ZUKE: Aging core, bad contracts make Red Wings’ offseason moves highly questionable

RED WINGS: Detroit Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin (right) protects the puck against the Tampa Bay Lightning last season. (Detroit Free Press photo)

RED WINGS: Detroit Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin (right) protects the puck against the Tampa Bay Lightning last season. (Detroit Free Press photo)

There are still three months until the Detroit Red Wings open their 2016-16 season, but after the team’s initial moves early in the offseason, the direction of the franchise remains unclear.

In the opening hours of free agency on July 1, the Wings inked former New York Islanders center Frans Nielsen, 32, to a $31.5 million, six-year (!) contract to replace future Hall of Famer Pavel Datsyuk, who decided to forego his final year on his NHL deal to sign in the Kontinental Hockey League and play in his home country of Russia.

They took a gamble on former 40-goal scorer Thomas Vanek, who potted 18 goals in 74 games last season with the Minnesota Wild, but often was a healthy scratch toward the end of the season because of inconsistent play. He signed at one year, $2.6 million.

Veteran forward Steve Ott signed a one-year, $800,000 contract to add more grit to the lineup.

The Wings also re-signed speedy forward Darren Helm for five years at $3.85 million per season, and young defenseman Alexey Marchenko for two years and $2.9 million.

But with the departure of Datsyuk and a rapid decrease in production from several of the team’s veteran players, can Detroit make the playoffs for a 26th straight season? It appears doubtful.

Here’s why:

1. Aging core: Captain Henrik Zetterberg, defensemen Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson, and goalie Jimmy Howard all took major steps backward last season and are signed for at least three more seasons with a high cap hit.

Zetterberg, 35, led the team with 50 points but also had a plus-minues rating of minus-15 and seemed to lose a step in a league quickly evolving into more of a speed game. He can no longer be considered a dependable top line player and is signed until the 2020-21 season with a cap hit of $6.08 million per season.

Kronwall, 35, was a career-worst minus-21 and missed 18 games with a knee injury. He is signed for three more seasons with an annual average value of $4,750,000.

Ericsson, 32, is signed for four more years at $4.25 million per and was a turnover machine in his own zone. He put up just 15 points in 71 games.

Howard, 32, was unreliable for most of the season and his days as a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL seem to be dwindling. His numbers this season — 14-14-5 record with a 2.80 goals-against average and .906 save percentage — do not correlate with a contract that has three years left at $5,291,666 per season.

Oh yeah, and there still is 36-year old Johan Franzen on the books for four more seasons, although it is doubtful he will ever suit up in an NHL game again because of his concussion history.

Each of those contracts are troubling now, and will be even more crippling in the future, which means…

2. Salary cap issues: General Manager Ken Holland pulled off the trade of the draft on June 24, sending Datsyuk’s $7.5 million cap hit and the 16th overall pick to the Arizona Coyotes for the 20th overall pick and a future second rounder. He cleared enough cap space to make a bid for 26-year-old forward Steven Stamkos, one of the most talented players ever to hit the free agent market.

But when the two-time 50-goal scorer re-signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning, instead of saving cap space for future deals for valuable forwards Dylan Larkin and Tomas Tatar, Holland opted to sign Nielsen (349 career points in 606 games) and Helm (162 points in 443 games) to long-term deals.

The Wings now have $68.9 million tied up in 17 forwards, five defensemen and one goalie for next season, according to generalfanager.com. Restricted free agent goalie Petr Mrazek and defenseman Danny Dekeyser still need contracts for next season. But with both looking for deals in the $5-million range annually and only about $4 million remaining in cap space, Holland will have to do some last-minute tinkering with the roster before the season.

3. Need for a top pairing defenseman: Every Stanley Cup winning team over the past decade has had a bona fide No. 1 defenseman, most recently the Pittsburgh Penguins (Kris Letang), Chicago Blackhawks (Duncan Keith) and Los Angeles Kings (Drew Doughty).

Of the current defensemen on the roster — Kronwall, Ericsson, Marchenko, Dekeyser, Mike Green and Brendan Smith — none can be considered a top pairing player.

With no premier defensemen on the free agency market, waiting a year when the St. Louis Blues’ Kevin Shattenkirk and San Jose Sharks’ Brent Burns are set to hit free agency seemed to be the most sensible option.

A trade for an elite defenseman is still a possibility, but the asking price is sky-high and would mostly likely mean parting with Larkin or Anthony Mantha.

4. Improving division: The Wings benefited from playing in a weak division last season. Three of the four teams with the fewest points in the Eastern Conference were in the Atlantic, while Toronto had the worst record in the league.

However, the Maple Leafs traded for a young No. 1 goalie in Frederik Andersen, and also used the No. 1 overall draft pick to select 18-year-old forward Auston Matthews, who is certain to make an immediate impact.

The Florida Panthers look to have a solid chance at repeating as division champions. They bolstered their defense by bringing in Keith Yandle and Jason Demers, and signed James Reimer for depth in goal. With a solid young core, Florida should be better next season.

The Tampa Bay Lightning will have a similar look to the teams of the past two seasons that reached the conference finals.

With a full season of Carey Price, the Montreal Canadiens should resemble more of the team that won the Atlantic in 2014-15.

The Buffalo Sabres are loaded with young talent and signed forward Kyle Okposo to a seven-year, $42 million contract this summer to expedite their rebuilding process.

Boston and Ottawa also have a chance to compete for a playoff spot next year.

Final outlook: If Larkin improves on his stellar rookie season and Tatar and Gustav Nyquist prove they can be consistent goal scorers in the league, Detroit could extend their longest active NHL playoff streak.

But the lineup still has too many holes and too many bad contracts to be considered a viable Stanley Cup contender.

Is it worth mortgaging the future for another probable first-round exit in the playoffs next season and a semi-competitive team when the new Arena opens for the 2017-18 season?

We’ll find out.

But after missing out on Stamkos, a rebuild appeared to be the most logical direction.

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Posted by Ryan Zuke

Ryan is the sports editor for the Big Rapids Pioneer, covering local prep sports and Ferris State athletics. He can be contacted at (231) 592-8363 or rzuke@pioneergroup.com.

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