5 RFA’s that the Red Wings need to focus on signing

Restricted free agents just don’t seem to have the same urgency as the unrestricted ones. Especially when this year’s UFAs include names like Steven Stamkos, Kyle Okposo, Milan Lucic and Eric Staal just to name a few. But restricted free agency comes with its own set of stresses and strains. We watched the drama unfold before with players like PK Subban and Ryan Johansen. We were left wondering if these guys were going to have contracts by the time the season started or were they simply at an impasse with management. Now, the Wings thankfully don’t have any pending RFAs that could lead to any theatrics in the media, but that’s not to say there aren’t some tough decisions to be made with some long-term implications. Here we’ll break down the five most pressing RFAs the Wings will be negotiating with this off-season.

5. Alexey Marchenko – Current Cap Hit: $665K

It’s a sad reality right now, but saying, “well, he does shoot right,” is almost enough to guarantee you a spot on the current Red Wings roster. He’s not exactly burning up the score sheet with eleven points in seventy-three games but when you are drafted in the 7th round, management may just be happy you can even hang in the NHL. On the plus, the kid has a 51.3% CORSI and while he may be sheltered competition-wise, Blashill depends on him enough to put 52.3% of his starts in the defensive zone, allowing the team to push guys like Mike Green to starting 69.5% (!!) of his shifts in the offensive zone.

Is he the future of this defensive core? Certainly not. But right now he gives the team some consistency and some dependability in the role he is deployed in. Let’s also not forget, the kid shoots right. A full off-season to truly heal that ankle and improve his skating game and Holland can focus on the real issue: getting a top pairing defenseman and not worry about the bottom end.

Assessment: He’ll be cheap and is the team’s best option right now in the 5-6 pairing on the right side. A nice 2-year bridge may be the perfect call as the Wings wait on new Grand Rapids addition and right-handed shooter, Vile Saarijarvi.  

4. Teemu Pulkkinen – Current Cap Hit: $735K

I remember the whispers about the kid in the AHL with the booming shot. He was well over a point-per-game player in the regular season last year, while also maintaining that point-per-game pace into the Griffins playoff run. After all, he scored the most goals in the league that year while only playing 46 games due to a mid-season call up. Would you look at that? He even shoots right. I could get used to this:

As of yet though, his game just hasn’t quite translated to the big leagues. Pulkkinen has just twelve points in thirty-six games this season and missed substantial time with a bad shoulder injury. He’s deployed right now in a bottom-six role, averaging less than ten minutes a game. He’s been a healthy scratch a bunch this season too even though his stellar 57.7% CORSI dictates maybe he should be seeing more ice with better line mates and less press box time. He is seeing 1.8 minutes of power play time a game though and his PP PDO is also a low 94.5 showing not only that he is due to catch some breaks, but also shows in number form, this guy truly struggles to hit the net for stretches.

But hey, maybe these lower numbers aren’t all bad? Some players take a little more time and right now with the realities of the cap crunch and an overflowing forward group, this slow start may work in the Wings favour. He’s an RFA who will likely take a small bridge deal similar to Jurco’s $900K two-year deal. You get to see what this guy can do in a few different roles on the cheap and worst-case scenario; he’s got the AHL numbers to sweeten the pot on any trade Holland manages to assemble down the road like, maybe for a defenseman who can really skate?

Assessment: Low-risk/high-reward on keeping this kid around a little longer to get a good look at him but he doesn’t help a lot right at this moment. 

3. Riley Sheahan – Current Cap Hit: 950K

Sheahan, in my opinion, deserves the tag of Detroit’s new Mule. He’s a big body with an unbelievable snapshot; he plays a complete 200-foot game and is also dependable on the PK. More games like the one against Montreal earlier this week and suddenly the Wings are a much better team.  

While last season’s impressive 55.2% CORSI rating may have taken a hit, he’s still a positive 51.6%. This is even after Blashill took his plentiful (read: sheltered) 57.8% offensive zone starts and turned him into a guy starting his shifts 52% of the time in his own end. He’s now the guy depended on to win that draw and start the breakout. He’s averaging a full two minutes of PK time per game this season on what’s been a mediocre unit but has yet to be used on the PP very much. A big guy with hands could be a valuable net-front guy on a struggling PP. Maybe one day. I’m telling you, the hands are there:

Sheahan is the only player on this list I’m willing to give the benefit of the intangibles. There’s certainly a work ethic there. There’s certainly a compete level that not everyone in this group currently possess. This is a guy who over the last three seasons has his points-per-60-minutes jump to nearly 2 when the Wings are trailing by a goal. With how high up the Wings rank in one-goal games this season, this is a guy you need.

Has he produced at the level the Wings hoped when they drafted him in the 1st round of the 2010 draft? Probably not, as his season high in points is just 36. But with a guy like Helm potentially leaving the team in the off-season, Sheahan could very well be the Wings undisputed third line center and special teams utility guy going forward. I also feel like we haven’t seen the ceiling on this kid yet and should they end the playoff streak this season (god forbid) I’d expect a shakeup he could stand to benefit from. 

Assessment: This is a player who Holland is going to want to sign and thankfully Sheahan doesn’t have the stats, fancy or otherwise, to really flex in negotiations. Like the rest up to this point, this should be an affordable bridge deal. 

2. Petr Mrazek – Current Cap Hit: $737K

I know what you’re thinking. How could Mrazek not finish at the top of this list? “But Kyle, he was putting up Vezina numbers in January/February!” you protest. He’s put this team on his back for stretches and is arguably the only reason the Wings are still within a playoff spot. I agree fully with all of this. But the way things are right now with this team; Petr Mrazek is only the second most important RFA on the roster.

