Wojo: Wings’ Holland needs to be daring in his dealings

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Ken Holland

Detroit — Patience and pain. The Red Wings are preaching the former, while preparing for the latter.

The problem is, the more patient you are in a rebuild, the longer the pain could last. This will not be easy or quick, and GM Ken Holland knows it. But he still must try to accelerate the process, because collecting third- and fourth-round draft picks is an agonizing, slow way to go.

Between now and Monday’s trade deadline, there will be a lot more rumors than actual movement. Petr Mrazek is gone and defenseman Mike Green almost assuredly will be gone, and beyond that, it’ll be difficult finding trade partners for decent Wings players with indecent contracts.

Now is the time for Holland to be bolder, with less to lose as the Wings slide toward a second straight playoff-less finish. Now would be the time for a risky leap, such as seeing what you can get for a tantalizing young player like Andreas Athanasiou, who has speed and skill, and also vexing defensive and effort lapses.

Now is when you shop other semi-affordable players having solid seasons, such as two of your leading scorers, Tomas Tatar, 27, and Gustav Nyquist, 28, (16 goals each), and perhaps Luke Glendening. Nashville reportedly is interested in Tatar, and although he’s owed $5.3 million per season through 2021, that might be palatable to a contender. Nyquist is more affordable, a free-agent after next season. Either might draw more than a pick, perhaps even a prime prospect.

More: As trade deadline looms, Wings focus on task at hand

Holland almost never makes value-for-value, equal-for-equal player trades, and for years, it wasn’t necessary. At the height of their success, the Wings simply dumped draft picks and prospects for better talent.

Now, instead of playing for Cups, they’re holding out a cup, asking for picks. The only certainty before Monday is that Green, 32, a pending unrestricted free-agent, will be dealt. Most rumors are gasps in the wind, but Holland must pursue every avenue.

Deals to be done

“I’m open for business,” Holland said.

“But I also believe it’s important to have a team that’s competitive. You guys say, tear it down — I don’t believe in massive rebuilds. I believe the wheel’s gonna turn, we’ve got to slowly move young people onto our team, but we’ve got to have some veteran presence to teach those young players how to play.”

That’s the philosophy of a proud franchise, and I get it. Four championships in the midst of a 25-year playoff run embolden one’s faith in a plan.

But it feels less like a plan and more like an unfortunate, unintended circumstance. I actually believe Holland would trade more veterans if they were tradeable. No, captain Henrik Zetterberg ($6 million annually through 2021) wouldn’t be on the market, but Holland handed out other horrible contracts partly because he believes so deeply in patience and development.

More: Green’s ‘mind always open’ about trade from Wings

The Wings are strapped against the salary cap because of deals like these: Justin Abdelkader ($4.25 million annually through 2023); Darren Helm ($3.85 million through 2021); Danny DeKeyser ($5 million through 2022); Frans Nielsen ($5.25 million through 2022); Jonathan Ericsson ($4.25 million through 2020).

Holland bears some blame for the Wings’ predicament, but he’s also paying for the franchise’s competitive gluttony. He believed in extending the playoff streak, which made sense to ownership, which essentially made it a mandate.

The Wings are over-ripe for a makeover. Athanasiou, 23, held out and Holland mostly held firm, signing him for one year at $1.4 million. But the Wings have two other gifted forwards, Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha, set to become restricted free-agents. Holland can’t repeat the Mrazek mistake, just counting on an intriguing talent to develop into a star.

Trading Athanasiou for a young defenseman would be a start in shoring up the Wings’ overwhelming weakness on the blue line. I’m not talking about a shakeup for show, but an acknowledgment that patience doesn’t always work. Athanasiou can be a breathtaking skater, but he scored his first goal in 14 games Tuesday night (11 on the season and a team-worst minus-12), and has been benched for stretches by Jeff Blashill.

The Wings waited patiently for Mrazek, 26, to take over for Jimmy Howard, but the goalie of the future here became the goalie of the interim in Philadelphia, shipped off for a conditional pick, likely a third- or fourth-rounder. That’s probably as much as Holland could get, based on Mrazek’s wild inconsistencies.

“If we’re gonna become a really good team, it’s gonna happen at the draft table, and it’s gonna happen by me acquiring more draft picks,” Holland said. “Whether it’s now, whether it’s at the draft this summer, or whether it’s this time a year from now. My mindset isn’t so much about ’17-18 and maybe ’18-19, it’s about ’19 and ’20, and trying to acquire assets I’m hoping can impact this team down the road. I consider myself a very, very patient person.”

Draft for success

That has been Holland’s strength, and helped the Wings become a model of stability and professionalism. It worked when they had stars who lifted the middle class with them. Without Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk, you can’t expect every player to rise naturally.

That’s where Holland has to adjust, if he indeed plans to be here next season, with his contract expiring. He talks like a man who expects to be back, although we still have no indication from ownership. If Holland returns, I expect Blashill to return.

The truth is, the Wings haven’t drafted well enough lately to justify extreme patience, and there aren’t a lot of young guys ready. Holland is stuck in the middle, forced to promote the dual contradictions of rebuilding and competing. Blashill is stuck with a team that will play hard most nights and fall short many nights.

“The guys in this locker room have not given up,” Zetterberg said tersely, and there might be some resentment among players that the Wings are capitulating. But they also must recognize the reality, that more teams are looking to sell than hoping to buy. In the meantime, the Wings play on, eight points out of the final wild-card spot in the East.

“As I told the guys, regardless of what happens, we have good enough players to win hockey games, so let’s go make sure we play with a chip on our shoulders,” Blashill said. “There’s a human side that can affect people, and sometimes it’s easy to forget. They’re not pawns, they’re humans.”

In the reality of pro sports, they’re pieces that can be moved, and in some cases, it’s better for the player and the team. It could be better for Mrazek in Philadelphia, which lost its top two goalies to injury and is deep into a playoff chase.

It could be better for Green on a contender. He says he loves it here, but he’d be open to waiving his no-trade clause. He’s the only pending free-agent, so there’s no tangible urgency to deal others.

“If there’s nothing that makes real sense to us, and all we’re doing is helping somebody else out and not getting what we think is fair value for our players, we’ll go back to the summertime and start all over again,” Holland said.

“There’s gonna be some pain along the way, some decisions I have to make for the future — take one or two steps backward in the hope you’re gonna be three or four steps forward down the road.”

Patience can be painful, and also prudent. But just as there’s no guarantee a massive rebuild — with the longshot hope of landing a top lottery pick — will be fruitful, there’s no certainty in patience either. It doesn’t hurt much to trade Mrazek and Green. It remains to be seen whether Holland and the Wings are willing to stomach real pain.