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What’s next for Red Wings in post-Zetterberg era?

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This was always going to be a tough season for the Detroit Red Wings. After stagnating for a few years with an aging and shockingly expensive roster, the front office finally started to commit somewhat to a rebuild and has spent the better part of the past year stockpiling draft picks and keeping an eye on the future.

Even with the offseason addition of Jonathan Bernier, the return of Thomas Vanek, and the re-signing of Mike Green there really wasn’t much reason to believe things were going to be much better than they were the past two years when the Red Wings missed the playoffs and failed to top the 80-point mark each season.

There is even less reason to believe that now following Friday’s news that the playing career of Henrik Zetterberg is now finished due to a back injury.

[Related: Henrik Zetterberg’s NHL career over due to back injury]

Celebrating his 38th birthday in less than a month, Zetterberg was obviously a fraction of the player he was during his peak years when he was one of the best two-way players in the league and a Conn Smythe winner. So this isn’t likely to significantly alter the Red Wings’ chances for the upcoming season, especially given where everyone expected them to be even with Zetterberg.

Still, he was the team’s second-leading scorer a year ago (and leading scorer the year before) and was still a very productive player.

But even more than all of that it represents the true end of an era in Detroit.

Following the departures of Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov in the early 2000s, ending that mini-dynasty era that produced three Stanley Cups, the Red Wings had a seamless transition into the next chapter of the franchise. There was no lengthy rebuild. There was no need to tear things down and start over. There were no down years. They were able to keep the machine rolling because they had two in-house superstars already developed in Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk that were ready to take over the top spots on the team. For the better part of the next decade they — along with defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom — were the foundation and faces of a Red Wings team that remained one of the league’s elite, went to back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, winning one of them.

With Lidstrom’s retirement following the 2011-12 season, Datsyuk returning to Russia after the 2015-16 season, and now Zetterberg’s career coming to an end that chapter of the Red Wings’ history book is officially closed.

Niklas Kronwall still remains, but for as good as he was, those teams still belonged to the trio of Zetterberg, Datsyuk, and Lidstrom. They were at their absolute best during the 2007-08 season when the Red Wings rolled through the rest of the NHL on their way to a championship that saw them completely outclass a Penguins team in the Final that had Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marian Hossa on it.

Zetterberg and Datsyuk were at the center of all of it. During the regular season the Zetterberg-Datsyuk duo spent more than 600 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together and outscored teams by a 45-19 margin while controlling 65 percent of the shot attempts. They were untouchable. Shockingly, they were even better in the playoffs when the goal-differential was 14-3 and the shot share was over 66 percent.

And now, it is all entirely gone. So where do the Red Wings go from here?

Unlike the end of the previous Red Wings’ championship era, this transition is not going to be as smooth because there is not another Datsyuk or Zetterberg ready to take over.

While there are some intriguing young players that could be a part of the next contending Red Wings’ team (Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha specifically), their next great hope for a franchise-changing player is 2018 first-round pick Filip Zadina, a super talent and one of the best pure goal-scoring prospects in his draft class. For the time being, it looks like a gift that he was able to fall to them at the No. 6 spot and if all goes according to plan he could be the organization’s next building block. But it will take some time, and he will need some help. There is also the possibility that this Red Wings roster without Zetterberg, and with an aging, declining defense that doesn’t really have an impact player, could finish near the bottom of the league (perhaps even lower than last season’s 27th place finish) and play its way into the Jach Hughes derby.

There are also the salary cap ramifications of Zetterberg’s playing career coming to an end.

Currently, the Red Wings’ salary cap situation is a mess as they prepare to enter the 2018-19 season with one of the highest cap numbers in the league with almost no wiggle room at the top. For a team that’s won as little as the Red Wings have the past two seasons that is a staggering figure. But that, too, is going to start changing after this season. Zetterberg can be LTIR’d (at least until the inevitable contract dumping trade to Arizona or Ottawa or some other team looking to take on a big cap number) and they have another $18 million set to come off the books after this season when Kronwall, Vanek, Gustav Nyquist, and Jimmy Howard all head to unrestricted free agency.

There is not only no real reason for the Red Wings in their current state to re-sign them, there is probably no reason for any of them to remain on this roster past the 2019 trade deadline.

