It’s no secret that the summer of 2018 is a big offseason for the Red Wings’ front office that could lead to some major turnover from the top down. There is plenty of uncertainty surrounding GM Ken Holland as his long tenure with the team is coming to an end. Plus, two rising stars, Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha, will be RFA’s in June. The priority from Holland (or whoever has the daunting task of re-making this team) should be to load up on draft picks and continue stocking the cupboards full with prospects. The Wings desperately need to hit the reset button and crawl out from underneath the long list of burdensome contracts that are impeding the rebuilding process. Ideally, any potential contracts that Larkin and Mantha sign will hopefully come at a bargain like so many have before for this front office.
The list of immovable objects on the roster seems to grow with each passing day — Jonathan Ericsson, Niklas Kronwall, Jimmy Howard, Frans Nielsen...you get the drift — and in order to make sure the young core stays signed for several years, something has to give. Earlier this week I touched on Holland fielding trade calls about Danny DeKeyser, and while he may not be the biggest problem on the blueline, it seems like a blessing in disguise. The fact that opposing GM’s are showing some interest and would be willing to take that contract (or some of it) off Holland’s hands, is an opportunity he should jump at. Sure, it’s not the worst contract in the world for a middle pairing guy, but it’s a chance to use some of that money towards extensions on their next wave of superstars.
Enough about DDK and let’s shift the focus onto two veteran forwards that could carry some trade value at the deadline. If he hasn’t considered it already, then Holland better start soon when it comes to parting ways with Justin Abdelkader or Darren Helm. If this team wants to truly hit the refresh button and change its identity, then it has to start with the forward core. Both of these players, Abdelkader (six years remaining at $4.25M AAV) and Helm (four years remaining at $3.85M AAV) signed contracts that punched above their weight. At times this season the line juggling wizard, Jeff Blashill, sunk both players to fourth line duties with Luke Glendening. Considering what both players are making salary-wise, there is a significant lack of production. Sure, when it comes to creating cap space in order to sign some of their young core — Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Bertuzzi, Larkin and Mantha — the Wings will get some help in the form of expiring contracts from Mike Green and Petr Mrazek ($10-million collectively). However, to get these long-term deals done, there will also be a degree of creativity involved. That’s where the intrigue of moving Abdelkader and Helm comes into play. The front office will also gain some help from an expected salary cap increase across the NHL in the range of $3-$5-million, but the focus should shift to moving either or both of these veteran forwards to help lessen the offseason burden. Let’s breakdown what each player can bring to the table ahead of this month’s trade deadline...
There’s something to be said for a veteran leader in the locker room that plays with some grit up front. Abby is exactly that type of presence on a Wings roster seemingly moving towards a younger transition. However, his cap hit is far overvalued for a guy who has tallied 20 goals just once in his career (2014-15) and has 44 points in 112 games (0.39 P/G), dating back to the start of last season. There are no shortage of comparable contracts to justify that signing Abby to this seven year extension was a mistake. Viktor Arvidsson (seven years, $4.25M AAV) inked his deal coming off a 30-goal campaign last year and now has 97 points over his last 133 games (0.73 P/G) dating back to 2016-17. James van Riemsdyk (six years, $4.25M AAV) was just 22 when he signed a long-term deal with the Philadelphia Flyers and has shown no lack of production with 97 points in his last 140 games (0.69 P/G) since the start of last season. Tyler Johnson (seven years, $5M AAV), who has been a Red Wings killer in the playoffs, signed a long-term deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning and has rewarded GM Steve Yzerman to the tune of 87 points over his last 122 games (0.71 P/G) dating back to puck drop in 2016-17. I could go on about contracts that measure up far better to where Abdelkader should be producing for the money, but I think you get the drift. And, while he was 28 when he signed that extension in Detroit and two of the three aforementioned forwards were on the south side of 25, the point is that he’s never been a prolific scorer and it was dangerous territory for Holland to be treading on a player approaching the age of 30.
With all that being said, what might we expect in a possible Abdelkader deal at this year’s deadline? Look, if a team wants to add some grit and toughness in front of the opponent’s net, then Abby can certainly provide that. He’s not flashy and he’s definitely best suited for a bottom six, checking role, with the ability to provide a net presence on the powerplay. Again, it may get exhausting reading about Detroit having to retain salary, but that’s the reality this team and its fans live in! The Ottawa Senators just pulled off a deal on Tuesday night, sending defenseman Dion Phaneuf to the Los Angeles Kings and coming back as part of the package was the expiring contract of forward Marian Gaborik...GM Pierre Dorion still had to retain 25% on “Double Dion’s” contract. But, I’m sure he was happy to shed $5.25M AAV over the next three years if it means they have a better shot at re-signing their star captain, Erik Karlsson, don’t you? That’s how Holland should be looking at any of these challenging contracts, unless he can get a higher salaried player coming back to offset the retainer? Dumping Abdelkader now is a good thing, if it means more money towards re-signing Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha to long-term contracts this summer — they’re the focus and they’re the future of this team.
The biggest intangible that Helm brings to the table is his speed — he’s obviously not as quick as Athanasiou or Larkin, but those two are shot out of a cannon — but, like Abdelkader, he’s not an offensive threat. Helm’s best offensive output came in 2014-15 when he tallied 15 goals and 33 points in 75 games. He will work hard on the penalty kill, but should never be seeing time off the third line (unless of course an injury occurs). Don’t get me started on his “soft hands” in Game 7 of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs when he rifled (or should I say shot?) a pass through the crease eluding Tomas Tatar’s stick and an open cage. It’s not so much the AAV on Helm’s contract as it is the term of five years and if sticking around in Detroit for the duration of the deal, it pains me to think they will be paying a potential fourth-liner almost $4-million per year well into his 30’s. Again, Holland swung and missed mightily on this contract more so for the term, making it difficult to find a suitor at the deadline.
What should the Wings be looking to salvage in return? Helm can provide some bottom six stability and chip in on the penalty kill when needed, plus there is a playoff pedigree that dates back to the earlier stages of his career playing in two Stanley Cups. Would an opposing GM be willing to pony up for his resume? Maybe. One team that might fit the bill is the Winnipeg Jets considering Helm is a Manitoba native. Shawn Matthias (a former Red Wings draft pick) has $2.125M left on his deal before hitting the free agent market this summer. Holland might have to sweeten the pot somewhere to pull that deal off, but it’s fathomable. Tobias Enstrom will also be a UFA in the offseason, but carries a cap hit of $5.75M this year — best-case scenario would be that Winnipeg retains 50% of his salary, allowing Holland to move him elsewhere or make some other juggling.
The glory days of consecutive playoff seasons are over and it’s time for this team to move on from this veteran core. Holland needs to explore trade avenues for both these players as it would go a long way to alleviating some of the pressures this front office will face when it comes to signing their young core in the offseason. The Wings may have upwards of $15-million in cap space fall into their laps this offseason, but it may only go so far when it comes to signing Athanasiou, Bertuzzi, Larkin and Mantha. Is the money likely to be there? Sure. But, this is a veteran-laden team for all the wrong reasons and not one that is anywhere close to contending for a Stanley Cup. The age and question marks about health surrounding Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall and Henrik Zetterberg don’t really help matters as cap recapture penalties linger if they can’t play over the next couple years. Moving Abdelkader and Helm might not be priority number one, but it could go a long way to knocking this team back on course towards rebuilding for the future. Time will tell, but Holland has an opportunity to make some extra wiggle room underneath the salary cap and I, for one, hope he doesn’t squander it.