By: Will Burchfield
“Oh, wow,” said a taken-aback Frans Nielsen when informed Tuesday night, following the Red Wings’ 2-1 win over the Ducks, of the trade that sent veteran defenseman Dion Phaneuf from the Senators to the Kings.
With the Feb. 26 trade deadline 12 days away, it could be the deal that sets the market into motion. And the Red Wings, eight points out of the playoffs and focused on the future, could be the next team to start selling.
Defenseman Mike Green is squarely on the trade block. Goaltenders Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek are available as well. The Red Wings are also reportedly taking calls on Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar, with the intention of trading at least one of them before the deadline.
Nielsen is likely safe, thanks in large part to the six-year deal he signed in 2016 that carries a $5.25 million cap hit through the 2021-22 season, but it doesn’t mean the specter of a sell-off hasn’t crossed his mind.
“You try not to worry too much about it, but at the same time you’re worried it’s coming up,” Nielsen told 97.1 The Ticket. “It’s part of the game, so it’s tough, especially when you’re going to lose good friends and good teammates. It’s the worst part of the year. But hopefully we can put some wins together here and make management believe that we can still make it and keep us together.”
The Red Wings have a steep hill to climb to get back in the playoff race, made steeper by the fact they’re running low on games — just seven remain between now and the deadline. They’ve won two straight and picked up five points in their last three, but do they have enough time to convince general manager Ken Holland to keep the roster in tact?
“I hope so,” said Howard, who turned away 32 of 33 shots on Tuesday night in his best game in over a month. “I think as long as we keep working hard and doing things the right way and getting results, maybe we can force management’s hand, because honestly, we really do have a great group of guys in here and I think we all really enjoy going out and competing for ourselves. We want to flip the switch here.”
To do so, the Wings will have to go on the kind of run they haven’t been able to produce all season long. And they’ll have to kickstart it against three of the best teams in the NHL. Detroit plays at Tampa Bay on Thursday and at Nashville on Saturday, before coming home to face Toronto on Sunday.
Holland has been clear about his desire to pursue a playoff spot, but he’s not afraid to cut the chord ahead of the deadline. The goal for the Wings is to make his decision difficult. Win at least five of their next seven games, and Holland might have to think twice.
“I think our job as players and coaches is to win as much as you can,” said Jeff Blashill, “so (if) we come home from this road trip with lots of wins we’ll be in a way better spot. Let’s worry about going to Tampa and trying to win a game.”
Tuesday’s win was mostly attributable to Howard, but the Wings on the whole have played better hockey of late. They know what’s at stake in the next two weeks and seemed to have upped their urgency in response.
“We’ve had an urgency level all year,” said Blashill. “We understand how important every game is. … The one thing I’d say is we had all those breaks in January, start-stop, start-stop, and I think since we’ve come back from (the All-Star) break our effort’s been very, very good.”
Whether or not the Wings make an unexpected push before the deadline, Green seems like a certainty to be dealt. He’s a free agent this summer and likely won’t be back. Beyond that, not much is clear. Howard, Mrazek, Tatar and Nyquist have all popped up in rumors, as well as defenseman Danny DeKeyser, but each has his own turn-offs on the trade market. In the case of Howard, it’s his injury history and his contract that carries a $5.3 million cap hit through next season.
Still, there will be chatter surrounding his name in the weeks ahead.
“You just have to block it out the best as possible. You have to be professional, and when you go out there you have to play the right way. You can’t let it distract you,” Howard said. “You just have to keep pushing forward. At the end of the day, whatever happens, happens.”
In the long haul, the Wings would be best served at the deadline by selling in an effort to stockpile draft picks and prospects. The players on the roster understand that, especially the veterans. But their mindset remains the same.
“We want to win games in here, and that’s what we’re focused on right now: Winning games, getting points and giving ourselves a chance down the stretch here to get in,” said Howard.