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Looking at Life After Zetterberg (Whenever That Will Be)

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With rumors swirling the captain may hang up his skates soon, should the Red Wings promote from within or hit free agency?

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 draft could not have played out better for the Detroit Red Wings last weekend as the front office seemingly hit on all cylinders with virtually all 10 picks they used. The additions of Filip Zadina and Joe Veleno definitely have the fanbase optimistic for the future and Ken Holland now has some momentum heading into July 1. The biggest focus now for the Red Wings will be strengthening that blueline — there has been talk of bringing back Mike Green on a short-term deal and rumors of trade talks with the Carolina Hurricanes for Justin Faulk — if the team feels their young defensemen are not ready to make the jump this year.

However, before Holland and Co. address the need for a defenseman, it would appear a slight bombshell was dropped on them earlier this week regarding Henrik Zetterberg...

According to multiple sources, the organization is prepared for the possibility that Zetterberg doesn’t return this coming season. Zetterberg gave every indication on locker cleanout day that he would be back if his body would allow. - Craig Custance, The Athletic

Well, this is certainly something. Before the puck dropped last year, the Wings’ captain suggested his health would only allow him to play two more seasons in the league, ultimately hanging up his skates at the completion of 2019. Now, we learn that the post-Zetterberg era could begin sooner than expected, and that certainly leaves the Wings in a bit of a pickle per se.

Look, I get it. He will be 38 when the season starts and the daily grind in this league has finally taken its toll on a player of his caliber. But, we’re kidding ourselves if this isn’t looked at as a big problem. From a pure salary cap perspective, this certainly makes things interesting for Holland — among various contracts up and down this roster that have plagued this team previously — who will have to find a way to alleviate the $6.083M AAV for the next three years remaining on his contract.

This is not as simple as making a draft day deal like the one Holland pulled off with the Arizona Coyotes in 2016 to get Pavel Datsyuk’s final year off the books. Now, by far the most likely possibility here is that ‘Z’ lands on the LTIR alongside Johan Franzen. But in the event it isn’t that simple, then it will take a great deal of creativity on Holland’s part (as Mick Jagger once said, “you can’t always get what you want”). If Zetterberg were to stick to his original plan and retire two years early, then the Wings would absorb a cap recapture penalty of $12,900,003, which would be a $4,300,001 cap hit for each of the following seasons.

Again, LTIR is by far the likeliest outcome when Zetterberg can’t play any longer.

For now it’s all hearsay and we really won’t know about any decision until Zetterberg actually comes out and announces it. But, let’s look ahead before free agency kicks off to see what the front office should do if this situation arises?

Explore Free Agency...

It seems that Holland may be open to the idea of bringing back some familiar faces to this team. Mike Green is reportedly staying in Detroit and Thomas Vanek has been linked to a possible return — we know he expressed interest in playing here long-term prior to being dealt to the Florida Panthers at the the 2017 deadline.

The Wings currently have $20.5M in cap space, but that doesn’t mean they need to go crazy, especially on a rather thin free agent market this summer. I’m fine with bringing Green back on a short-term, cheap deal considering he accumulated 104 points in 214 games over the past three seasons — perhaps more importantly he brings a sure-handed right shot from the point that contributed 43 points on the powerplay in that span.

I’ll admit that Vanek has bounced back pretty nicely over the last couple of years with 94 points in 128 games (0.73 P/G pace) and would be a welcomed addition back on a powerplay that struggled at 17.5% (24th in NHL) last season. One reunion that Holland is supposedly kicking tires on his Valtteri Filppula. I’m not in love with this idea and here’s why: since joining the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2013 (58 points in 75 games) his production has been steadily declining on the scoresheet.

An NHL source confirmed that the Red Wings have spoken with the Valtteri Filppula camp on the possibility of a return to Detroit. At least part of the interest is because of Filppula’s versatility. He can play both on the wing and at center, which becomes important if the Red Wings get bad news on captain Henrik Zetterberg. - Craig Custance

Maybe that has to do with his offensive role in the lineup and usage on the man advantage, but Filppula has never eclipsed the 40-point mark in any of the past three years and is coming off his lowest offensive output (33 points in 81 games) since the 2012-13 season with the Wings. His five-year, $25M deal has expired, so what would the Wings be willing to pay here? As a 34-year-old veteran center he might bring some experience and leadership to a younger lineup, but don’t the Wings already have this in Frans Nielsen? I mean, if Zetterberg throws in the towel, can we not expect Dylan Larkin to take over the first-line center role, followed by Nielsen and then either Andreas Athanasiou, Darren Helm (let’s be honest and say Holland won’t move on here) or Michael Rasmussen getting his big break on the third line?

I just don’t want to see Holland get trapped into an overpaid contract here like he has in the past for an aging veteran forward that may be taking a roster spot away from a player that might be ready to make the leap (Rasmussen comes to mind as he is too good to go back to junior and something has to give).

Editor’s Note: Reporting from Craig Custance today indicates that the team will not sign a forward other than Vanek, if that deal does happen, so that would seem to put to bed the Filppula rumors.

If the Red Wings can’t get a deal done with Vanek, the expectation is that they’ll sit tight at forward and give the younger players an opportunity rather than sign a different veteran forward without the offensive pedigree of Vanek.

Of course, you never know.

Stay the Course...

The Wings definitely need to fill roster spots with some veterans, but let’s not overlook some of the prospects coming through their system that may be wearing out their welcome with Grand Rapids or their junior teams. Rasmussen leads this crop and it’s also hard to shy away from the minicamp Zadina is having and wonder if this guy won’t be in the lineup from day one?

The front office held back Tyler Bertuzzi from participating in the Griffins’ quest for back-to-back Calder trophies and want him to gain the most out of his offseason workouts in preparation for the start of the regular season. Evgeny Svechnikov seems to be on the verge of a full-time roster spot this fall; would another year with the Griffins might slow his development?

Look, all I’m saying is that the Wings have options internally and don’t need to throw around the “Benjamins” on too many veteran players this summer. And, perhaps the most intriguing part about all of this Zetterberg news is the fact that Holland has three key RFA’s looming: Athanasiou, Larkin and Anthony Mantha. All three need a contract and are vital to this team’s future.