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Niyo: Red Wings go for broke in free agency

John Niyo
The Detroit News

The signs were everywhere this week, from Toronto to Tampa, from British Columbia to Buffalo, and certainly down on the riverfront in Detroit.

Gone fishin’, they all say.

But this is no relaxing day on the lake.

“We’re going after the big fish,” Sabres general manager Tim Murray yelped last week as Buffalo hosted the NHL draft.

Everyone’s trolling for Steven Stamkos, the 26-year-old sniper who could be the biggest free-agent prize in hockey since the inception of the salary cap more than a decade ago.

But the question that should be on everyone’s mind, and particularly for Red Wings fans, is rather obvious: What happens if the big one gets away?

They usually do, don’t they?

And by now, a franchise that was used to getting its way has gotten used to that idea — “We’ve been the bridesmaid a few times over the last 2-3 years,” general manager Ken Holland admitted last summer — along with the reality their old Original Six recipe isn’t nearly enough in today’s NHL.

Still, here they go again, chasing a whale, if not their tail, while we landlubbers wait to see if they capsize with all this cap space. Holland has upward of $20 million to spend this summer, after skillfully dumping the detritus of Pavel Datsyuk’s defection. But the recent track record of the Red Wings in free agency suggests that’s hardly guaranteed money, even with an infusion of young talent on the roster and a sparkling new arena on the horizon.

Four years ago, as you probably recall, Detroit was left adrift in pursuit of top free agents Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, an oddly prepackaged deal that ended up in Minnesota. And Holland was left holding the bag after his supplementary catch — Mikael Samuelsson, Jordin Tootoo and Carlo Colaiacovo — all went rotten.

On the surface, this summer looks like the chance the Red Wings have been waiting for ever since. A star in his prime, at a position of need? (And make no mistake, Detroit is desperate for a top-line center, even with Dylan Larkin ready to pivot inside.)

As one team executive put it wistfully this winter, “Somewhere down the road, somebody’s gonna choose the Detroit Red Wings.”

But will it be Stamkos?

Hitting the market

The Tampa Bay captain is scheduled to hit the market Friday if he can’t come to terms on an extension with the Lightning. In the meantime, he and his representatives already are hearing pitches from other teams, thanks to a five-day contact window for pending unrestricted free agents.

And Lightning president Steve Yzerman, speaking to reporters on the draft floor last weekend, sure sounded like a man who knew his chances for retaining Stamkos, Tampa Bay’s No. 1 overall pick in 2008, were fading fast.

“We’re both very clear in our positions,” Yzerman said, refusing to get into any specifics.

The Lightning reportedly offered Stamkos an extension worth about $8.5 million annually, but the Ontario native, whose goals-per-game average (0.55) is second only to Alex Ovechkin among active players, likely will draw considerably more on the open market. Murray, for one, was openly throwing around the idea of a $12 million annual salary.

That was no doubt music to the ears of Stamkos’ veteran agent, Don Meehan, who has kept things surprisingly quiet. In the past, Meehan’s Newport Sports Management group has held virtual open houses for high-profile clients like Parise and Brad Richards.

But the long list of likely suitors for Stamkos surely includes his hometown Maple Leafs, along with the Red Wings and Sabres. The Canucks also have made their intentions clear. (So much so, in fact, general manager Jim Benning was fined $50,000 by league officials Tuesday for tampering as a result of last week’s comments about Stamkos and Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban.)

The Rangers, Islanders, Bruins and Canadiens are among other teams reportedly with interest. And as we’ve seen time and again with elite free agents, there’s always a dark horse flying under the radar. Panthers? Stars? Ducks? Sharks? Blues?

“I assume on a player like that, the teams that have cap space that can fit him in will all be involved in this,” Murray said. “It’s going to be a stiff competition, I’m sure.”

The rare talent

And a steep price, possibly — probably? — exceeding the $10.5 million annual average value standard set by Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

I’m not sure that makes fiscal sense for the Red Wings, still saddled with big contracts for bit players like Jonathan Ericsson and Jimmy Howard as well as aging leaders Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall.

But again, I’m not sure they have any choice but to try, since talents like this — Stamkos has finished first or second in the NHL in goals five of the last seven seasons — rarely get to free agency. And keep that in mind, too: Stamkos may not get to Friday without a new contract, even if he does bolt from the Lightning.

Yzeerman insisted last weekend he hadn’t considered the sign-and-trade option for Stamkos, but did leave open the possibility. As it is, the Lightning is the only team that can offer him an eight-year term on a contract. The max for a UFA signing is seven years. And as Yzerman noted, “Losing him for nothing, or losing him for an asset? I’d love to get an asset for him.”

Holland has assets to trade, beyond the obvious draft picks. He’d do well to move some of those this summer to try to land at least one top-four defenseman. That’s no easy task, but it remains an imperative one, almost regardless of the cost.

There are other options beyond Stamkos that make sense to replace Datsyuk up front, but Islanders center Frans Nielsen — he’s the likely Plan B for the Red Wings — and Blues center David Backes are both 32. And the 30-and-under crowd that intrigues, with goals or grit — Milan Lucic, Kyle Okposo, Andrew Ladd, Troy Brouwer and so on — won’t fill that void down the middle.

But that’s there the Red Wings are now, in the middle of it all, with money to spend.

“Obviously, we’ve got the flexibility now to do what we want to do,” Holland said. “We’ll see.”

Better batten down the hatches. @JohnNiyo