Marleau-lites: How Red Wings, Senators can boost rebuilds

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If you’re a fan of both hockey and team-building, the last few weeks have been Christmas in July. It might not be the most wonderful time of year if you demand smart team-building, though.

Plenty of teams have spent their money poorly lately, but at least two teams have really dropped the ball on boosting their rebuilds: the Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators. Instead of seeing a blueprint in the Hurricanes creatively getting a first-round pick out of a Patrick Marleau trade and buyout, the Red Wings and Senators instead wasted their money on veterans who are unlikely to make much of a difference for their futures (Valtteri Filppula and Ron Hainsey, respectively).

The bad news is that Steve Yzerman and Pierre Dorion missed the boat at the most robust time. Jake Gardiner stands as a strong free agent option, yet the frenzy is now a dull rumble.

The good news is that there’s still time, as both teams have some space to take on Marleau-lite contracts, and there are contenders who need to make space. Before I list off some Marleau-lite contracts Detroit or Ottawa should consider absorbing, let’s summarize each team’s situations.

Bumpy road in Motor City

Filppula joins a bloated list of veteran supporting cast members who are clogging up Detroit’s cap, so it’s worth noting that the Red Wings only have about $5.284M in cap space, according to Cap Friendly.

The Red Wings have their normal array of picks for the next three years, along with an extra second in 2020, and also extra third-rounders in both 2020 and 2021. That’s decent, but why not buy more dart throws?

Senators’ situation

Ottawa has a whopping $22.84M in cap space, but of course, the real question is how much owner Eugene Melnyk would be willing to move above the floor of $60.2M. The Senators are currently at $58.6M, and RFA Colin White could eat up the difference and more. It’s plausible that Pierre Dorion is mostly closing down shop, at least beyond sorting out RFAs like White and Christian Wolanin.

The Senators have a ton of picks, as you can see from Cap Friendly’s guide, but only one extra first-rounder. That first-rounder could be very weak, too, being that it’s the San Jose Sharks’ 2020 first-rounder.

The one bit of promising news is that Melnyk’s already sent a message about this team being in rebuild mode. Why not make like the Rangers and take advantage of the situation by going all-out to land as many assets as you can, then?

Expiring deals contenders might want to trade away

  • Cody Eakin and other Vegas Golden Knights: Despite purging Colin Miller and Erik Haula, the Golden Knights are still in a tight situation, and that might mean losing out on intriguing RFA Nikita Gusev. Eakin seems like an excessive luxury at $3.85M. The 28-year-old could be very appealing as a rental at the trade deadline, so Ottawa/Detroit could gain assets in both trading for Eakin, then trading him away. Ryan Reaves ($2.755M) could make plenty of sense too — you may just need to distract fans with fights this season — but Vegas seems infatuated with the powerful pugilist.
  • Martin Hanzal: The Stars are primed to put the 32-year-old’s $4.75M on LTIR, but maybe they’d give up a little something to just get rid of the issue?
  • Sam Gagner: The Oilers are in tight. Maybe they’d want to use that $3.15M to, say, target Jake Gardiner on a hopeful one-year (relative) discount deal, or something? If there’s any way this ends in Ottawa or Detroit landing Jesse Puljujarvi, things get really interesting.
  • Patrick Eaves: Some scary health issues have cropped up for Eaves, who might be OK waiving his NMC, relieving the Ducks of $3.15M in cap concerns. Anaheim’s in a weird place between rebuilding and competing, which could make them pretty vulnerable.
  • Cody Ceci: Dare I wonder if the Red Wings might take on Ceci from Toronto for a price, allowing Toronto to focus on Mitch Marner and Alex Kerfoot? Ceci’s an RFA without a deal, so he probably fits in a different category, but worth mentioning if we’re going outside the box.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Longer deals, higher rates

  • David Backes: At $6M per year, Backes’ contract is as painful as his borderline hits often can be. That expires after 2020-21, though, making his term very interesting: it’s brutal for Boston (who have to tend to Charlie McAvoy and Torey Krug), while it would be digestible for Detroit and especially Ottawa. How much would Boston be willing to fork over to gain some flexibility? If I’m Dorion or Yzerman, I’m blowing up Don Sweeney’s phone to find out.
  • Artem Anisimov: The Blackhawks have a slew of bad deals. They also seem like they’re living in the past, which means that an even bolder Brent Seabrook salary dump seems unlikely. A smart team would want to get rid of Anisimov’s contract ($4.55M AAV for two more years), and a savvy rebuilding team would extract assets to take on that burden.
  • Jack Johnson: It’s been a year, and I still can’t believe the Penguins gave Johnson $3.25M AAV for a single season, let alone for a mind-blowing term through 2022-23. Considering that contract, the Penguins probably still think too highly of Johnson, so they probably wouldn’t cough up the bounty I’d personally need to take on this mega-blunder of a deal. It’s worth delving into a discussion, though. If the Penguins hit a Kings-style wall, who knows how valuable their upcoming picks might end up being?
  • James Neal: Woof, the 31-year-old’s carrying $5.75M through 2022-23. That would be a lot to stomach, but Calgary’s in a win-now state, and might be convinced to fork over quite a bit here. The dream scenario of Neal getting his game back, and either becoming easier to trade down the line, or a contributor to a rebuild, isn’t that outrageous, though it is unlikely. Much like with Johnson, I’d want a significant haul to take this problem off of the Flames’ hands, but I’d also be curious.
  • Loui Eriksson: Much like with Johnson in Pittsburgh, the key here would be Jim Benning admitted that he made an enormous gaffe in Eriksson’s $6M AAV, which runs through 2021-22. That’s questionable, as the Canucks are making it a tradition to immediately ruin draft weekend optimism with free agent armageddon.

That said, if Vancouver admits that Eriksson is an albatross, and decides to pay up to rid themselves of that issue … at least this only lasts through 2021-22. That term might just work out for Ottawa, if Vancouver threw in enough sweeteners to appease The Beastie Boys.

  • Kyle Turris: What if the Senators brought back a beloved community figure, while charging the Predators an exorbitant rate to absorb his an exorbitant contract? It’s possible that Turris could enjoy a rebound of sorts, and Nashville made an already-expensive center group close to outlandish with Matt Duchene. Turris’ deal runs through 2023-24, and he’s already 29, so I’d honestly probably not do it … unless the return was huge. Nashville and these rebuilding teams should at least have multiple conversations on the subject.

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Overall, my favorite ideas revolve around landing someone like Eakin or Backes. The urgency should be there for contending teams in cap crunches, while their deals aren’t the type to interfere with rebuilds.

(Sorry, but Detroit and Ottawa both have a lot of work to do, and should probably assume that work extends beyond 2020-21.)

Now, do the Senators and Red Wings have the imagination, hunger, and leeway from ownership to make the sort of deals discussed in this post? I’m not overly optimistic about that, but the good news for them is that there are likely to be opportunities, if they seek them out.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.