June 25, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Red Wings would be better off dealing than signing with this free-agent crop

Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen might be attractive for the Red Wings, but the price will be high. (Elsa / Getty Images)

Detroit — Beginning today, they can officially make their pitch.

But will the Red Wings decide to swing for the fences? And what if they swing and miss?

The NHL’s week-long “courting period” begins Wednesday in advance of the start of free agency Tuesday. And Red Wings general manager Ken Holland says he and coach Mike Babcock — both fresh off a trip to Vancouver for ceremonies honoring the Canadian Olympic hockey teams — will be busy talking with agents and players, trying to “sell them on our program.”

Holland even suggests he’ll be busy trying to be bold as he tries to augment a roster in transition and add a couple key pieces in pursuit of another Stanley Cup.

Detroit has about $54 million in salary-cap commitments allotted for 18 players next season. That doesn’t include new deals that must be worked out for restricted free agents Danny DeKeyser, Tomas Tatar and Riley Sheahan. Yet, with the league’s salary cap expected to rise to $71 million in 2014-15, it leaves enough money for Holland to make a splash in the free-agent waters, if he chooses.

Problem is, it’s a shallow pool of talent this summer, and the Red Wings have some pretty specific needs. A right-shot defenseman who can help run the power play and fit in the top four on the blueline is the top priority. (That’s something the Red Wings haven’t had since Brian Rafalski retired, and it shows.) After that, Holland says, “Ideally, we’d like to have one more established top-six forward who can score some goals.”

It’s possible that last item could be checked off by re-signing Daniel Alfredsson, last summer’s free agent surprise still mulling playing another season. The 41-year-old spoke to Holland on Monday, said he isn’t ready to retire just yet, and the sides will talk again before the start of free agency. Jarome Iginla, if he can’t work out a deal with the Bruins, may be another target up front.

In the meantime, Holland will start making sales calls, gauging the marketplace as he heads to Philadelphia for this weekend’s NHL draft, which doubles as a league-wide swap meet.

“We’ve only got a couple guys left to sign,” said Holland, who has gotten encouraging medical reports the last two weeks on some of his top forwards, including last year’s free-agent injury bust, Stephen Weiss. “And I don’t really want to sign anybody right now. I want to get to Wednesday. I want to get to Philly. I want to get to July 1. I want to see what’s out there.”

Defensive search

On defense, there might be a handful of free agents that fit the profile for the Red Wings. But the best of the bunch, Pittsburgh’s Matt Niskanen, likely will draw tons of interest as a 27-year-old coming off a breakout season. And perhaps a six- or seven-year deal that averages $6 million-plus annually. That might be too rich for a lot of teams, including the Red Wings, who do have some promising blue-line prospects in Grand Rapids. (Two — Ryan Sproul and Alexey Marchenko — also are right-hand shots.)

Another intriguing under-30 candidate could be Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman, though he’s not the power-play quarterback the Red Wings say they’re seeking.

So a shorter-term bridge might be the route Holland opts to take, perhaps with a two-year offer to someone like veteran Dan Boyle, whose rights were traded from the Sharks to the Islanders but is expected to test free agency. Boyle turns 38 next month, but has remained durable and productive the last six years with San Jose.

If not one of them, then who? There are other options, of course, but Holland insists he won’t make a deal just to make a deal — the ill-fated summer of 2012 comes to mind — nor will he make one that doesn’t make fiscal sense.

“Our fall-back position is, if we don’t get somebody or the money’s too high or we don’t like the term, we’ll go with kids,” Holland said. “We’ll give some of the younger players an opportunity to play like they did last year.”

Fair enough, but consider this my annual plea for a trade in Detroit. Surely, there’s one out there to be made if Holland is aggressive and eager enough. It likely won’t be for the oft-mentioned Vancouver defenseman Alex Edler. (New Canucks president Trevor Linden insists he’s not on the block.) And there’s no telling which, if any, of the other names floating around in media reports are legitimately in play. But if there’s a deal to be made for a defenseman like Keith Yandle or Brian Campbell or Dustin Byfuglien or Zach Bogosian, the Red Wings ought to be in the mix.

Talent available

On the one hand, Holland points to the team’s draft-and-develop mandate — something every team is preaching these days — and notes the difficulty the Red Wings have had in filling the pipeline without any top-10 picks.

“We’ve worked hard to try to build up our pool of young players,” Holland said.

But on the other hand, yes, there’s a surplus of NHL-ready young talent now. And outside that desperate deadline deal for David Legwand in March — and another in 2012 for Kyle Quincey — the Red Wings haven’t made a significant trade since their last Stanley Cup triumph in 2008. And look no further than the most recent Cup champs in Los Angeles (Jeff Carter in 2011, Marian Gaborik this year) to see what a difference a big trade can make, even amid today’s cap-induced NHL parity.

The Red Wings still have a window to win a title with the veteran stars they have in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall, not to mention Babcock, who may decide to play out his own contract this season. But that window’s closing, just as the next generation is arriving in Detroit, hoping to open another.

“We do have lots of young kids,” Holland said. “We feel that we’ve got a pretty good nucleus to be competitive.

“Everybody else is trying to win, too. There’s 29 other teams that are trying to do the same thing: We’re all trying to be a playoff team. So deals are tough. But we’re going to explore. There’s a bunch of names out there.”

Now seems like as good a time as any to bring one to Detroit.


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