June 22, 2013 at 7:18 pm

John Niyo

With Pavel Datsyuk in fold, Wings must get serious about doing more

Red Wings GM Ken Holland looks to get busy targeting free agents, now that the Pavel Datsyuk contract is a done deal. (Detroit News/David Guralnick)

Detroit — The Red Wings just gave star center Pavel Datsyuk more than 20 million reasons to stick around a while longer.

Now it’s imperative they give him at least one or two more.

With the NHL draft next weekend and the start of free-agency looming July 5, just days after a Stanley Cup parade in Chicago or Boston, there will be flurry of activity around the league. But for all the emphasis on a draft-and-develop mandate in Detroit, general manager Ken Holland needs to be proactive if the Wings are going to rejoin the league’s elite teams.

They can’t afford to mortgage their future, and precious few teams in the NHL are willing to anymore. But the Wings can’t afford to simply stand pat, either, as they largely have the past couple years, missing out on their top free-agent targets and then staying strangely quiet at the trade deadline.

Now, though, with Valtteri Filppula likely headed elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent — the Wings don’t seem willing to pay him $5-million plus annually on a long-term deal — Holland must target another top-six forward to give Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg some much-needed help up front.

Lots of options

Florida’s Stephen Weiss, who could get $6 million annually on a four-year deal assuming he’s healthy, figures to be among the primary targets. And there should be a few other intriguing (and expensive?) options out there, including Chicago’s Bryan Bickell and Boston’s Nathan Horton. More names will emerge as salary cap-strapped teams buy out some contracts beginning 48 hours after the playoffs end.

Another reliable defenseman has to be on the Wings’ offseason wish list, and if there’s a chance to land one that’d be an upgrade in Detroit’s top four, Holland absolutely should pursue it. Because as he keeps reminding us all, “The free agent market every year is going to get a little thinner and a little thinner. Teams are signing their best players. Nobody is letting those types of assets hit the market.”

That’s why it’s going to take more than Holland’s usual tire kicking to get what he really wants. Or more pointedly, what head coach Mike Babcock wants, since most of the last two summer’s free-agent dollars were scratched in the playoffs this spring.

It’s going to take some wheeling and dealing at the draft, perhaps, buying the negotiating rights to one of the Wings’ targeted free agents. Or perhaps a trade involving some of that young talent that debuted in Detroit after the lockout and helped AHL affiliate Grand Rapids win the Calder Cup. I wouldn’t part with Danny DeKeyser, but Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl and any of those young forwards should be shopped.

As even Holland himself admits, “We don't have a guy coming through the system that I'm going to say to you is a superstar.” And as Babcock noted after the season, “The guys we’ve got coming can't all play here. But you have assets, so you make the decisions based on what's best for you.”

Looking outside

The Wings’ management team began last season talking hopefully — even confidently — about their depth up front. But that was before injuries — and age — started eating away at it. Mikael Samuelsson played all of five regular-season games. Todd Bertuzzi played seven. Darren Helm played 12 minutes all season. They can’t honestly count on any of those three producing next season, either.

But with some of the AHLers out of options, and some of them having proved they’re NHL-ready, there’s a numbers crunch that’ll force Holland’s hand. Gustav Nyquist and Joakim Anderson are lineup regulars now, and they’ll be among a handful of restricted free agents that get re-signed this summer. Tomas Tatar, who should’ve been a part of the playoff push this spring, has to be in Detroit next season as well.

That gives the Wings 14 forwards even without the trio of pending unrestricted free agents: Filppula, Daniel Cleary and Damien Brunner, the latter of whom the Wings still hope to re-sign. And that should give Holland all the nudging he needs to utilize one or both of his compliance buyouts, shedding Samuelsson’s $3 million cap hit and perhaps defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo’s $2.5 million as well.

Money saved needs to be money spent this summer, however.

The Wings want to keep building from within, and understandably so. But a little outside help needs to be more than considered, or welcomed. It has to be pursued.



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