It probably took the Red Wings’ a few years too long to fully commit to a rebuild, and as long as players like Zetterberg were on the roster it was probably difficult to make that call because they obviously still wanted to try to complete as long as they had one of the organization’s legends still on the roster. Now that he is not, it is officially full steam ahead on the next phase.

The final big elephant in the room is who ends up making all of the calls on that next phase.

For now, it remains Ken Holland. But with Yzerman stepping down from the general manager’s role in Tampa Bay, and with Holland’s job performance coming under legitimate question in recent years, it is going to create obvious speculation for Yzerman’s eventual return to Detroit.

Yzerman already played a significant role in forever changing the fortunes of the Red Wings as a player when he arrived in the early 1980s when the team was at the bottom of the league.

It would only be fitting if he got a chance to do it one more time in the front office.

[Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick and CapFriendly]

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Seattle close to naming Ron Francis as GM

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SEATTLE (AP) — Seattle’s NHL expansion team is close to an agreement with Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis to become its first general manager, a person with direct knowledge tells The Associated Press.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because the team had not made an announcement.

The expansion Seattle franchise is set to begin play in the 2021-22 season as the NHL’s 32nd team.

After longtime Detroit GM Ken Holland went to Edmonton, adviser Dave Tippett left Seattle Hockey Partners LLC to become Oilers coach and Vegas’ Kelly McCrimmon and Columbus’ Bill Zito got promotions, there was a limited pool of experienced NHL executives to choose from for this job. Francis fits that bill.

The 56-year-old has been in hockey operations since shortly after the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. All of that time has come with the Carolina Hurricanes, including four seasons as their GM.

Carolina didn’t make the playoffs with Francis in charge of decision-making, though his moves put the foundation in place for the team that reached the Eastern Conference final this past season.

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Provorov’s next contract presents big challenge for Flyers

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Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher has been busy overhauling his roster this summer and still has two big jobs ahead of him when it comes to re-signing restricted free agents Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov.

With close to $14 million in salary cap space remaining, he should have no problem in getting them signed and keeping the team under the salary cap.

Konecny’s situation seems like it should be pretty simple: He is a top-six forward that has been incredibly consistent throughout the first three years of his career. The Flyers know what they have right now, and they should have a pretty good idea as to what he is going to be in the future. There is not much risk in projecting what he should be able to do for them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Provorov, on the other hand, presents a far more interesting challenge because he is still somewhat of a mystery whose career seems like it can go in either direction.

Along with Shayne Gostisbehere, Provorov is supposed to be the foundation of the Flyers’ defense for the next decade and entered the league with much fanfare at the start of the 2016-17 season. From the moment he arrived the Flyers have treated him like a top-pairing defender and pretty much thrown him in the deep end of the pool.

At times, he has flashed the potential that made him a top-10 pick in the draft and such a prized piece in the Flyers’ organization.

During his first three years in the league he has not missed a single game, has played more than 20 minutes per game every year, and over the past two seasons has played the fourth most total minutes in the NHL and the third most even-strength minutes. The Flyers have also not gone out of their way to shelter him in terms of where he starts his shifts and who he plays against, regularly sending him over the boards for defensive zone faceoffs and playing against other team’s top players.

In their view, based on his usage, he is their top defender.

Or at least was their top defender over the past two seasons.

Given the performance of the Flyers defensively during those seasons, that may not be much of a statement.

The concern that has to be addressed is that so far in his career Provorov has not always performed like a top-pairing defender in those top-pairing minutes that he has been given.

Just because a player gets a lot of playing time and the toughest assignments does not necessarily mean they are going to handle those minutes or succeed within them. That has been the case at times with Provorov in Philadelphia. This is not like the situation Columbus and Boston are facing with Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy this summer where both young players have already demonstrated an ability to play like top-pairing defenders and have already earned what should be significant, long-term commitments from their respective teams.

This is a situation where a young, talented, and still very promising player has been given a huge role, but has not always performed enough to justify that much trust.

He is also coming off of what can probably be described as a down season where his performance regressed from what it was in 2017-18. He not only saw a steep drop in his production offensively, but the Flyers were outshot, outchanced, and outscored by a pretty significant margin when Provorov was on the ice no matter who his partner was.

He struggled alongside Shayne Gostisbehere. He also struggled alongside Travis Sanheim, while Sanheim saw his performance increase dramatically when he was away from Provorov.

