Red Wings’ October Moves Were Already Made In July

Far more than the usual questions and raised eyebrows and shrugged shoulders at the Red Wings moves surrounding the NHL’s waiver wire this week.  The Red WIngs surrendered two players to opposing organizations, Martin Frk to Carolina, and 70-game NHL vet Teemu Pulkkinen to Minnesota.

In an ideal circumstance, you aren’t sending promising young players whose peak potential you are still unsure of to the waiver wire — you’re sending veterans who no longer have a place in your organization, or “projects” that you were willing to examine, give a test-drive to, and you deem there isn’t a fit.  

But for an organization with a real lack of contributing forwards in their “prime”, and for a team that finished 23rd in goals scored in the NHL last season, “giving up” on a 23-year old 2nd-round pick in Frk, and a 24-year old 4th-rounder with promise in Pulkkinen made such little sense.

Or did it?  Was the die cast already on how this team would look in early July when they re-signed Drew Miller, and re-signed Darren Helm, and pretended for a hot minute it was 2009 with their one-year offer to 33-year old Steve Ott?  You’re not signing those players to trade them more than likely, and you sure aren’t cutting them and giving their gigs to mere children, in the apparent eyes of Red Wings President & GM Ken Holland.

It’s quite true that this roster’s forward spots filled up way too quickly this summer.  Now, there’s little damage in taking a one-year chance that Thomas Vanek can fire home 20 goals rather effortlessly and anything on top of that is a bonus (especially at $2.6M for one season).  The cost of signing former Islanders’ centre Frans Nielsen was both a cost of doing previous bad business and being stuck with players (and contracts) that don’t pay very well on the dollar for point productivity, and the inevitable departure of Pavel Datsyuk this offseason.  

But as I’ve opined several times here, there must be simply something we don’t know.  Is Ken Holland’s job on the line if he doesn’t make the playoffs?  Well, it shouldn’t be.  That’s not the type of mandate that’s all that important if you’re thinking of the long game, and it’s a thought-process that seems to be utterly eluding the Red Wings right now.  

They seem so sure of themselves that Frk can’t play in the NHL, or that Pulkkinen is immediately replaceable, and just wait until Tomas Jurco is back healthy again, because believe me, they think he’s close to worthless as well.  

Incredible but not surprising given the prior decisions of Holland/Blashill that Anthony Mantha isn’t starting the season in the NHL, but rather with the Grand Rapids Griffins.  One of the very few natural goal-scorers and finishers in the entire organization isn’t one of the best thirteen forwards ready for the first two games in Florida.  Never mind that it casts negative aspersions on Mantha not being able to make a bubble-playoff team at best in the weaker of the two conferences, at age 22, but this is also likely to be a team starving for offensive exploits that few outside of Nyquist or Larkin can provide, and though Frans Nielsen is a solid addition, he’s never had a 60-point NHL season and isn’t about to start doing so at age 33.  

There’s no courage here with the Mantha decision.  To me, it’s sink-or-swim right out of the gate.  Play him in the first 20 games.  Play him at least 14 minutes a night, including second power-play unit time.  Then check those results after 20 games, and we’d all probably be in agreement one way or the other — yes, he’s doing fine, or no, he’s struggling mightily.  Instead, we’re left with more uncertainty.  Maybe he’ll disappoint, and if he’s not long for the Red Wings, maybe he’ll disappoint elsewhere, but it’s laughable to think he’s been given any kind of remotely adequate audition to prove himself — and it’s already been established the Red Wings looked better in the games in which Mantha got decent minutes last March than the games prior to, or the games after.  

Winnipeg is going to test the waters with defenceman Josh Morrissey, drafted seven spots ahead of Mantha in 2013.  Ottawa has done so with Curtis Lazar (2013-17th overall) with some promising results so far. 

Again, this was the team that scored 8 goals in 5 games in their first-round playoff exit.  This is the organization that’s lost 15 of their last 20 playoff games and yet feels it can puff its chest out and brag about a playoff years streak that only the simplest fans can take pride in while not noticing other teams feeling comfortable hitting the reset button (Buffalo, Toronto) or simply managing its talent and budget in a far-better manner (Tampa Bay, Chicago).

As for Frk and Pulkkinen, the oddity is also that after making the mistake of exposing Frk to waivers — I have heard from multiple sources Ken Holland was fairly certain Frk would pass through and could go straight to Grand Rapids — numbers-wise, they didn’t need to expose Pulkkinen, given he’s still recovering from his shoulder injury, and could have been put on IR, and especially so given they just put veteran defenceman Niklas Kronwall on IR with a knee injury that plagued him for a good chunk of the latter half of last season.  

Look, a lot of the right things were said this summer, by both Ken Holland and 2nd-year head coach Jeff Blashill.  It seems like discussions were had about player deployment and younger players needing “live bullets”, if you will, to develop — you can’t gain experience without playing, but on the Red Wings without experience, you’re often not allowed to play.  And, like others, watching them in preseason and reading the quotes about players like Mantha and Athanasiou not doing enough and not outplaying known and peaked commodities like Miller or Ott, is ultimately quite frustrating.

It’s all fine and good to preach patience with players when there is no salary cap and your roster is stacked with future Hall of Famers, but that’s far from the case now.  If anything, the Red Wings have already paid a price by being too patient with Gustav Nyquist leaving him in Grand Rapids for the first-third of the season while giving loads of games and minutes to the likes of Daniel Cleary, Mikael Samuelsson, and Todd Bertuzzi.  They did the same the prior spring in 2013 by leaving Tomas Tatar to light it up (16 goals in 24 AHL playoff games) in Grand Rapids while goals were incredibly difficult to come by in their seven-game defeat to eventual Stanley Cup Champion Chicago (Detroit scored 7 goals in the final 4 games of the series).

No, I’m not telling you the losses of Frk and Pulkkinen are remotely devastating to the Red Wings short-term or long-term future, but why lose them when you simply don’t have to?  Never mind that, they’re insanely cheap assets for the time being, and for a team already pushed right up against the salary cap — and paying Johan Franzen, Joe Vitale, and Stephen Weiss (although not counting towards the cap) not to play is still sending dollars out of a money-conscious organization that you’ll never see again.  

Every team has a bad contract or two — every team overspends to get a player sometimes, so it’s silly to re-hash trades involving Kyle Quincey or David Legwand, or free agent signings like Jordin Tootoo, Ian White, Carlo Colaicaivo, Jonas Gustavsson, or misguided endings to excellent careers like Mike Modano or Brad Richards.  But there’s always a cost when young assets escape to other organizations for nothing, and especially so, if you’re already too old and too expensive a roster as the Wings are perceived by nearly everyone with a shred or either hockey acumen or objectivity.

While it’s true that more pundits predicting the 16 playoff teams in the NHL have the Red Wings out of the playoffs than in them, I still feel if they land on the proper side of the coin when it comes to player health and there’s better utilization of younger players, they could still sneak in, but the philosophies and asset management demonstrated just over the last week doesn’t suggest any evolvement over the summer has been positive.