Saturday, June 15, 2013

Red Storm Rising - Part 2: Forward Progress

(Editor's Note: This article is part 2 of an ongoing series, offering an in-depth look at the Red Wing's roster and it's potential evolution in the future. You can find part one of the series; which discusses the blueline corps here.)

While the lockout shortened 2013 season provided a clear vision for the future of the Wing's blueline, the team's forward situation remains far from settled. As of this writing there are no less than 17 players already in the mix up front in Detroit; and that's without adding a single outside free agent or "cup of coffee" promotion from Grand Rapids. What's more, any serious discussion of who does and doesn't make the roster must be framed by considerations such as age, contract status, Ken Holland's historical trends when managing the salary cap, Mike Babcock's coaching philosophies and to a smaller degree the "human" element. While it's tempting to use CapGeek and various trade machines to generate magical Christmasland scenarios for your favorite team; the reality is that the Red Wings' moves at forward will be dictated by previously established organizational philosophies. On paper, the Wings have 2 compliance buyouts and just over $10 million worth of cap space but in reality, Holland will almost certainly save a buyout and at least $2 million for both insurance and roster mobility purposes. In the same vein; Mike Babcock isn't going to change his system at this point in his coaching career. The Wings' top two lines will feature their best two way threats, the 3rd line will be counted on for energy and supplementary scoring, and a player won't touch the checking line unless he shows strength, hustle and some sandpaper. Finally for better or for worse, Wings' management is reluctant to unceremoniously dump players who have made heroic sacrifices for the organization; particularly if said player is willing to take a hometown discount on his salary. This means that if they agree to affordable contracts all of the Wings' unrestricted free agent forwards will return next season; although as you'll see below I don't think all 3 of the remaining forwards will agree to team friendly contracts. These are the laws of the frozen jungle in Hockeytown Mowgli; this is the Red Wing way.

In an attempt to sort out the tangled mess that is the Red Wings' forward situation, I've divided the players below based on how I think team management perceives them at this very moment. As every dedicated Wings' fan is no doubt aware; coach Babcock is prepared to shuffle his lines at the drop of a hat and so it doesn't make very much sense to discuss the players in terms of forward units. Naturally, we'll look at what type of role I think each player will settle into this season and how I see that role changing in the future, but the categories themselves are meant to reflect the 2013-14 season primarily:

Forward Locks and Building Blocks: With recent news that Pavel Datsyuk will sign a contract extension sometime in the near future, it seems clear that both he and longtime teammate Henrik Zetterberg will finish their NHL careers as Red Wings. Frankly, that's a very, very good thing for the organization, even if Pavel's new contract continues to pay him north of $6 million a season. One only has to look at the $9.5 a year contract Pittsburgh just gave Evgeni Malkin to know that retaining the services of these two fine gentlemen could certainly be more costly. While Datsyuk's age (34) is a concern, both men maintain fantastic fitness regimens and there's little reason to believe either player's role will change much over the next 4-5 years. This means that barring times when Babcock loads them up together; one will center the first line, one will center the second line and both men will play extensively in power-play situations. Babcock will also throw either player over the boards on the penalty kill as game situations and body fatigue warrant or allow. While at times the super-talented duo leave Wings' fans salivating for more point production, there is no question that both Datsyuk and Zetterberg remain amongst the game's elite two-way players. In short, Mike Babcock's system can't function without forwards who can impact the game in all 3 zones; the team is literally built around the particular talents of Pavel and Hank.

Joining the dynamic duo at the forefront of the Red Wings' long term plans is burgeoning power forward Justin Abdelkader. At 26 years old, Abdelkader is already one of the team's classic player developmental success stories. Originally slated for long term duty on the checking line; the past two seasons have seen Justin play himself into a larger role on the squad both now and likely into the future. Although you'd like him to be an inch or two taller; at 6'1' and 220lbs, Abdelkader has the size and strength Babcock desperately craves to compliment his never-ending waves of highly-skilled European forwards.  He's a tough player who gives and takes the body with relish while still avoiding unnecessary penalties; for the most part. Abdelkader's skating has also improved noticeably in every season he's played with the big club and he's worked hard to improve his positioning at both ends of the ice over that time as well. What's really earned Justin a place in the Wings' long term plans however, is his willingness to take punishment and abuse to screen the front of the net; especially on the power-play. The position of "goaltender infuriating pest" has a long and storied tradition in franchise history; from Ted Lindsay, to Dino Ciccarelli and on through Todd Bertuzzi. Right now Abdelkader's production implies that he's more Thomas Holmstrom than Brendan Shanahan, but both his age and work ethic suggest a significant leap is not out of the question. In 48 games last season, Justin translated his time on the "skill" lines into 10 goals while still maintaining a +/- rating of 6.  While those numbers don't guarantee the Wings' have a perennial 20-25 goal a year man on their hands, they do make it abundantly clear that Abdelkader isn't going back to the checking line anytime soon; regardless of who's healthy this upcoming season. Justin will continue to work as a winger on one of the top two lines and play significant power-play minutes. Best of all for the Wings, he'll do so at the bargain basement price of $1.8 million a year for at least the next two seasons; at which point the Wings might have to rip up his contract to get an extension done if he does actually "blow up".

