UPDATE: The Wings signed Frans Nielsen. Get details of his contract HERE.
By Will Burchfield
DETROIT (CBS DETROIT) – In the wake of Steven Stamkos’ decision to stay in Tampa Bay, the Red Wings must alter their outlook heading into free agency. In short, it’s time for Plan B.
A number of names have been thrown around as targets for GM Ken Holland, from David Backes and Andrew Ladd to Milan Lucic and Kyle Okposo.
But let’s talk about Frans Nielsen.
If there’s one free agent that makes the most sense for the Wings to sign – considering his skill set, price tag and compatibility – it’s Nielsen. Free agency isn’t about targeting the most glamorous player and bending over backwards to sign him. It’s about improving your team through shrewd, sensible acquisitions.
Nielsen doesn’t carry the same star power as some of the guys listed above, but that’s more a product of where he’s played than what he’s done. Because looking at his numbers, the 32-year-old center fully belongs in their company.
Nielsen put up 20 goals and 52 points in 2015-16; the latter number ranks third among Backes, Ladd, Lucic and Okposo. (Only Okposo, who put up 64 points, truly distinguishes himself from this group, which is why he is asking for $7+ million dollars, and why someone is crazily going to give it to him.)
But it’s not about the surface stats with Nielsen. Not entirely, at least. To fully grasp his value as a player, you have to look through the immediate numbers.
In ranking the best two-way centers in the NHL – the guys who are equally dominant at both ends of the ice – the list begins with Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews. You could put Patrice Bergeron in this class as well, but the aristocracy ends there.
In the next tier, you find Nielsen. He kills penalties. He’s great on the power play. He’ll play against the opposition’s top line. He is as responsible without the puck as he is creative with it. There are a number of dazzling centers in the NHL whose defensive shortcomings detract from their overall game, who make your eyes light up in one zone and your knuckles turn white in the other. (Nielsen’s teammate, John Tavares, is a prime example.) But Nielsen is steady in every situation.
Without getting too bogged down in the #fancystats, Nielsen is one of the more efficient players in the NHL. He drives possession (meaning his team has a positive shot differential when he’s on the ice) despite starting the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone. That’s an incredibly hard thing to do. Consider that the Islanders were a mediocre possession team at best, and Nielsen’s ability to tilt the ice grows more impressive still.
With the departure of Pavel Datsyuk, the Wings are in dire need of someone who can play his type of two-way game at the center position. Henrik Zetterberg is capable in this sense, but he’s in the twilight of his career. Dylan Larkin – well, apply the opposite. Nielsen would help stabilize the team in the wake of losing one of its greatest players ever. There is certainly something to be said for that.
Yes, Backes would serve the same purpose. But his offensive reputation is overstated, and the Wings would pay for it. What’s more, it’s rumored that Backes wants a five-year deal, which is too much for a 32-year-old with an ominous concussion history.
Okposo, Ladd and Lucic all conceivably fill the Wings’ need for a burly scoring forward (Lucic more so than the other two), but they carry inflated price tags. It’s likely that all three of them will command at least $6.5 million annually, which is a lot to pay for good-not-great offensive production. Okposo is the most talented of the three, but more or less a black hole in his own end; Ladd is a better all-around player but has less offensive upside; and Lucic, though a good fit in theory, will hardly come cheap.
Free agency, again, is about addressing team needs through sound investments. In that sense, Nielsen should be the Wings’ number one target moving forward. He likely won’t cost much more than $5.5 mill per year over four years. In the current market for top-two centers, that’s great value. And it would leave the Wings with enough flexibility to pursue other players.
It might be tempting, on the heels of missing out on Stamkos, to set your sights on the next-shiniest jewel in the heap of free agents. But the Wings weren’t eyeing Stamkos for his glamour. They were eyeing him because he made sense as an asset, as an addition to their team. Even at the price they were likely to pay, he would have been a smart investment.
The Wings have money to spend. But they must spend it wisely. Nielsen might not kindle the same kind of excitement as a Backes or a Lucic (despite his comparable play), but he is the best player for this team based on what he can do and what he is likely to cost.
“Plan B” should begin with him.