How could that be? Let’s quickly divide the team into three units: forwards, defence and goaltending. Which unit is the weakest of the three? If your instant response is not the defence, I’m not sure what team you’ve been watching this year. Goaltending has actually been probably the brightest spot of the three. Now, a lot of that has to do with Mrazek, yes, but it also has to do with the fact that Jimmy Howard is a pretty good backup goaltender. Mrazek’s numbers read as follows: his 2.31GAA is good for 12th in the league, his .921 save percentage is good for 10th, and his 4 shutouts put him in an 11-way tie for 6th. That’s a GAA ahead of Lundqvist, Rask, Luongo and Rinne and a save percentage better than Fleury, Quick, Rask and Rinne again. Even with his numbers regressing slightly as of late, and the hit they took against Pittsburgh (his Achilles heel this season) the kid is showing that with a little more consistency, he may ready to hang with the elite.Who makes this save?!

As I typed all that out I almost convinced myself for a second there that Mrazek has to be the number one priority this off-season. But those stats, when looked at rationally, through a big-picture lens, only help drive home my point. The Wings are in a position they haven’t found themselves in for decades; they may be stumbling into the realm of having an elite goaltender. But at the same time, they’re treading into another unknown realm; they just may have a defensive core bad enough to squander it.

So while Mrazek is the hope, the future and the Wings first true shot at an elite crease in decades, the fact of the matter is we still watch every year as a Schneider backstops another Devils team to a 13th place finish. We stand by as Miller plays out his prime years on a failing Buffalo Sabres team. It’s a real possibility that this team could slip into that position if not careful and that’s why our next RFA becomes an important piece to this teams future in a peculiar way.

Assessment: The reality is that due to the way the CBA is currently structured, RFA contracts are like getting lobbed a pitch for teams to knock out of the park repeatedly until that pitch turns 25. This deal will get done. It’s what happens in front of this kid that really matters. 

1. Danny DeKeyser – Current Cap Hit: $2.18M

Let me make myself clear off the bat; DeKeyser being the top of the list is not a good thing. The take away from this is that Detroit’s defensive core is in such disarray right now, that they absolutely need this guy to have any hope of seeing the playoffs.

We all think we’re exceptional coaches from behind our screens. I’d like to take a look though at how the actual coaches use this guy. When the faceoff is in the defensive zone, who is on the ice? Most likely, it’s DeKeyser. He leads the Wings defense in that category, starting in the defensive zone 61.4% of the time. That number is high enough that it isn’t simply a fluke, the coaching staff knows that player well and they know if the pucks in their own zone, DDK needs to be out there. If they make the playoffs with a decent record, this stat looks okay. It also really speaks to our gut feeling about DDK, that of dependability.

This season, 22 of Detroit’s 36 wins were decided by one goal. They do have 17 losses though where they lost by only one goal. That means 58 of Detroit’s 73 games played have been one-goal games this year. Needless to say, having players who thrive in those conditions are virtually essential to this roster. When the team is trailing by one goal, DeKeyser’s subpar 48.5% CORSI jumps to a 57.1% and Blashill begins starting DDK in the offensive zone more than the defensive zone. This means that when the team is trailing, the coaching staff is depending on DDK’s ability to control the puck and make the play happen to tie this thing up. His numbers don’t show him to be the guy to put that puck in the net, or to even get it to the guy who does, but in this situation, he thrives at controlling the play. Easiest stat in the book: don’t have the puck, can’t shoot the puck, harder to then to get that puck in the net when you need it, down by one.

It’s not all great though with DDK and at times, it’s downright terrible. When Detroit is trailing by a goal, it’s almost the only time his CORSI rating is actually better than the team average. This means the pairing of him and Quincey are almost always holdings back the other players on the ice, in every other scoring situation. Whether or not you want to make a quality-of-partner argument here is up to you, but the numbers don’t discriminate. This is especially prevalent when the team is ahead by a goal. His CORSI plummets to abysmal levels. How bad you ask? Like, below 40% bad. Terrible.

So, okay, now I get that you’re really upset with me. How is this guy of higher priority than Mrazek? I’m still refusing to budge here though. The reason this RFA signing is more important than that of Mrazek is because with all these stats, ranging from just mediocre to downright poor in some cases, signing this guy shows clearly how dire the situation on the blue line really is right now. I don’t want to be only a numbers guy here. Should they be taken into consideration? Yes, and seriously so in my opinion. 

But anyone looking down the line at the defensive core that this may be one of the best Detoirt has at their disposal. He’s the only one in the top two pairings (his being deployed as the #1 right now by the way) whose age doesn’t start with a 3, meaning he’s the only one likely not at risk of decline. What signing DDK this offseason says to the team, or should say, is that the time to go fix this blue line is now. The changes aren’t coming from within for at least a couple more years and the guys closest to making the jump from the A to the big show are more of the same.

Signing DeKeyser says there is something here to work with still, but our focus should be on making a trade for a top-pairing guy. I know Wings fans cringe at the thought, but this needs to happen even if that means buying high. The numbers should keep the price down on DDK but then again we saw what happen with Ericsson’s bloated contract.

Assessment: DeKeyser is the Wings most pressing RFA this off-season because hopefully it’s the jolt management needs to make something big happen. Right now, this core simply can’t hack it on the back end. I’m sure they already know this, but giving DDK a little more coin might push them into letting some UFAs walk (Quincey/Helm) and start allocating the funds and pieces to bring in what is needed; the ever-elusive top pairing defenseman.