Niyo: Red Wings' to-do list goes beyond Babcock

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Red Wings general manager Ken Holland is being asked to take stock — again — after getting bounced from the playoffs in the first round for the third time in four seasons.

Detroit — Ken Holland hasn't had much luck in the free-agent marketplace in recent years. Lots of empty shelves and picked-over produce, not to mention a few overturned shopping carts.

The Red Wings general manager hasn't had much luck with the trade market, either, returning home to find some of the deals weren't quite as advertised — broken eggs, expired milk, and so on.

And so it should come as no surprise to hear Holland already is dreading his next trip to market, paring down his list long before he leaves the house.

The biggest free-agent choice isn't his, necessarily. Holland is waiting on Mike Babcock, standing in line waiting for his number to be called — or not — as the Red Wings coach mulls his options after playing out his own contract.

The two talked at length during on a trip to Grand Rapids last weekend to watch the AHL's Griffins advance in the playoffs, and they'll talk again this week before Holland heads to the Czech Republic for the World Championships.

But beyond that elephant in the room — when you start hearing rumblings about "compensation" you'll know we're getting closer — there are other questions the GM has to answer this offseason. Preferably with something more than a resigned shrug, or a tired shake of the head as Holland reminds us all about the way things used to be.

That's what the fans heard last week as the team tied a bow around "another wasted year" — as Niklas Kronwall put it ("almost") — and Holland and Babcock wasted little time in suggesting they'd done all they could. And perhaps all they can do.

'Those days are over'

That's an exaggeration, of course. It's also an understandable argument, given the fine line between right and wrong in their line of work. If Tomas Tatar or Darren Helm buries a prime chance late in the second period of Game 7 in Tampa last week, maybe it's Steve Yzerman getting heat for a young team that fell well short of expectations. And Babcock rethinking his moving-van options.

Instead, it's Holland being asked to take stock — again — after getting bounced from the playoffs in the first round for the third time in four seasons.

"It's harder now to win the Cup for the Detroit Red Wings than it was 15 years ago when there was no salary cap and we had a bunch of superstars in their prime," Holland said. "Those days are over."

But they've been over for years now, and the days of that excuse resonating with most Red Wings fans are gone as well, I imagine. Which is why Babcock's pending free agency is only the beginning of Holland's concerns this summer. Maybe even the least of them.

Because all parties seem to agree this Red Wings team isn't good enough to win a Cup. And despite what Holland and others keep saying, it's going to take more than internal growth to change that.

It's going to take some cap creativity, and probably a bit more conviction, from the front office and ownership. The Red Wings still desperately need to add a top-four defenseman — preferably one who can man the point on the power play — by trade if not via free agency. They need another big body or two to help free up the undersized scorers they do have up front as well.

In short, they still need things they don't have, and can't seem to find on their own.

"But the days of anybody going on the free-agent market July 1st and buying this guy and that guy — those guys aren't even available anymore," Holland said. "You've got to draft, you've got to develop — that's where it starts."

That can't be where it ends, though, because there are still too many holes to plug, still some mistakes to correct.

"Is there a trade to be made?" Holland asked, rhetorically. "Is there a free-agent move to be made? Is there a deadline-deal to be made?"

Odd men out

Yes, yes, and yes? That's what I'm getting at: Beyond that youth movement — one that might be easier to accelerate with Jeff Blashill behind the Red Wings bench — there is plenty of work to do this summer.

For starters, Holland must try to find a way to unload Stephen Weiss, a free-agent flop who started slow in Detroit two years ago and never really recovered, finishing the playoffs as an unhappy, healthy scratch.

Weiss has three years left on the five-year, $24.5 million deal he signed in July 2013 — at a cap hit of $4.9 million — making him difficult to deal. But not impossible, particularly if he's packaged with some younger talent in exchange for another hefty contract like, say, Dion Phaneuf's in Toronto.

Jimmy Howard, right, seems unlikely to win back his No. 1 job given the way Petr Mrazek, left, performed in the playoffs.

Tomas Jurco, or perhaps Teemu Pulkinen, both of whom will be restricted free agents this summer, would draw some interest, though probably not enough. Defensemen on the roster — Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl — could be moved, especially if Babcock returns. Ryan Sproul is another blueline prospect who seems to have gotten lost in the Red Wings organizational shuffle.

(And by the way, you can't insist your team's draft position precludes you from landing elite prospects — as Holland and Babcock continually have, despite what we see in Dylan Larkin, for example — and then in the next breath tell us first-round picks are untouchable.)

Likewise, you can't ignore the other $5 million odd-man out. Holland already has said the Wings intend to hang on to goaltender Jimmy Howard, who lost the No. 1 job this spring to rookie Petr Mrazek and seems unlikely to win it back the way Mrazek played in the playoffs.

That might be a matter of semantics now. Player exit interviews are this week — as uncomfortable as a few of them might be — and Howard's no-movement clause softens after July 1. So while a trade seems unlikely before the NHL draft, it's still possible this summer. Or by the trade deadline next season, assuming Mrazek picks up where he left off this spring.

Then again, Holland's deadline deals have mostly backfired lately. Marek Zidlicky and Erik Cole this season, David Legwand a year ago. The free-agent signings of Weiss and Daniel Alfredsson two summers ago were hailed at the time — both hands raised here — but produced little, too. And the year before that, when the pursuit of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise proved to be a Wild goose chase and left Holland signing the likes of Mikael Samuelsson and Carlo Colaiacovo, well, that's sort of what he's talking about now.

"We've been the bridesmaid a few times over the last 2-3 years," he acknowledged. "But the players on July 1, they're support players. They're not franchise players, they're not cornerstone players. They're nice pieces."

Maybe so, but here's the deal: Whether Babcock stays or goes, standing pat simply won't do.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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