DETROIT – Throughout the years, the Detroit Red Wings have made big splashes in free agency that have helped the club remain one of the most consistent franchises in all of sports.
The 2014 free-agent class doesn’t boast the greatest crop of superstars, but there are several players available that could help Detroit clinch its 24th consecutive postseason berth and challenge for a Stanley Cup championship for the first time since 2008.
The Red Wings currently have 18 players under contract next season for just over $54.2 million, including the $3 million carry-over bonuses for forwards Daniel Alfredsson, Tomas Tatar and defenseman Danny DeKeyser from last season.
With the projected salary cap at $70 million, the Red Wings will have approximately $16 million to spend, even after re-signing restricted free agents Tatar, DeKeyser and forward Riley Sheahan, and Holland has made it no secret the club will focus on adding a top-four defenseman and a top-six forward.
All of Detroit’s aging unrestricted free agents--forwards Todd Bertuzzi, Dan Cleary, David Legwand and Alfredsson--are expected to be gone, with Alfredsson being the only veteran unrestricted free agent with more than a slight chance to be back if he decides to play his 18th NHL season.
The Wings will look to re-sign defenseman Kyle Quincey, but the 28-year-old will most likely receive a bigger offer on the open market than Detroit is willing to spend.
Detroit already addressed their backup goalie concerns when they signed Jonas Gustavsson to a one-year, $1.85 million extension last Friday.
Now, it’s time to focus on the biggest areas of need.
The NHL's free-agent interview period began on June 25 and Holland has reached out to the representatives of several players scheduled to hit the open market on July 1.
Let’s take a look at some of the top unrestricted free agents that the Red Wings could target for the 2014-15 season.
2013-14 Salary: $2.3 million
At 27 years old, Matt Niskanen is a young, agile puck-possession player who will be among the highest-touted defensemen in the free-agent class.
Niskanen made $2.3 million last season with the Pittsburgh Penguins and could command over $6 million per year on a long-term deal, which would be a higher cap hit than Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg ($6.03 million) and close to assistant captain Pavel Datsyuk ($7.5 million).
But with Detroit’s glaring need for a top-four defenseman, Niskanen is an attractive possibility for the Wings, even at a high cost.
The 6-foot, 209-pound defenseman finished the 2013-14 season with career highs in nearly every category, posting 10 goals including six game winners, 46 points and a plus-33 rating.
Niskanen also showcased his ability on the man advantage last season, tallying 15 power-play points. Other than Niklas Kronwall’s 25, Detroit’s defensemen combined for just 12 power-play points last season.
He’ll attract interest from several teams and could be Detroit’s No. 1 target.
2013-14 Salary: $900,000
On the other end of the financial totem pole, the Red Wings could explore the possibility of adding Tom Gilbert.
Although he only posted three goals and 28 points in 73 games last season for the Florida Panthers, Gilbert would be a solid and inexpensive addition for Detroit after making only $900,000 last season.
At 6-foot-2 and 206 pounds, you’d expect Gilbert to be a bruising enforcer on the blue line, but he's actually a quick, agile defenseman who has a high hockey IQ and plays a lot of minutes.
He played all 82 games for the Edmonton Oilers every season from 2007 to 2010, posting 23 goals and 86 assists during that span before being traded to the Minnesota Wild at the 2012 trade deadline.
With the Panthers last season, Gilbert played over 21 minutes per game before a sports hernia ended his year. He’ll likely command more than the $900,000 he played for last season, but he provides everything the Wings look for in a top-four defenseman.
2013-14 Salary: $6.6 million
Throughout the years, the Red Wings have coveted experienced veterans in free agency and 37-year-old Dan Boyle would be no exception.
He’s a right-handed, offensive-minded defenseman that Detroit could utilize for a lesser price. Boyle, who posted 36 points in 75 games for the San Jose Sharks last season, is likely to require a one-year deal and would help buy time for Detroit’s young defensive prospects to develop in the AHL.
Although his numbers have declined recently, Boyle is a 15-year NHL veteran who’s won a Stanley Cup and has a bevy of postseason experience.
Kronwall, 33, is the oldest defenseman on the current Wings roster, followed by 30-year-old Jonathan Ericsson. The addition of Boyle would give the Red Wings a proven right-handed defenseman, allowing young players like Alexey Marchenko, Adam Almquist, Ryan Sproul and Xavier Ouellet to develop in Grand Rapids.
2013-14 Salary: $1.7 million
Anton Stralman spent the 2013-14 season with the New York Rangers, helping them return to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1994.
While he isn’t a big offensive producer, Stralman is a grinder who played 81 regular season games and 25 postseason games last season.
Stralman is a tough, right-handed, second-pair defenseman who’s posted a positive plus-minus rating in each of the last three seasons.
After seven NHL seasons, including the most successful of his career in 2013-14, the 27-year-old is entering his prime and as a native of Tibro, Sweden, Stralman could easily fit into a Red Wings lineup that included seven Swedes last season.
He’s coming off a two-year, $3.4 million contract and given the lack of depth for unrestricted free-agent defensemen, Stralman will most likely command around $3 million per season in his next deal.
2013-14 Salary: $7.1 million
Thomas Vanek posted 68 points last season, splitting time between the New York Islanders and the Montreal Canadiens.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound forward who played his first eight-plus NHL seasons with the Buffalo Sabres has 556 points in 663 career games and will likely be the highest-touted forward on the market.
Vanek, however, had a disappointing postseason after joining the Canadiens at the trade deadline, posting 10 points in 17 playoff games, and just two assists in Montreal’s six-game loss to the Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals. The Canadiens aren’t likely to re-sign him.
Despite his sub-par postseason, at 30 years old, Vanek is still an offensive creator who can generate scoring opportunities. He had a 10.9 shooting percentage last season and has the ability to be lethal on the man advantage, scoring at least 10 power-play goals in each of his first seven NHL seasons.
With Alfredsson and Bertuzzi unlikely to return, the Wings would greatly benefit from a veteran forward with two 40-goal seasons on his resume.
2013-14 Salary: $6 million
2013-14 Salary: $6.6 million
Paul Stastny has spent his entire eight-year NHL career with the Colorado Avalanche. But after failing to come to terms with the Avalanche, the 28-year-old will test the free agent market.
The 6-foot, 208-pound center recorded 60 points on 25 goals and 35 assists last season, helping Colorado return to the postseason for the first time since 2010.
The 28-year-old led the Avalanche to a first-place finish in the Western Conference Central Division and posted 10 points in seven playoff games, but Colorado was upset by the Wild in the first round.
Stastny, who could be a less-expensive alternative to Vanek, has 458 points in 538 career regular season games and excluding the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, he’s had six 20-goal and four 60-point campaigns.
*All statistics courtesy of HockeyReference.com.
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