July 1 is a national holiday in Canada.
It used to be a local one here in Detroit, too. Canada Day was the day the Red Wings and their owner flashed their independent streak, spending money freely — and foolishly, at times — in pursuit of what eventually became a fading ideal.
But those days are a thing of the past, at least for the moment. And coupled with the return of Steve Yzerman to lead the franchise as general manager, Monday’s rather mundane start to NHL free agency was another reminder of how much things have changed.
“We really weren’t in the market for the long-term contracts,” Yzerman explained on a conference call.
Later, he added, “I thought the shorter-term deals make the most sense for us at this stage.”
So more than anything, there’s a sense and sensibility at work here with the Red Wings, who made three deals Monday but none that the GM — or anyone else, for that matter — would categorize as “high-profile.” Or risky, it should be noted.
And that’s the bottom line.
Now then, bringing back a 35-year-old forward in Filppula at a $3 million cap hit is a move that would’ve had many Wings fans shrieking had it been Yzerman’s predecessor, Ken Holland, making the call. (Same goes for that surprising first-round selection of German defenseman Moritz Seider at the June entry draft, for that matter.)
But frankly, it’s a relatively harmless deal for a team that began the summer with about $12 million in cap space and only three true centermen on the NHL roster. That’s something Yzerman noted himself Monday as he talked about freeing up head coach Jeff Blashill to move Andreas Athanasiou back to his natural position on the wing after last winter’s audition in the middle.
Filppula’s signing strikes some as curious, I’m sure, but he’s a well-known commodity for Yzerman. The two actually played in a game together in April 2006 — Filppula as a rookie, The Captain in his final year — and then after watching him become a regular contributor in Detroit, Yzerman signed him in Tampa to a five-year, $25 million deal in 2013. He’d later deal Filppula to Philadelphia with a year-plus remaining on that contract and an expansion draft looming.
But this summer, a reunion made sense for both parties. Filppula’s obviously no Matt Duchene — the latter signed a seven-year, $56 million deal with Nashville — but the Wings are more prey than Predators at this point, anyway. So Filppula returns to a familiar spot on a two-year deal — he said he picked the Wings over the New York Islanders — and gives the Wings a reliable two-way center who can play in all situations and fills a gap while 2018 first-round pick Joe Veleno develops in Grand Rapids.
Same goes for Patrik Nemeth, a defensive defenseman who’s good on the penalty kill and adds some size (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) to a team that could use it on the back end. Nemeth will block some shots, but it’s not as if he’ll be blocking young players from any ice time they’re due at this point. (Assuming Niklas Kronwall isn’t coming back for another season in Detroit, that is.) In fact, Yzerman says he envisions Nemeth being paired on the left side with either Mike Green or Filip Hronek this fall.
Just as important, the two-year deal doesn’t eat up the Wings’ salary cap space for when they’ll really need it — in 2021 and beyond. In the meantime, having the 27-year-old Nemeth under contract should help next summer — or even before then with Yzerman presumably a trade-deadline seller next February — when the rest of the Red Wings’ veteran blueline depth comes off the books. Ericsson, Green, Trevor Daley and Madison Bowey all are entering contract years, and the first three will be unrestricted free agents next summer.
Monday’s other signing was goalie Calvin Pickard, who also is 27, and is targeted for a spot in Grand Rapids, where he’ll share the net with the Wings’ top goalie prospect, Filip Larsson, who just turned pro.
Taken together, it’s hardly the kind of hat trick we grew accustomed to when Yzerman was in uniform, or even in a suit, in Detroit. But while all three moves “are designed to help us immediately,” Yzerman noted, “our hands aren’t necessarily tied into long-term contracts.”
Others certainly can’t say the same around the league. Barely a half-hour into the official free-agent signing period, teams had committed some $300 million in salary. That’s chicken scratch compared to the NBA, where teams doled out a whopping $3 billion in guaranteed contracts in six hours Sunday night at the start of free agency.
But in a league where the cap still carries consequences — last month’s P.K. Subban trade is just one of many examples — free-agent spending sprees often don’t make sense in the long run.
Some of these teams are certainly going to regret the moves we saw Monday. The Rangers made Artemi Panarin the league’s second-highest paid player with a seven-year, $81.5 million contract, while the Panthers handed Sergei Bobrovsky, the mercurial two-time Vezina Trophy winner, a seven-year, $70 million deal at age 30. Elsewhere, veteran winger Mats Zuccarello got $30 million over five years from the Wild, and the Penguins ponied up $21 million on a six-year deal — six years for a bottom-six forward? — in Brandon Tanev.
Asked about that, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford shrugged, “It’s the way things work on July 1: You either give the player close to what he wants or you don’t get the player.”
He knows he’ll be mocked for saying so in various corners, just as Holland was toward the end of his tenure for some of those July 1 decisions that still haunt the Wings today.
They’re still paying the buyout of Stephen Weiss, the player Holland signed to replace Filppula on July 1 in 2013, for example. They’re also stuck with the back half of that six-year, $31.5 million deal Holland gave Frans Nielsen as part of his free-agency Plan B in 2016, right after Yzerman short-circuited the Steven Stamkos sweepstakes by re-signing the Lightning star in Tampa.
But Holland wasn’t alone in that regard over the years, and Yzerman, who ended up buying out a high-priced, long-term signing in Matt Carle a few years ago in Tampa, essentially said the same thing Rutherford did Monday.
“There’s very good players that are out there,” the Wings’ GM said. “The reality is if you want to get those guys on July 1, you gotta give them term and you gotta give ’em a lot of money. That’s just the way it goes. I don’t know if it’s the right way to go or the wrong way. We’ve all done it.”
But he’s not ready to do it again in Detroit.