Top 5 UFA Centres for the Red Wings to Target

Pavel Datsyuk’s retirement from the NHL has really been hard on the Detroit Red Wings. For one, it left them with a $7.5M cap hit for the 2016-17 season, a big bruise on the books that was eating up 10% of their available cap.

Somehow, against all odds, Ken Holland figured that one out.

His departure also left a gaping hole in the Wings top-6, one that no rookie is ready to fill. 

Pavel Datsyuk was more than the team’s best scorer. He was a veteran presence who knew what it took to win. He was calm on and off the ice and his work ethic was second to none. He was a leader.

Ken Holland’s got his work cut out for him this offseason. The UFA pool for centre isn’t that strong when it comes to point production, other than the obvious. Now that Holland’s shipped the contract out of Detroit, he needs to bring in a player that can fill the void of Pavel Datsyuk.

Holland has always been a believer in having a veteran presence in the room and that’s good for him this year, because none of these guys are particularly young for hockey professionals. Still, Holland needs to sell them on the city of Detroit, the Detroit Red Wings, and how they can help turn the team into a contender.

Whether the Wings compete next year or not is one thing, but if they’re going to push for a playoff spot, they’ll need to acquire another centre one way or another.  Here’s five options the Wings could look at this offseason:

5. Shawn Matthias

With Darren Helm possibly wanting to test the free agency market, the Wings will be looking for some depth down the middle. Despite playing on the wing for Colorado last year, Shawn Matthias has historically played centre. Here is a guy who has signed short-term contracts for exactly what he’s worth. Last year, he signed a 1-year, $2.3million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, with the assumption that he would be dealt to a playoff contender by the trade deadline. And he was dealt to the Colorado Avalanche in February. He put up a career-high of 28 points last year.

Matthias has been a consistent 20-point scorer, who can likely hit the 20-goal mark if put in the right situations. Last season, he scored 6 goals in Toronto in 51 games. He scored the same amount in Colorado in 20 games, where he was give a top-6 role on a line with Carl Soderbergh and Gabriel Landeskog.

I don’t really like this option for the Wings. He doesn’t make up for losing Darren Helm’s speed or versatility, but he’s a solid option for a short term, low cap hit contract. Low risk, high reward. It’s been rumoured that Colorado will be making a bid to keep him, but other than that, no rumblings of interested teams. He’ll be one of the last players on this list to be locked up.

Here’s a Shawn Matthias fun fact for ya: He was drafted 47th overall in 2006 by the Detroit Red Wings.

4. Eric Staal

Eric Staal is a more extreme version of David Backes. Definitely on the other side of his prime, the aging Staal saw his biggest drop off of production in his career this season, posting 39 points in 83 games for the Carolina Hurricanes and the New York Rangers.

Coming off of a 7-year, $58M contract ($825M AAV), Staal will likely be looking at a lower term, lower salary this time around. Maybe something in the 5×5 range. Though he’s not the player that he used to be, his resume is quite impressive: 6 year captain of the Carolina Hurricanes, 6 time NHL All-Star, one 100 point season, and Stanley Cup Champion. This last achievement is the biggest differentiator from someone like David Backes. Staal knows what it takes to win it all.

This kind of veteran presence in the room is crucial for a transitioning team with lots of youth. This is the kind of guy Ken Holland is looking for to come in and lead by example. Based on Detroit’s history of signing veterans to the team, I could very well see Staal in the winged wheel next season.

That is, if he doesn’t return to Carolina.


3. David Backes

David Backes is one of the names on this list that is bound to get a lot of attention from teams looking for some leadership and veteran presence in the locker room. The 3-time All-Star has been captain of the St. Louis Blues for the last five years and led them to the playoffs each of those 5 years (3 of which were first round exits).

Backes has been a consistent 20-goal scorer, only breaking the 30 goal mark twice so far in his ten year career with the Blues. A good two-way centre, Backes has always had a more defensive role on the team, but towards the end of this last season he was pushed to the third line with Alex Steen as emerging young players such as Robby Fabbri and Jori Lehtera took on more responsibility with top-6 roles.

Everything about David Backes at this point in his career screams intangibles. He’s a ten year league veteran with plenty of playoff experience. While he doesn’t have any Stanley Cup rings to show for it, he knows what it’s like to lose enough to not want to do it anymore. I could very easily see David Backes being the Red Wings Brad Richards signing this year, but he would require longer term and a higher salary. At 32-years old, I’d be weary to give Backes more than three years at $6 million.

He’ll likely score 5 years somewhere at a cap hit that is higher than he is worth. Such is the way of the free agency market. He’d be a great addition to the Red Wings locker room, but likely wouldn’t add much to their on-ice production. Not worth the kind of money he’ll surely get.


2. Frans Nielsen

The New York Islanders are in for an interesting offseason as two of their top-5 goal scorers are unrestricted free agents. All eyes are on Kyle Okposo at the moment, the 22 goal-scorer who played on John Tavares’ wing, as he’s set to test the market, but Frans Nielsen, the Isles’ 2nd line centre, quietly awaits a raise of his own.

One of the few true two-way centres available this year, Nielsen has built up his seasonal point totals to consistently be in the 40-50 point range. At 32 years old, Nielsen is coming off his first big boy contract with the Islanders (4 years, $11M). Reports from The Hockey News are saying that Isles GM Garth Snow is working on locking Nielsen up long-term. This will likely be in the $25M-$26M range – probably 5 years at $5M.

Despite being a good option for a Darren Helm replacement, this kind of deal is too big for the Red Wings to take on for a 32-year old 2-way centre. If, somehow, talks break down between Nielsen and the Islanders, Ken Holland would be a fool not to at least try and offer him a 3 year, $15 million dollar deal.

1.  Steven Stamkos

Duh.

Look, I’m not going to beat a dead horse. We all know how big of a free agent Stamkos is. Getting Datsyuk’s cap hit off the books goes a long way to making Stamkos in the winged wheel become a reality. 

But, in reality, will Steven Stamkos want to be a Detroit Red Wing? Money ain’t gonna talk here because there are many teams around the league who can afford to pay him. Holland is going to have to sell him on the team, how Stamkos fits into the Red Wings plan, and how they are going to get him a Stanley Cup sooner rather than later. At the end of the day, it’s going to be based on what kind of situation Stamkos wants to find himself in. Does he want to go home and lead the Leafs to their first Stanley Cup in seventy years? Does he want to play in the heart of New York City? Does he simply want to make as much money as possible in Buffalo? Only Steven Stamkos knows the answers to these questions. All we can do is sit patiently and wait for his decision on July 1st. Or later. 

Please don’t let it be later.

What are your thoughts of this year’s UFA centres? Should the Wings chase any of them? Who is on your wishlist?