Unfortunately, our final player makes this portion of the list primarily because his contract all but guarantees that Johan Franzen will remain a Red Wing for quite some time. Don't get me wrong; I like Franzen and when "the Mule" is rolling his $3.95 million cap number feels like an absolute steal. He has ideal size, soft hands, periodically shows a delightful mean streak as an open-ice hitter and isn't particularly afraid to play in front of the net when he has to. As Red Wings fans are by now painfully aware however; the problem is that Franzen isn't always "on" and when he's not tearing up the ice, he performs the exasperatingly difficult trick of making a 6'3", 225lb hockey player somehow disappear. This is not hyperbole folks; at times while watching games on television you will realize that entire periods have passed without you becoming aware of Franzen's presence in any discernible way. Even more disturbing is the fact that the periods between Franzen's bursts of inspired play seem to grow longer as he ages; and Johan is already 33 years old. To say that all of the above frustrates Wings' fans and management would be a notable understatement: as recently as June 5th, 2013, Red Wings senior vice president Jimmy Devellano made it clear that the franchise is more stuck with Franzen, than thrilled to have him. Despite his maddening inconsistency issues, Franzen is still a gifted scorer who will play on a skill line and chew up minutes on the power-play. He's still far too useful to buy out, making way too much money to demote to a checking line and won't draw even remote trade interest around the league until his salary drops in 2016.

What are you worth?: The simple truth is that modern NHL economics dictate that successful teams work hard to lock up their own young talent to long term contracts. This has notably diluted the strength of this year's free agent class and while the expected coming drop in the salary cap will add some talent to the market; it won't be enough to change the Red Wings' attempts to sign their own unrestricted free agent forwards. I promise you right now that if any one of Valtteri Filppula, Dan Cleary or Damien Brunner signs with the Red Wings this offseason, it will be because they turned down a better offer(s) from another team; the market is just that bad. In that regard I feel fairly confident in predicting that Filppula is already vapor and in the long run Red Wings' fans may actually come to breathe a deep sigh of relief when they reflect on this decision in the future. Two years ago Val racked up 23 goals, 66 points and registered an eye opening 18 in +/- rating. Unfortunately last year Filppula regressed mightily in the regular season before turning in a tepid at best performance in the playoffs. Filppula is reportedly asking for a $5 million a year contract based primarily on his speed, defensive play and precisely one career season as an elite 2nd line center in his pocket. Sadly, early rumblings around the league indicate that he'll more than likely get multiple offers from other teams within his desired range. At that price, Ken Holland will walk away quickly; if the Wings had any intention of giving Filppula that kind of money they would have agreed to an extension this past season without letting Valterri test the free agent waters.

In that same vein, I'm also genuinely worried about the Red Wings' ability to sign 27 year old Swiss scoring sensation; Damien Brunner. Although Brunner suffered a notable slump after the first 10 games of the season, his one year audition in Motown has largely been viewed as a smashing success. In 44 games last season Brunner registered 12 goals, 14 assists and in the process tantalized the Detroit faithful with the kind of nose for the net that suggests he's capable of much more. Unfortunately; his defensive game wasn't quite up to NHL standards and as the travel demands of an NHL schedule wore on him he developed a habit of "floating" that no doubt concerns Wings' brass preparing for an 82 game schedule. Brunner then further complicated matters by leading Detroit in playoff goals (5), registering 9 points and posting a respectable 2 in the +/- department. The organization reportedly values Damien in the $2.5 million a year for 3 years range but his playoff numbers could easily convince another suitor that he's worth significantly more than that. My gut feeling is that the Wings' won't budge on the term but could be persuaded to sweeten the pot as high as $3 million a year. If anyone offers more than that, Brunner has given every indication that he'll take his services elsewhere next season. If the Wings can fit him in the budget however he'll see time on the 2nd and 3rd lines, chew up minutes on the power-play and generally make Tomas Tatar's life miserable in 2013-14. With a gun to my head, I say Brunner also walks but Wings' management does like him, despite their lukewarm statements about his future; they'll do everything short of breaking the bank to keep him in the fold.

