Wings hope raft of forwards might yield defenseman

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Traverse City — The Red Wings exited the annual free-agent derby last week with a raft of forwards filling the roster, and general manager Ken Holland agreed Wednesday the circumstances might help the hunt for one of the big needs — a top defenseman.

But as he watched the first day of development camp with all seven of the 2016 draft picks participating, along with 16 from 2013-15 as well as several other prospects at Centre Ice Arena, Holland also said acquiring a No. 1 or No. 2 defenseman is a high priority for many NHL teams. And, while there is not an ample supply, such a trade — if it is made — likely would come closer to the end of the summer.

“Let’s see,” Holland said, of his plans.

“You know, hopefully we’ve got an excess of forwards. You’d love to get a top three defenseman. I don’t know if one is ever going to be available via trade.”

The Wings obtained free-agent center Frans Nielsen from the Islanders to replace Pavel Datsyuk, who will play in Russia. Free-agent forward Steve Ott’s toughness and aggression should provide the Wings a component they have been lacking for a few seasons.

And, forward Tomas Vanek has shown he can produce on the power play, which lagged for the Red Wings last season.

Holland said he hopes players like re-signed eight-year-veteran Darren Helm and 2013 first-round pick Anthony Mantha have better seasons.

“Part of this might be let’s get to September and see,” Holland said. “I’m hoping we’ve got 15, 16 NHL forwards and we’re positioned to do a deal.

“If some of the kids come to camp and they haven’t taken a step forward and they can go back to the American league, then they’ll go back to the American league.

“We’ll make a decision in September.”

Two puck-moving defensemen likely to become available through a trade are Kevin Shattenkirk of the Blues and Cam Fowler of the Ducks. Both teams may not be interested in signing the players partly because of problems with the salary cap.

Shattenkirk is a free agent in 2017, Fowler in 2018.

Shattenkirk is clearly the more valuable of the two, featuring more defensive ability and heavier play than Fowler, who was born in Windsor and grew up in Farmington Hills.

But the asking price in a trade for either defenseman was astronomic before and during the free-agent frenzy and teams backed off.

The only trade made for a No. 1 or No. 2 defenseman was the straight exchange of P.K Subban of the Canadiens for Shea Weber of the Predators. The Red Wings have nothing similar to offer in such a deal.

The idea they may have been able to put together a large package of players to offer for Subban, in whom the Wings along with many other teams had interest, was always a long shot. So far, the Wings have been unwilling to part with some of the young prospects they have been assembling for several seasons, or NHL regulars like Gustav Nyquist or Tomas Tatar.

Late in the free-agent sweepstakes, Jason Demers, a veteran, right-handed-shooting defenseman, went to the Panthers for about $1 million less than it was presumed he would cost.

Holland declined to comment on whether the Wings pursued Demers.

But, Holland’s former assistant, Jim Nill, general manager of Demers last team, the Stars, opted not to re-sign him. And the Oilers, who reportedly had considerable interest at $5.5 million, never pulled the trigger on the deal.

It appears as though Demers’ stock fell, and he ended up signing with the Panthers for $4.5 million

Meanwhile, many teams watch, wait and hope for the price on Shattenkirk and Fowler to drop on the free-agent market next year.

But other than formidable Sharks star Brent Burns, who finished third in the voting for the Norris Trophy, Shattenkirk is next on the list of quality defensemen in the summer of 2017, too.

There is a likelihood that before then, despite the high price tags now, Shattenkirk, and perhaps Fowler, will have moved to new teams who will negotiate new deals.

It is a difficult market for the Red Wings, but they are not alone.

The number of teams looking for a No. 1 or No. 2 defenseman is significant. It is leading to some of the monstrous contracts negotiated by the players and their agents, like the seven-year, $44.5 million deal Keith Yandle signed with the Panthers, which expires when he is 37 years old.

To help make salary space for Yandle, the Panthers traded 25-year-old Dmitry Kulikov to the Sabres for Mark Pysyk and an exchange of draft picks. Kulikov, who now makes $4.3 million, is an unrestricted free agent next season. That, too, is a high price for a second-unit defenseman seeking to prove he can be a No. 1 or No. 2.

If the Red Wings want a big upgrade on the blue line, they either need to draft well and have the patience to wait a few seasons, or give up significant resources.

The depth at forward may help the process, but it is far from sealing any deals.