have to assess his roster and determine which of these veteran players he can convince to waive their no-trade clauses? Justin Abdelkader has a full no-trade clause through the 2019-20 season before it modifies for the remaining three years of his deal. Darren Helm also has a full no-trade clause through the 2018-19 season before it can be voided in the summer of 2019. These two contracts head the list of poor decisions by Holland on long-term deals in recent years and if he had the chance at a mulligan I think he would take that offer (one would hope?). Although I don’t think the front office will have any luck convincing Abdelkader to waive his NTC, they might be able to twist Helm’s arm and shave off that $3.85M AAV. According to capfriendly.com, the NTC can be voided between June 15, 2019 and the 2019-20 trade deadline if Helm is not in the Top 9 forwards in time on-ice or if the Wings miss the playoffs. The point is that head coach Jeff Blashill bumped Abdelkader and Helm down to fourth line roles amidst all of his line juggling last year and Helm may even see fit that he could gain more playing time elsewhere.

Another trade possibility that could be re-visited from Holland’s perspective is that of Tomas Tatar. Fresh off signing a four-year contract extension with a $5.3M AAV, Tatar could be dealt anytime before his full NTC kicks in on July 1, 2018. Why would Holland do this? Well, I’m not sure he was keen on giving into Tatar’s demands in the first place — as evidenced by their arbitration battle that saw the two sides at $1.2-million apart — and agreed to the number, but got the shorter term he wanted in the deal. Tatar has produced three straight 20-goal seasons, but scores at a clip of 0.56 PPG for his career and his 5v5 CF% has dropped each of the last three seasons from 58.9% in 2014-15 to 50.9% in 2016-17.

LTIR/RETIREMENT

We’ve touched on this before and Johan Franzen has pretty much retired to the LTIR for good. But, what about Niklas Kronwall? It’s important to note that Kronwall has a modified NTC that kicks in this year that would allow him to submit a list of 10 teams he could be traded to. However, I don’t see many teams willing to take on the remaining two year of his contract with a $4.75M AAV at 36 years old and playing virtually on one leg. The best course of action for Detroit would be the veteran defenseman joining his fellow countryman on the LTIR where fans would cross their fingers that neither would retire early. Hypothetically, if Kronwall gets to a point where he can’t play out the upcoming season and this pushes into the 2018-19 season then he would need to remain on LTIR as retiring early in the summer of 2018 would result in the Wings recapturing a $3-million penalty. The same could be said for Franzen if he were to also retire in the summer of 2018, costing the Wings a recapture penalty of $2.95-million through the 2019-20 season.

WHAT DO THE ISLANDERS HAVE TO OFFER TAVARES?

Tavares was drafted first overall by the Islanders in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft and nobody is suggesting this will be an easy decision to leave New York. However, the last few seasons have been quite the roller coaster, moving from Nassau Coliseum into the Barclay’s Center where the Isles have shared a home with the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets for the past two seasons. It hasn’t been a smooth transition for team and it is public knowledge that the ice conditions are poor. Fans have complained about obstructed viewing points around the arena and that is definitely something that has resulted in a lack of attendance at games. Now, there have been reports that the Isles have been working on a bid to move the team near Citi Field where the New York Mets play, but are the wheels really spinning on this?

Another issue for Tavares has been his lack of a supporting cast, especially since the departure of Kyle Okposo to the Buffalo Sabres. The front office did make a bit of a splash by sending former first-round pick Ryan Strome to the Edmonton Oilers for another former first-rounder in Jordan Eberle. It certainly gives Tavares some added scoring punch on the top line — three 60-point seasons in his career — but there have been disappointments too. One of them being the possible 2016 offseason bust with the signing of Andrew Ladd. Ladd was targeted to fill a first-line role with Tavares this past season, but finished with just 23 goals and 31 points in 78 games and found himself playing much of the year in a bottom six role.

The Isles haven’t done much in my mind to convince Tavares that this team is good enough to win a Stanley Cup in the long run. They even had a chance this summer to buck the trend of GM’s proposing offer sheets by the possibility of targeting Ryan Johansen of the Nasvhille Predators. Now, I can’t take credit for this idea as Craig Custance of The Athletic suggested it, but the Isles had the draft picks to make a splash like this happen. Considering Johansen recently signed an eight year, $84-million deal with the Preds, this is something the Isles could have potentially cashed in on by offering a higher number in the $8.5-$9.5-million range and forfeiting two first-round picks, a second-round pick and a third-round pick. Preds general manager David Poile already went through this once with Shea Weber and for a guy that has been reluctant to fork out the dough in the past, he may not have answered the bell on a Johansen offer sheet this time. The failure to make a big splash after this team took a seemingly giant step back last year by following up their Eastern Conference Semi-Final appearance in 2016 by missing the playoffs, doesn’t bode well for the chances of re-signing Tavares.

WHAT DO THE RED WINGS HAVE TO OFFER TAVARES?

“The grass isn’t always greener on the other side,” is what some fans and players alike might be thinking of Detroit right now. But, hold on a minute. The Red Wings presently are not the powerhouse hockey team they once were 10-15 years ago, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have any potential. The Wings will need to pour an injection of youth into this roster sooner rather than later and with some of their young nucleus coming off a Calder Cup win as members of the Grand Rapids Griffins last season, the future is certainly bright in Motown. Let’s recall that some of the current players on the Wings roster won a Calder Cup in 2012-13 with current bench boss Jeff Blashill — that list includes Tatar, Mrazek, Sheahan and Luke Glendening. Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou are primed for bigger roles this season — Larkin especially needs to re-gain his rookie form from two years ago — and Tyler Bertuzzi and Evgeni Svechnikov make two exciting pieces coming through the Red Wings farm system.

Another key factor in a potential Tavares signing would be his familiarity with current Red Wing and former teammate Frans Nielsen. The two forwards played together in Long Island from 2009-2016, where Nielsen was featured at times on Tavares’ wing and the two played several powerplay minutes together. Having that chemistry in the Red Wings lineup could allow for Nielsen to play on the wing once more and as Henrik Zetterberg continues to age, he could drop down into that second line center role while still continuing to provide that much needed leadership to the young core.

The final selling point for Holland would be an obvious one and that is the new home of Little Caesar’s Arena. The Red Wings will take to the ice this fall in their new domain and with it there should be some new life injected into the downtown core with all four major sports teams within a hop, skip and a jump of each other. Tavares would no longer have the uncertainty of where the team will play each season looming over him and he could be that face for Detroit — once a hot bed for signing free agents — that lures key players to the city once again.