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Free Agency Recap: Red Wings Add Depth, Trim Fat, and Focus On Short-Term

When you’re in the the hunt for a Stanley Cup, July 1 is a big day. It’s an opportunity to add depth to your roster in the form of a mid-6 or bottom-4 defenseman. Rarely do elite players hit the market, but when they do, teams scramble to create cap space.

The New York Rangers were big winners at Monday’s free agent frenzy. They landed the big ticket forward, Artemi Panarin, on a seven-year deal. The Florida Panthers and New York Islanders were also big players, beefing up their goaltending and adding secondary scoring. And how about the Colorado Avalanche, getting great value out of a Joonas Donskoi contract and acquiring Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs?

Yes, when your team is in contending mode, free agency can be fun. But there’s the opposite, where the Red Wings are, which makes July 1 just another day fans hold their breath for, hoping the team doesn’t add any more ageing depth players to an already crowded roster. With Ken Holland, it always felt like a sure thing, but with Steve Yzerman, we weren’t quite sure what to expect.

Going into the day, we knew that Stevie was working the phones. He had prior expressed his desire to fill any holes via free agency rather than trade and his expectation was to add one forward and one defenseman. He managed to accomplish both, inking centreman Valtteri Filppula and defenseman Patrik Nemeth to matching 2-year, $6-million contracts.

Wings fans will remember Filppula from his time in Detroit, where he played 483 games over eight seasons, accumulating 100 goals and 251 points. Since then, he’s spent time with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Philadelphia Flyers, and New York Islanders, adding another 85 goals and 243 points to his resume. He’s far from a game breaker, but he’s a smart player who can move the puck around the offensive zone. He’ll be a great teammate for young players coming into the league and should help to bolster the Red Wings power play.

What I find most interesting about the Filppula signing is that he’s a natural center. Towards the end of last season, Jeff Blashill moved Andreas Athanasiou to the middle full-time and though Athanasiou started to make improvements, he couldn’t find his confidence the same way that he did on the wing. That experiment seems to be over now as Filppula will slot comfortably into the 3C role, behind Dylan Larkin and Frans Nielsen and ahead of Luke Glendening. This allows Athanasiou to play on the wing, where he’s most comfortable and most productive.

Patrik Nemeth is a six-year NHL veteran, having played in 250 games for the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche and accumulating 4 goals and 39 points. Those numbers may seem low, but Nemeth is not an offensive player. In Colorado, 66% of his zone starts where in the defensive zone and his on-ice goal differential was +32. He was top-5 in shot blocks in the NHL last year and took a mere 57 minutes in penalties. You likely won’t notice him out there and that’s a good thing.

The Red Wings need that kind of solid, confident defensive play, but this signing does raise big questions about the blue line. For one, they now have six defensemen on NHL contracts, not including prospects under 24-years-old. If Niklas Kronwall decides to come back, that will be seven. You have to add Filip Hronek to this mix since he’s proved that he’s NHL-ready and, frankly, Dennis Cholowski should be too. We’re now up to nine NHL defensemen on this team.

Competition for roster spots is a good thing, but it does make me wonder what Yzerman knows that we don’t. Whether it’s the fact that Kronwall is not coming back or one of the other veteran defensemen won’t be able to play, something has got to give. There is the fact that Detroit’s blue line last year was a revolving door of veterans and rookies because of frequent injuries to Mike Green, Trevor Daley, and Jonathan Ericsson. I wonder if one of those three has something more long-term that Yzerman already knows will prevent them from taking the ice full-time. It would explain adding Nemeth and Yzerman’s claims about maybe signing one more defenseman.

The Wings made one more signing yesterday that should be mentioned and that’s goaltender Calvin Pickard. Pickard has been all over the NHL, but only in a back-up capacity. Over his five-year career, he’s played in 104 NHL games and posted a .908 save percentage and 2.93 goals against average. The stats aren’t bad, but he’s not meant to play for the Red Wings. The expectation is that he’ll compete with Jonathan Bernier for the back-up position, but he’s really meant to be the starter in Grand Rapids now that Patrik Rybar has left for Europe.

With the signings of these three players came the departure of two others. Luke Witkowski signed a two-year deal back in Tampa Bay and Martin Frk signed a one-year deal with the Los Angeles Kings. Neither player was playing much in Detroit and the team would rather backfill injury holes with NHL prospects, than those who they already know won’t be full-time NHL-ers. It allows the prospects to get spurts of NHL development and creates excitement among the fan base. It’s a smart move.

Stevie did well in his first free agency frenzy with the Wings. The big win was the term on the two NHL contracts he signed. Keeping Filppula and Nemeth to two-year deals works on many fronts for the team. For one, they come off the books in 2021-22, around the time when the team should be entering competitive status again. Yzerman will have a much better idea of where the prospects are then in their development and will be able to build a solid plan for the salary cap structure. Secondly, two-year deals are easy to move, whether it’s to another team or to bury in the minors or by buying them out. These are low-risk contracts for the Red Wings. Other than doing nothing at all, it’s the best I could have hoped for out of free agency this year.

Don’t think Yzerman is done, either. He’s thinking some things over and may add another forward and another defenseman if the player and the contract are right. He told the media yesterday that he doesn’t want to add players just for the sake of it, but he doesn’t believe it would box out any prospects either, especially the forwards. From his point of view, he wants to have protection in place in case they deem any of the prospects to be not ready for a full-time NHL role. He also mentioned that he wouldn’t be considering any long-term contracts. Anything else that’s coming in will be on a one-, two-, or three-year deal.

When Yzerman was announced as GM, he told us all that this was going to take time. The term on these contracts tell us exactly how long he’s thinking. The 2021-22 season is when he’s aiming to be competitive again. So a little bit of focus on the short-term now will do wonders in the long-term. That’s when July 1 will be exciting for the Red Wings again.