2019 NHL Free Agency, Detroit Red Wings, Editor's Choice, Free Agents, Joe Hicketts, Luke Witkowski, Martin Frk, Niklas Kronwall, Thomas Vanek

Yzerman’s Options: The Red Wings’ Free Agency Outlook

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Another season has come and gone, and the Detroit Red Wings find themselves on the outside of the playoff dance yet again. After more than two decades of dominance, the team has fallen on hard times, resulting in three straight seasons without playoff hockey in the Motor City. Luckily, the team has been busy during their lengthened offseason. They locked up goaltender Jimmy Howard to a one-year contract extension, agreed to a two-year deal with bench boss Jeff Blashill, and most notably, brought back Steve Yzerman to be the new general manager of the team.

With these transactions already out of the way, one of the next orders of business is determining the plan of attack for the team ahead of July 1. The Red Wings have several in-house free agents they need to deal with before looking at the marquee players available on the open market. This piece will address the team’s free agents and the likely outcome for each player.

Without further ado, let us take a look at the players Yzerman may re-sign.

Red Wings’ Unrestricted Free Agents

Niklas Kronwall – Age: 38

2018-19 Cap Hit: $4.75 million (79 GP – 3 G – 24 A – 27 PTS)

Niklas Kronwall Dec 2018
Niklas Kronwall’s future is a key question for the Red Wings this offseason. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Kronwall is one of the last members of the old guard in Detroit. He has only played for the Red Wings in his lengthy 15-year NHL career. Unfortunately, injuries have taken their toll on the rearguard’s body, even though he has only missed six contests over the past two seasons. Kronwall is a decorated player and a warrior on the ice, but he has not broken the 30-point plateau since 2014-15.

It seems as though he holds the cards for his future, as the Red Wings will likely give him a loyalty contract if he wants to come back for another season. While Kronwall’s $4.75 million cap hit in 2018-19 looks unpalatable on the surface, he only actually made $1.75 million in base salary. Considering this, a one-year contract at $1.5 million may be a scenario that works for both parties. While the Red Wings will need to make space for promising young blueliners like Filip Hronek and Dennis Cholowski, a veteran presence like Kronwall can act as a teacher in what would be his final NHL season.

Luke Witkowski – Age: 29

2018-19 Cap Hit: $750,000 (34 GP – 0 G – 2 A – 2 PTS)

While the pugnacious Witkowski is a fan favorite at times, the game is transitioning away from his skillset. Witkowski has a menacing physical presence and can play both forward and defense, but he is not worthy of a roster spot at this point in his career. With players like Filip Zadina, Taro Hirose, Christoffer Ehn, and Michael Rasmussen chomping at the bit to get NHL action, the Red Wings need to do everything they can to ensure they get their youth in the lineup. Witkowski was entertaining during two seasons in Detroit, but he is someone to let walk during free agency.

Thomas Vanek – Age: 35

2018-19 Cap Hit: $3 million (64 GP – 16 G – 20 A – 36 PTS)

Red Wings left wing Thomas Vanek
The aging Thomas Vanek is a player that the Red Wings should move on from. (Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in three seasons, Thomas Vanek was not shipped off at the trade deadline. The aging winger had some flashes of offensive potency throughout the year, but inconsistency and injuries hampered his production. Vanek’s situation is similar to Witkowski’s. The Red Wings are transitioning to a more youthful core, and there are only so many roster spots to go around. Vanek is capable of providing modest depth scoring numbers and will likely find a suitor in free agency, but the Red Wings should move on from the Austrian sniper.

Red Wings’ Restricted Free Agents

Martin Frk – Age: 25

2018-19 Cap Hit: $1.05 million (30 GP – 1 G – 5 A – 6 PTS)

Due to the emergence of other players on the roster, Frk was a healthy scratch more often than not in 2018-19. The Czech winger has a cannonading shot, but he offers little else at the NHL level. At best, Frk can serve as a depth forward, but younger players like Ryan Kuffner and Dominic Turgeon are better suited for that role. Frk’s skill set is reminiscent of former Red Wings’ winger Teemu Pulkkinen, who they let go of in 2016. The same fate looks like it is in Frk’s future.

Joe Hicketts – Age: 22

2018-19 Cap Hit: $636,111 (11 GP – 0 G – 0 A – 0 PTS)

Hicketts struggled to find a roster spot this season given the number of defensemen ahead of him on the organization’s depth chart. While he showed little promise offensively during his short NHL stint in 2018-19, he produced 27 points in 64 games with the Grand Rapids Griffins in the AHL. While Hicketts may never become an NHL regular, he is a competent rearguard that offers stability to the franchise. He can play a top-four role with the Griffins while being an injury replacement with the big club. It would not be surprising to see Hicketts receive a small raise with another two-way contract this summer.

The Final Verdict

Cap space and roster flexibility are two of the biggest luxuries in the modern-day NHL. If the Red Wings do indeed take a minimalist approach to their free agents this summer, they will have upwards of $18 million in cap space. Erik Karlsson, Matt Duchene, and Artemi Panarin all may hit the open market this offseason. If Yzerman feels inclined to do so, the Red Wings have the cap flexibility to sign one of the big names on the open market.

Erik Karlsson - Sharks
How unfeasible is it to imagine the Red Wings making a big splash on Erik Karlsson this summer? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Of course, this begs the question whether or not one marquee free agent is capable of making the Red Wings a playoff contender again. At this moment in time, it may be best to continue saving their cap space until their young players have fully developed. The main takeaway is that the Red Wings have their key contributors already locked up for the next few seasons. Likewise, the team has newfound cap flexibility that was absent in recent years. All of this culminates in a blank canvas for Yzerman, and he can go in whatever direction he pleases.

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