Oddly enough, the free agent forward I most expect the Wings to retain next season is the one many fans seem most eager to get rid of; 34 year old Danny Cleary. Despite a growing number of niggling injuries and steady downward tick in production the past two seasons; Cleary still brings a tremendous number of important elements to the Red Wings' roster. Although father time has sapped some of his athleticism, Clearly is still a strong skater, plays a solid two-way game and can literally play on any one of the Wings' forward lines with equal proficiency. His performance in the playoffs this year was nothing short of heroic, as his 4 goals and 6 assists put him behind only Henrik Zetterberg for the team scoring lead in the NHL's second season. More importantly, Clearly plays with heart and toughness; the team feeds on his energy and leadership as if he were an assistant captain, without the formality of having a letter on his sweater. Although Cleary won't be flooded with offers on July 5th; it's likely that he'll easily command the same $3 million a year he made last season in Detroit and perhaps even a small pay increase if he isn't too pushy about adding a 3rd year to the contract. Such a number isn't out of Holland's reach, but if it comes along with a notable raise for Brunner, it would almost certainly mean the Wings would be unable to add impact players in free agency. In my opinion, the best scenario for all parties concerned is for Holland to pony up the 3rd year at somewhere between $2.5 and $2.75 million a season. I believe that based on his stated desire to remain in Detroit that would be an acceptable compromise for Cleary; whether or not that's an acceptable compromise for his agent is another question entirely. If Danny does stay, he will likely resume his role on the Wings' second line with extra minutes on both the power-play and penalty killing units in 2013-14. Cleary isn't getting any younger however and as the team's Grand Rapids brigade earns time in "skill situations" it will almost certainly come at Danny's expense.

Stuck in the Middle With You: In the modern NHL landscape, every organization needs muckers, grinders and inexpensive fill in forwards to field a competitive team throughout an 82 game schedule and the playoffs. While it would be unfair to say the players in this category are easily replaceable, none of these guys could be described as a franchise pillar either. The most talented forward in the group is clearly Darren Helm, who has 3 years remaining on his contract at a reasonable sum of $2.1 million a year. When he's healthy, Helm frequently displays all-world speed and 2nd line offensive talent. The problem of course is that Helm hasn't been healthy in 6 months; he played in a total of 1 game last season and by playoff time the Wings were openly admitting that he was no closer to playing in May than he had been in January. The Wings will remain patient with Helm but after Mike Babcock noted that he was basically unavailable for each of the team's last two playoff runs; the pressure is on the 26 year old forward to prove Holland should hold a roster spot for him. Even if Darren is healthy enough to resume normal play next season; his extended time on the shelf and the quirky nature of back injuries all but ensures he'll lose "skill" minutes to healthier, emerging scorers. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cory Emmerton and Jordin Tootoo are literally "just guys". Emmerton is young and cheap but only has one year left on his contract and isn't talented enough to command a long term investment from Holland. Whether or not he remains with the team in future years will depend entirely on his desire to continue working for very little money; if he does remain he has no future beyond a checking line and penalty killing role. Tootoo however, is neither young (30) nor inexpensive ($1.9M) and with two years left on his deal, he makes a tempting candidate for one of the team's compliance buyouts. Although he's something of a fan favorite amongst the more bloodthirsty portions of Red Wings nation; the simple truth is that Tootoo is a poor skater, takes too many penalties to stay on the ice during high pressure situations and doesn't possess even a lick of NHL-level offensive talent. His best skills: fighting and drawing penalties, are completely replaceable on the free agent market at virtually any time. My best guess is that Tootoo will play 60-70 games on the Wings' checking line next season but it wouldn't surprise me to see him shipped out of town or even bought out either. I would suggest that it's highly unlikely he will play out the final year of his contract in Detroit unless absolutely nobody in the Wings system shows an aptitude for a checking line role.

