Detroit Red Wings mailbag: How many free agents should Steve Yzerman bring back?

Detroit Free Press

When he spoke after the trade deadline, Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman touched on the subject of his free agents.

Eight players are eligible to become unrestricted free agents this summer. Yzerman said he “has interest in talking to some of them” but declined to name them.

That prompted a question from Marco F., who wrote to ask, “of the UFAs, who do you think Stevie should bring back?” That’s the lead topic in this mailbag.

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The eight players: Forwards Luke Glendening, Darren Helm, Valtteri Filppula, Sam Gagner and Bobby Ryan; defensemen Marc Staal and Alex Biega, and goaltender Jonathan Bernier.

Glendening is a lock to be re-signed. He’s a big part of the locker room culture of which the Wings are so protective, a veteran who sets a great example for young players with his work ethic and professionalism. He excels in the faceoff circle and is a sound defensive player. At 31 he’s a bit past his prime, but Glendening is a smooth skater and hasn’t suffered from nagging injuries in his career.

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Bernier is a close second. Teammates often refer to him as a rock, because he consistently gives them a chance to win. There’s no goalie in the farm system close to being ready for the NHL, so the Wings need a veteran to share the net with Thomas Greiss, who is signed through next season. There are some big names headed for free agency this summer, including Tuukka Rask and Pekka Rinne, but why stray when Bernier has been the Wings’ MVP since mid-December 2019.

I could see either Ryan or Gagner being re-signed — possibly both, depending on the circumstances. Both are great example-setters, former high-end draft picks (Ryan, second overall in 2005; Gagner, sixth in 2007) who bring offense and special-teams play.They fit Yzerman’s vision of giving the core players in the rebuild a supporting cast of veterans looking to reboot their careers. Ryan, 34, had seven goals and seven assists in 33 games when he was lost for the season March 28 to an undisclosed injury. He’s had surgery, so re-signing him will depend on him being expected to fully recover. Gagner, 31, has been a good depth player, someone who can fit on any line — and he’s developed into a penalty killer, too. Offering either or both a one-year deal in the $1 million range is an easy fit under the cap. Even with penciling Joe Veleno into next season’s lineup, there would be room for both on the roster.

Helm’s line with Glendening and Adam Erne consistently puts in a hard night’s work. Helm is 34, still a good skater — maybe there’s a one-year deal that works. Filppula, 37, was a healthy scratch this season until injuries forced otherwise; his second stint with the team that drafted him is coming to a close. In his prime he was one of the team’s best passers, and was a big part of their runs to the Stanley Cup championship in 2008 and the finals in 2009.

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As it stands now, Danny DeKeyser and Troy Stecher are the only defensemen signed through 2021-22, but Filip Hronek is among the restricted free agents who are locks to be re-signed. Moritz Seider, Yzerman’s first pick as GM of the Wings, is poised to make his NHL debut next season after spending 2020-21 dominating in Sweden. I could see Staal being re-signed for one year, at considerably less than the $5.7 million salary cap hit he carried this season. He projects as someone who can mentor Seider in his development into the elite defenseman. Staal, 34, is a former first-round pick (12th, 2005) who has logged 940-plus games, a savvy veteran who keeps things calm.

(A little aside on the 2005 draft: The Wings selected Jakub Kindl at 19th. He never developed into the defenseman they hoped he’d become. Two spots later the Maple Leafs drafted Rask, who they traded to the Bruins a year later. Rask backstopped the Bruins to the 2011 Stanley Cup championship. Imagine if the Wings had taken Rask: They could have had a world-class goaltender to nourish their playoff runs at a time they still had Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg on the roster.)

Biega, 33, has primarily served as a reserve the past two seasons; he’s a good pro and his one-year, less-than-$1 million contracts carry zero risk.

On the subject of veterans, that leads into the next question, from John P., “Will Steve will buy out Nielsen?”

Frans Nielsen, who will miss the rest of the season because of an undisclosed injury, is under contract through next season, with a $5.25 million salary cap hit. A little refresher: Former GM Ken Holland signed Nielsen for six years, $31.5 million in 2016, using some of the cap space gained in trading the contract of Pavel Datsyuk, who left the Wings with a year to go on his contract. (The deal also yielded the draft pick that was used on Hronek.) Nielsen hasn’t been much of a factor in the lineup the last two seasons, recording 15 points in 89 games. Last October, Yzerman bought out Justin Abdelkader, who had three years left on his contract but whose contributions had dwindled to nil.

With an actual salary next season of $3 million, the Wings would owe Nielsen $500,000 per year for two years. Salary-cap wise, there’s little incentive to a buyout, because next year’s hit would be $4.25 million – only $1 million less than it currently is. The Wings don’t have salary cap issues, so carrying the full hit for another year wouldn’t be an issue. With a buyout, there’d be a $500,000 hit against the cap in 2022-23. It is not necessary to buy out Nielsen to open a roster spot; he could be waived and then assigned to the minors, which would also yield a bit north of $1 million in salary cap space. But saving $2 million at a time when the pandemic has ravaged revenue likely will lead Yzerman to execute a second buyout since taking over the Wings two Aprils ago.

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What: “The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings.”

Author: Helene St. James, who has covered the Red Wings at the Detroit Free Press since 1996. Foreword by Chris Osgood, winner of three Stanley Cups as a Wings goaltender.

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Pages: 336 pages (paperback).

Price: $16.95.

Availability: Available in leading bookstores and online from booksellers, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

About the book: “The Big 50” brings to life the men and moments that made the Red Wings such a dynamic and iconic franchise for nearly a century. The book features never-before-told stories about the greats such as Howe, Yzerman, Lidstrom and Lindsay, the near-greats beloved by fans and the great memories of Fight Night, the Fabulous Fifties, the Team for the Ages, the Grind Line, The Joe and much more.

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