The dilemma the Flyers have to face here is how they handle a new contract for him this summer.

On one hand, he does not turn 23 until January and clearly has the talent to be an impact defender. But he has also played three full seasons in the NHL, and even when looked at within the context of his own team, has not yet shown a consistent ability to be that player. Every player develops at a different pace, and just because McAvoy and Werenski have already emerged as stars doesn’t mean every player at the same age has to follow the same rapid path. Because they most certainly will not.

It just makes it difficult for teams like the Flyers when they have to juggle a new contract.

They were in a similar position with Gostisbehere a couple of years ago when they signed him to a six-year, $27 million contract when he came off of his entry-level deal. But while Gostisbehere had regressed offensively, he still posted strong underlying numbers and at least showed the ability to be more of a possession-driving player. His goal-scoring and point production dropped, but there were at least positive signs it might bounce back. That is not necessarily the case with Provorov.

Even though Provorov has played a ton of minutes, put up some decent goal numbers at times, and been one of the biggest minute-eating defenders in the league, this just seems like a situation that screams for a bridge contract to allow the player to continue to develop, while also giving the team an opportunity to figure out what they have.

Provorov still has the potential to be a star and a bonafide top-pairing defender.

He just has not played like one yet or consistently shown any sign that he definitely will be one, despite being given the role.

Related: Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Capitals re-sign Vrana for two years, $6.7 million

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Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan took care of his biggest remaining offseason task on Tuesday afternoon when he re-signed restricted free agent forward Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract.

The deal will pay Vrana $6.7 million and carry an average annual salary cap hit of $3.35 million per season.

“Jakub is a highly skilled player with a tremendous upside and is a big part of our future,” said MacLellan in a statement released by the team. “We are pleased with his development the past two seasons and are looking forward for him to continue to develop and reach his full potential with our organization.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Vrana was the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2014 and has already shown top-line potential in the NHL. He took a huge step forward in his development during the 2018-19 season, scoring 24 goals to go with 23 assists while also posting strong underlying numbers. He is one of the Capitals’ best young players and quickly starting to become one of their core players moving forward.

It is obviously a bridge contract that will keep him as a restricted free agent when it expires following the 2020-21 season. If he continues on his current path he would be in line for a significant long-term contract that summer.

With Vrana signed the Capitals have under $1 million in salary cap space remaining. They still have to work out new contracts with restricted free agents Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson. Both players filed for salary arbitration. Djoos’ hearing is scheduled for July 22, while Stephenson has his scheduled for August 1. If the Capitals want to keep both on the NHL roster on opening night they may have to make another minor move at some point before the start of the regular season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Donato gets two-year, $3.8 million extension from Wild

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Ryan Donato took advantage of a bigger opportunity with the Minnesota Wild and earned himself a raise on Tuesday.

The Wild announced that they have extended the 23-year-old Donato with a two-year, $3.8 million contract. That $1.9 million annual salary will be a bump from the $925,000 he made during the 2018-19 NHL season.

Following a February trade that sent Charlie Coyle to the Boston Bruins, Donato saw his ice time rise over three minutes under Bruce Boudreau and that resulted in four goals and 16 points in 22 games with Minnesota. Unable to carve out his own role in Boston, Donato struggled offensively with six goals and nine points in 34 games before moving.

“I definitely learned the business side of it, for sure,” Donato said in April. “One thing I learned, in Boston and here, it’s a game of ups and downs. More than college, more than any level, there’s a lot of ups and downs. It’s been an emotional roller coaster the whole year, but definitely over the last couple months it’s settled down quite a bit.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Donato, who was a restricted free agent and will remain one when his contract expires after the 2020-21 season, continued his production in the American Hockey League’s notching 11 points in 14 games between the end of the Iowa Wild’s regular season and the Calder Cup playoffs.

“It’s all about opportunity in this league,” Donato said. “If I can get myself into scoring positions playing with the high-end veteran players we have here, that have been known to find guys in scoring positions, then I’m a guy that can bury it.”

The Wild have high hopes for next season as they expect to be a playoff team coming out of what will be a very, very competitive Central Division. General manager Paul Fenton added Ryan Hartman and Mats Zuccarello to boost the team’s offense which finished fourth-worst in the NHL in goals per game (2.56). Donato will be expected to be a key contributor.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.