Filling the role of veteran defensive forwards who kill penalties and can step up onto a scoring line in a pinch will once again be Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller. Of the two, Miller is easily the better offensive option but a comparison of career +/- ratings makes it clear that Eaves is the better defender. Although Miller looks like he's in his mid-40's with his helmet off; both players are only 29 years old and while neither has much upside left to explore there's no reason to think either man's play will fall off any time soon either. As of this morning Miller has a 3 year contract worth $1.35 million a year and while he's hardly invulnerable, there's no reason to believe he won't remain an effective part of the team throughout the entire length of the deal. Eaves is a more difficult case; in part because he only has 1 year left on his contract and in part because he lost a season and a half with a concussion when a Roman Josi slapshot broke his jaw in November of 2011. Freak accident or no, Holland will be extremely leery of committing significant dollars or term to a player with a history of serious head trauma. If Eaves is prepared to accept a very similar deal to the one Miller just signed, perhaps even for only two years; he has a good chance of remaining a Wing after this season. If he's looking for a significant raise however, my guess is that Holland will pull up stakes and simply move on. For the moment; both players will feature primarily on the 4th line with extensive penalty killing duties, cameos on the 2nd power-play unit and periodic stretches on the "skill" lines if injury or ineffectiveness force Babcock to shake things up.
The Grand Rapids Connection: As anyone who's been paying attention to either coach Mike Babcock or GM Ken Holland is no doubt aware; the so-called Grand Rapids 3 will be playing in the NHL next season.This is because Joakim Andersson, Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar are all out of waiver options; meaning they can't be sent back to Grand Rapids without clearing through every other team in the league first. Naturally, that won't happen because Holland knows the chances of any one of the trio clearing waivers is somewhere south of a snowball's chance of surviving the fires of hell. Additionally the Wings aren't about to let Andersson or Nyquist bolt on the restricted free agent market either; it's a matter of time but both players will be signed long before the 2013-14 season opens. How exactly they will be used in Detroit however depends in part on whether or not Damien Brunner is resigned and in part on the continued development of each player individually. Of the 3, 24 year old center Joakim Andersson is both the most physically imposing and defensively sound forward. At 6'3", 206lbs and with a notable affectation for contact play, Andersson provides necessary size, grit and defensive prowess to a 3rd line otherwise populated by smallish offensive dynamos. Although a lack of speed and offensive skills could eventually push Joakim to a checking line roll; his ability to win faceoffs, block shots and kill penalties will likely ensure he finds extra ice time on special teams throughout the season. For now Andersson will start the season as the 3rd line center and Babcock will rely on him to be the defensive lynchpin of a unit that will be learning how to succeed in the NHL on the fly. Whether his role shrinks or grows from there depends on Joakim's ability to at least maintain, if not improve on his impressive 2013 season.

While Andersson is the largest of the Grand Rapids 3, there is no doubt whatsoever that Gustav Nyquist is the most polished forward in the trio. At only 23 years of age, Nyquist is already fast, smart, a gifted passer and relentlessly determined to either obtain or protect the puck. His slight frame (5'11", 185lbs) belies his tenacious two-way play and if he learns to shoot the puck more, he'll permanently entrench himself on Mike Babcock's 2nd line this season. He represents the primary reason the team is under no pressure to give Danny Cleary a raise, sign a top 6 forward or rush Darren Helm back into the lineup before his back is fully healed. Naturally of course, Nyquist is also capable of playing on the 3rd line with Andersson and Tatar if everything breaks out perfectly for Detroit and his services aren't needed in the top 6. Although he hasn't been asked to do it very much in Detroit, Gustav is also an exceptional penalty killer; regardless of which line he starts on, the Wings will find plenty of ways to get Nyquist on the ice every night. In time as Gustav develops and other forwards in the organization age, it's entirely possible that Nyquist will eventually take over a first line scoring winger role; he legitimately has the talent to eventually be a star at the NHL level.

