Wojo: Pistons move ahead while Wings meander

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Frans Nielsen

When the free-agency bell rang across America on Friday, a whole bunch of hockey and basketball players got richer, and a few teams got better. And here? Well, the tale of two star-chasing franchises twisted again.

The Pistons have a plan and a path, and continued pursuing both with a huge expected move, reportedly agreeing with Andre Drummond on a five-year, $130 million extension. They did precisely what they needed to do by locking up Drummond, and are still looking for more.

The Red Wings also have a plan but a much-murkier path, and are scrambling to find their way. They did more wooing than wowing, and their centerpiece deals — signing solid 32-year-old center Frans Nielsen and re-signing Darren Helm — filled holes, but were underwhelming.

The Wings are stuck, to a certain degree, and general manager Ken Holland is struggling to unstick them. They’re stuck with a roster in flux, even stuck with salary cap money to spend and not many attractive pieces to buy. Late in the day, after being rebuffed by other middling guys, the Wings added forwards Thomas Vanek, 32, and Steve Ott, 33, on low-risk, one-year contracts. Hockeytown is not the hot-spot destination it once was, and that might not change until the Wings move into the new Little Caesars Arena and develop more star talent.

It’s a fascinating and treacherous juncture for both franchises, brightly illuminated by Friday’s free-agency opening. Stan Van Gundy also added a much-needed backup point guard, Ish Smith, for $18 million over three years, and the Pistons will chase touted free-agent Al Horford with determination, not desperation. The Pistons rise, youthful roster and modest salary-cap flexibility allows them to shop from a position of strength.

The Wings also had salary-cap flexibility, but their mixed roster and mixed messages made them more desperate. Holland smartly dealt the remnants of Pavel Datysuk’s contract and targeted a good player in the former Islanders standout Nielsen, a crafty, defense-minded center who should slide nicely onto the roster. He’ll replace Datsyuk in theory, if not in accomplishment, and he cost plenty — six years, $31.5 million.

(I can hear the shrieks: TOO MUCH MONEY! TOO MANY YEARS! TOO OLD! TOO SMALL!)

Listen, those are legitimate concerns, in a vacuum. But in the NHL, as in the NBA, the players are vacuuming up lucrative deals and the teams that ignore the market don’t get anything. It’s a reality that few players in their prime ever hit free-agency, so the ones that do usually are in their 30s and draw garishly similar contracts.

Lap on the years

You can gripe about Nielsen’s six years, as long as you realize that’s pretty much what all the top forwards got: Milan Lucic, 28, to Edmonton (seven years, $42 million); Loui Eriksson, 30, to Vancouver (six years, $36 million); David Backes, 32, to Boston (five years, $30 million); Kyle Okposo, 28, to Buffalo (seven years, $42 million); Andrew Ladd, 30, to the Islanders (seven years, $38.5 million).

“Our No. 1 priority was a center-ice man,” Holland said of Nielsen. “As you saw (Friday), with the competition for unrestricted free agents getting five- and six-year contracts, if you wanted to land a free agent, you had to be prepared to step up or you were gonna miss out.”

Krupa: Wings need not hit brakes on wheeling, dealing

Theoretically, Holland could’ve sat on his salary-cap dough and waited for, well, what? He didn’t waste the money with Nielsen and Vanek, but he didn’t have many options, either.

This is a vital, pressure-packed offseason for Holland, and whether he’s onto Plan B or C or D isn’t completely the point. Many teams didn’t get a shot at their Plan A after 26-year-old prize Steven Stamkos returned to Tampa Bay, where Steve Yzerman is proving to be the savvy general manager we all expected.

Holland’s adjustment to the Stamkos miss has been more obligatory than inspired, and he’s still lacking the big move that stirs things up. Detroit absolutely must find a top-four defenseman, and it’ll likely have to come in a bold trade for someone like Anaheim’s Cam Fowler, 24. If that means surrendering young players such as Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar or others, the Wings are due to take risks in trades.

Holland does have impediments, some of his own making with past poor signings, and some the inevitable fallout of losing longtime stars. Nashville was able to take the big leap by dealing Shea Weber for P.K. Subban, but Holland didn’t have an extra Weber laying around to trump it.

So the Wings went for a steady center who won’t register high in the Nielsen ratings, but is considered by hockey experts and advanced metrics to be vastly underrated. In 10 seasons with the Islanders, he topped 20 goals only twice, but those came in the past three seasons. And here’s good news for Wings fans: Nielsen is terrific in shootouts, where the Wings are awful.

All in the family

The Helm signing smacks of loyalty, a trait that has morphed from one of Holland’s strengths into a weakness. He likes to keep his own, which is great when his own are stars. Helm, 29, has tons of speed and probably would’ve gotten a comparable deal — $19.5 million over five years — on the open market, but he’s still a lower-line center who has had injuries and doesn’t score a lot. Holland also kept defenseman Alexey Marchenko on a reasonable two-year deal.

Al Horford

The Wings are stuck between windows, their stars departing or fading and their younger players not quite ready to take over, although Dylan Larkin and Petr Mrazek are on their way. It’s funny the way perceptions turn. For years, the Wings were hockey’s model franchise, and proudly tout their 25-year playoff streak. A downturn was inevitable, and a quick uptick isn’t guaranteed.

For years, the Pistons were moribund, way out of contention. Now with new ownership and a strong leader in Van Gundy, they’re building smartly, but not reluctant to gamble. Drummond’s deal can’t officially be announced until next week, when the free-agency moratorium ends. If the Pistons somehow were to beat out stiff competition and land Horford, the 30-year-old forward from Atlanta, it would cap an ideal offseason.

The market officially opened Friday and the basketball and hockey stocks were flying, up and down, buying and selling. The Wings and Pistons did what they had to do, but the Wings are the ones with much more work still ahead.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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