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Red Wings Salary Cap: Money Will Be Tight, But They Can Make It Work

With yesterday’s signing of speedy winger Andreas Athanasiou, the Red Wings inched closer to the salary cap ceiling and they’ve still got three key pieces that need to be locked up. While the Wings insist they can make it all work, they’ve once again found themselves in a very tight spot. It’s possible there’s a trade coming, but the candidates with an easy-to-unload contract are few and far between on this roster. So, assuming there’s no trade, here’s how they can make it work.

THE SITUATION

Note: All of the following numbers are from CapFriendly.com. I used the Red Wings salary cap page and the site’s ArmchairGM function to support my thinking.

Athanasiou’s contract carries a cap hit of $3-million, bringing the Wings to within $6,127,956 of the cap ceiling. When you remove Johan Franzen’s contract from the equation, placing him on the long-term injured reserve, it gives the team about $10,082,201 to work with.

The following players are still without contracts:

Dylan Larkin (RFA)

Anthony Mantha (RFA)

Filip Zadina (Entry-Level)

Zadina is the easiest of the three to settle, so let’s give him his maximum entry level deal which will carry a cap hit of $925,000 and narrows our distance-to-go to $9,157,201.

Larkin, the Wings’ golden boy, is the only player the team is willing to make long-term arrangements with at the moment. After a milestone season that saw him put up 16 goals and a team-leading 63 points, Larkin is poised to make some good money on this contract. He’s still a restricted free agent, so his leverage is limited, but the team sees him as a focal point of their culture going forward and a leader to guide them into a new era.

Matt Cane, from hockey-graphs.com, has projected a long-term deal for Larkin to fall in the $6-million AAV range. According to Cane’s model, the most likely scenario is a 6-year, $37.9-million contract which carries an AAV of $6,320,945.

Mantha’s deal is likely going to be the most difficult for Holland to crack. Though the 23-year-old winger has acknowledged that he’s okay to take a bridge deal this time around, he was the team’s leading goal scorer last season. If you’re using Athanasious’ deal as a baseline for this RFA contract, Mantha deserves more than $3-million as his performance and development has been far ahead of Athanasiou’s.

Regardless of Athanasiou’s deal, (which, for those curious, Cane had projected at $1.8-million AAV over 2 years), Mantha is valued at a much higher price. Cane’s model has got Mantha at $4,503,347 AAV over two years.

If you’re doing the math as you you go, you’ve already come to the realization that the Wings can’t afford these contracts at this value.

HOW TO MAKE IT WORK

This is where I started to play Armchair GM. Detroit’s goalies are locked up, carrying a combined cap hit of $8.3-million. Their D-corps is also locked and loaded, costing them roughly $23-million. There’s not much more we can do there except for swap out who the seventh defenseman will be. There is an $80,000 difference between having Joe Hicketts and Filip Hronek on the roster. I’ve carried Hicketts since he is cheaper and I sincerely believe Hronek is better off logging big minutes in the AHL than sitting in the press box at LCA.

For the Wings to be cap compliant with all of their forwards, there are some players who have to start the year in Grand Rapids so that their contracts are not counting against the cap. Those players are Martin Frk ($1.05-million), Luke Witkowski ($750,000) and Evgeny Svechnikov ($863,333). This also ensures that both Michael Rasmussen and Zadina are starting the season in Detroit instead of with their junior teams.

I have Larkin signed up at 6-years, $36-million ($6-million AAV), which I believe is fair value for him. It’s a little below Cane’s projection, but it’s 7.5% of this season’s cap.

As for Mantha, he’s going to have to be signed below the $4-million mark if the team is to fit him under the cap. Even at $3.5-million, the team is over the cap ceiling by $96,665. So that means that we’ll have to shave $100,000 off of one of Larkin, Mantha, or Zadina’s contracts.

I don’t believe that Larkin deserves less than $6-million per year and I can’t imagine Zadina getting anything less than the maximum entry level contract. So we have to take it off of Mantha’s deal, leaving him with a 2-year, $6.8-million contract that carries a cap hit of $3.4-million per year. I would imagine there would be some nice performance bonuses attached to this deal.

This makes the Red Wings cap compliant, with a mere $3,335 in cap space, carrying 13 forwards (61% of cap), 7 defensemen (29% of cap) and 2 goalies (10% of cap).

Left Wing Centre Right Wing
Tyler Bertuzzi

$1,400,000

Dylan Larkin

$6,000,000

Anthony Mantha

$3,400,000

Thomas Vanek

$3,000,000

Henrik Zetterberg

$6,083,333

Gustav Nyquist

$4,750,000

Michael Rasmussen

$894,166

Frans Nielsen

$5,250,000

Andreas Athanasiou

$3,000,000

Justin Abdelkader

$4,250,000

Luke Glendening

$1,800,000

Darren Helm

$3,850,000

Filip Zadina

$925,000

Left Defense Right Defense Goaltender
Danny DeKeyser

$5,000,000

Mike Green

$5,375,000

Jimmy Howard

$5,291,666

Jonathan Ericsson

$4,250,000

Niklas Kronwall

$4,750,000

Jonathan Bernier

$3,000,000

Nick Jensen

$812,500

Trevor Daley

$3,166,666

Joe Hicketts

$635,000

Salary Cap: $79,500,000

2018-19 Cap Hit: $79,496,665

Cap Space: $3,335

SO WHAT ABOUT A TRADE?

As I mentioned at the top of this piece, the Red Wings don’t have that many appealing, moveable contracts. Darren Helm (31-years-old) is signed at $3.85-million until 2021. Frans Nielsen (34-years-old) is locked in at $5.25-million until 2022. Justin Abdelkader (31-years-old) is being paid $4.25-million until 2023. Moving these contracts is going to be near impossible.

Yeah, Luke Glendening got some attention around the trade deadline last season, but it was only from one team and that team has a computer boy at the helm now who likely won’t take on the $1.8-million for the next three years because Mike Babcock thinks he’s a hard worker.

The most likely trade candidate is Gustav Nyquist, who becomes an unrestricted free agent after this season. The frequent 20 goal scorer is the perfect rental candidate for a team that needs secondary offense on their quest for a Stanley Cup. This is more of a trade deadline move, though.

Interestingly, I think that Athanasiou’s deal is very moveable, but it hasn’t been on the rumor mill and neither of the two parties have made any indication that this is an option. In fact, Athanasiou seems excited about being back in Detroit for two more years:

Two more years ✌️😃

A post shared by Andreas Athanasiou (@andreasathanasiou) on

Despite these reasons not to trade a player, the Red Wings are still being talked about as contenders for Justin Faulk out of Carolina. Making it work would take some magic because Faulk carries with him a cap hit of $4.8-million. So the Wings would have to ship out an active roster defenseman and dump some cap.

Nothing’s impossible, but a trade seems unlikely at this point unless Holland is ready to sell Nyquist earlier than anticipated.

CONCLUSION

With a trade possible, though unlikely, the Wings are going to be right up against the cap ceiling again. Athanasiou’s new deal came in higher than expected, which really narrows down the dollars that Larkin and Mantha can get.

With the price tags above, the team can be cap compliant in 2018-19. The money will be tight, but they can make it work, if only for the one year that they need to. With about $20-million coming off the books next Summer, they’ll have some room to breathe and time to reset.

They’re in a rebuild, after all, and rebuilding teams shouldn’t be up against the cap ceiling, feeling anxious and dreadful. They should be far below it, looking up at all of the space, potential, and room for growth. Maybe then will they be in the mix for the next superstar free agent sweepstakes.