Rounding out the group is enigmatic Slovak sniper, Tomas Tatar. At this point Tatar has been knocking on the door to the NHL for at least two entire seasons; a situation that has frustrated both fans and people named Tomas Tatar to no end. The simple truth is that while Tatar's offensive game has been more than good enough for the NHL during that time; his streaky play, lack of size and somewhat average defensive skills make it impossible to play him in a checking line role. As there haven't been a whole lot of openings on the Wings' skill lines recently and Gustav Nyquist plays the better two-way game; Tomas has been forced to wait in Grand Rapids for his waiver option years to expire. Now that the wait is finally over for all parties concerned, expect Tatar to delight the Joe Louis faithful with a stunning display of pure offensive skills and a refreshing, almost infectious burst of energy. Tomas has all the tools required to create goals at the NHL level; he skates well, passes well, has excellent vision as well as sublime stick-handling skills and he tops it all off with a hard, accurate shot that seems to find it's way to the net through traffic frequently. The downside is that at roughly 5'9" and 185 lbs he's practically a midget and despite giving maximum effort on every shift, he just isn't strong enough to be more than an average defender at this point in his career. This isn't to suggest that Tatar is irresponsible in his own end; he's spent the better part of two years killing penalties in Grand Rapids after all. For now however; his size and inexperience will likely restrict him to a 3rd line role with some bonus minutes on the 2nd power-play unit. For Wings' fans who don't get the chance to see many Griffins games, I would describe Tatar as being a lot like Juri Hudler talent-wise; except with a much better work ethic, vastly superior wheels and without (thus far) the outrageous contract demands.           

Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls: For those of you counting at home; that makes 15 different forwards, including at least 11 players who will make the 2013-14 squad baring injuries or accidents. The Wings' will keep 14 forwards on the senior roster unless Holland/Babcock decide to keep an 8th defenseman as insurance against injury or inconsistent play. Even if you assume Filppula is gone, Helm starts the season on the injured list and Holland is only able to keep one of Dan Cleary or Damien Brunner; that still leaves both Mikael Samuelsson and Todd Bertuzzi outside of the 12 man starting forward lineup and potentially fighting for a single roster spot. Given a choice between the two, my money is on Holland keeping Bertuzzi and dumping Samuelsson for a number of reasons. For starters Todd is just under a million dollars cheaper per season than his Swedish counterpart. Since both players are 38 years old and on contracts that won't come off the cap if they are released outright; getting either one off the roster will likely require the team to use one of their two compliance buyouts. As previously mentioned I don't think Holland is going to burn both of his mulligans immediately and if he's going to actually burn one, he might as well burn it on the guy with the higher salary. Additionally, Bert is a little bigger than Mikael, is more suited to a checking line role and brings the occasional fight to the table to keep opposing teams honest. Finally, during his time on the sideline this past season; Bertuzzi demonstrated tremendous leadership skills by serving as both a nominal assistant coach and a personal mentor to the team's young forwards. That sort of thing still counts for something in Mike Babcock's world and it might just be enough to earn Bertuzzi a roster spot for 2013-14; assuming Filppula leaves and the Wings strike out on the free agent market. Regardless, I expect Samuelsson to be either traded (fat chance) or bought out before the regular season begins; simply to free up a roster spot and give Holland some financial flexibility at the trade deadline.

Hired Help: The good news of course, is that the Wings have enough talented players that they won't be required to dip heavily into the free agent forward market. The bad news is that the team could desperately use another 20 goal man; preferably one with size, aggression and a right handed shot. As previously mentioned, a thin free agent class has created a sellers market and although there will be some tempting options on display; there's no guarantee any of them will fit into Ken Holland's price range.  While I don't have any inside information to confirm my assumption; I would think a look a Holland's conservative history in the salary cap era suggests he's unlikely to spend right up to the line and leave himself paralyzed during the season. It's going to take real money to reel in a fish like Nathan Horton, David Clarkson or even breakout playoff star Brian Bickell and based on the projections above; Holland just isn't going to have that kind of scratch lying around this season. After signing his own free agents (restricted or otherwise) it's entirely possible that the team will have enough money for one of the cheaper options on the market; someone like Viktor Stalberg, Michael Ryder or Brad Boyes, A more likely scenario however; is that Holland will stay pat with what he has early in the offseason and then wait for compliance buyouts to open up more and cheaper options before the season starts. I do still believe the Wings will sign at least one free agent forward, possibly two; if only to protect themselves from injury or ineffective rehab efforts. My bet however is that Holland will go cheap and bring in guys to compete with fringe players like Bertuzzi, Emmerton, Tootoo and maybe even Patrick Eaves. Winners stay and the losers get a one way ticket out of town via trade, release or the waiver wire just before the regular season begins. Regardless of who Holland ultimately signs however, there's a pretty good chance Wings' fans will be disappointed; you don't sign a guy like Jerome Iginla to compete for a 3rd/4th line role with the likes of Cory Emmerton after all.

(Editors Note: Continued in part 3 here.)

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