Detroit – It may be little more than hard-bargaining, but deciding where the money goes can be the best indication of priorities and the direction of an enterprise.
These days, when the enterprise is the Red Wings, developments are highly-scrutinized for new evidence of whether the franchise will continue to decline, or plans for the future holding some promise.
The Wings’ recent top goal scorer and restricted free agent, Tomas Tatar, is unsigned.
A report from a Slovakian website suggests he is frustrated.
Reports out of Detroit suggest the Red Wings are somewhat less than overly concerned about the level of Tatar’s frustration.
Public statements amid private bargaining is not a Wings’ thing.
If you are an older Detroiter, it can be sort of a fun reminder of the old days, when one of the leaders of the United Auto Workers or one of the guys from The Big Three would say something to the media intended to affect the action behind closed doors.
When we built the lion’s share of the world’s automobiles, the public posturing was almost fun.
When the Red Wings were perennial rivals for the Stanley Cup, it was more fun, too.
Now, out of the playoffs and looking for both a turnaround and the route to the first deep playoff run in nine years, the sausage-making of negotiations often only further agitates affairs.
Tatar’s reported willingness to “go public” occurs at a time when the progress of the Red Wings’ much-needed reconstruction is in sharp relief.
While it may be a simple matter of both sides bargaining hard, with a likelihood the Wings sign Tatar before pending arbitration, sometime beginning July 20, the negotiations may well reveal much about the status of the Wings.
Tatar likely wants $6 million a year for about four, and the Red Wings are probably trying to hold it to $5 million.
He tallied 19 goals with a salary of $840,000 in 2013-14 and 29, 21 and 25 goals in the three years since, when he made $2.75 million each season.
As was the case when his friend and teammate Petr Mrazek’s contract came up for renewal last season, and a new agreement for two years at $3.85 million and $4.15 million fell into place the morning of scheduled arbitration, the Wings’ brass has dug their heels in, a bit, here.
Mrazek likely feels the Red Wings drove an awfully hard bargain, and it was hard-bargaining.
Now his friend and teammate is feeling the heat.
It says a bit about the Wings' cap space and a lot about some fat contracts they would be better without and are, so far, unable or unwilling to dump.
Tatar and Mrazek may both feel they were nickeled-and-dimed by the organization, while others got big, fat deals, and have not performed as well.
A quick look up and down the Red Wings' lineup, which has underperformed for two seasons running, reveals a few instances, if not several, in which Tatar and Mrazek would both have a good argument.
The cap is rarely a hindrance for a team when it wants a player. As Ken Holland and other general managers say, there are things that can be done.
There are ways of dumping salary, including via trades.
If the Wings needed room for Tatar, they could have made it, especially with 20 draft choices in the 14 rounds of the 2017 and 2018 NHL Entry Drafts they carefully stockpiled at the trade deadline.
The fact is, however, they have room for Tatar at $5 million per year, but the player likely wants $6 million.
If the Red Wings have reasons for not wanting to be 20-percent more generous with Tatar, that is one thing. If they do not want to pay him that because they failed to manage the cap, it is malpractice.
And it is malpractice amid spiking concern over how the rest of the roster has been handled for at least a few seasons.
But my sense is: This is a player about to turn 27 looking for a big payday, pushing the limit, a bit, and thinking if he does not get it here, he might make more money and win more with another team.
The Red Wings may have that timing in mind, too. But for a different reason.
The franchise is in transition, and progress is halting. Players like Tatar and some others may well be transitional figures between the teams of the six Stanley Cup finals from 1995 to 2009 to the next fine Red Wings team.
If the Red Wings ultimately discard Tatar, it might be amid considerations that by the time they are ready to push toward the top of the NHL again, annually, he will likely be in his early 30s, and they will have other players. Tatar’s prime years seem unlikely to match the club’s.
One could expect a deal, but if it is not worked out, it is only more evidence of a roster mismanaged or a simple recognition on the part of the Red Wings that Stanley Cup contention is going to take more than a few years, certainly.