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Red Wings should sign Dylan Larkin for as long as possible

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For all the things that went wrong for the Edmonton Oilers last season, a funny thing snuck under the radar: Leon Draisaitl was probably worth the money.

Granted, that’s a relative thing, but from here, $8.5 million per year doesn’t seem so outrageous for a 70-point player who showed some promise without Connor McDavid, became dominant at little things like face-offs, and won’t turn 23 until October.

While I’d argue that the Oilers could have saved some money if they extended Draisaitl as early as possible instead of allowing him to break through during a contract year, the truth is that this situation is probably superior in the big picture. Just think of what a difference-making center like Draisaitl will cost by 2024-25, the final year of his current deal.

The Detroit Red Wings should follow a similar train of thought when it comes to their own blue-chip center, Dylan Larkin.

Possible parallels

The Athletic’s Craig Custance provided a detailed breakdown of Larkin’s contract with the Red Wings as an RFA, a read that’s easily worth your time. Every indication is that the negotiations have been healthy, including this quote from Larkin following the end of Detroit’s 2017-18 season.

“It’s got to make sense for the team as well as myself,” Larkin said. “I don’t want to be a burden on the cap or for the team. I really want to do something that — obviously it’s my future, when I want to have a family later in life, it’s something that can be pretty significant — but I also want to win and I want to be on a team that can have good players and can be competitive.”

Sure, there’s always a chance that this is Classic Lip Service, yet quotes like these just as often do portend a player who wants to find a compromise everyone can live with.

Custance also compares Larkin to Draisaitl (sub required), rightly noting that it would be risky for the Red Wings to assume that Larkin could make the leap to be the 70-point player Draisaitl’s been during the past two seasons. After all, Larkin scored 63 points in 2017-18, easily the best output of his also-very-young career.

If I were in Ken Holland’s shoes, I would have approached the free agent summer totally differently, I’d sign Larkin for as long as possible, even if it meant rolling the dice a bit when it comes to AAV.

I mean, sure, it’s enticing to try to land a big bargain. David Pastrnak, one of Custance’s comparables, looks like a serious bargain for Boston at his deal-with-the-devil $6.66M. Matt Cane’s remarkably accurate contract estimates call for Larkin to land six years at a $6.32M clip, which is the sort of situation that can make bargain-hunters salivate.

And, no doubt, the Red Wings could use some wins. Just check the scary money and term for Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, and Danny DeKeyser if you need a reason to cringe.

A Larkin contract shouldn’t be about all of that, as ideally, his term would far outlast even Holland’s worst opuses.

One more intriguing comparison

While Larkin doesn’t boast the exact same ceiling, the Red Wings could luck into a sweet, sweet deal like the Colorado Avalanche did with their lightning-fast center Nathan MacKinnon.

The Avalanche signed MacKinnon in July 2016, when he was coming off of a 52-point season, and he followed it up with a modest 53 points. But after almost winning a Hart Trophy via a brilliant 39-goal, 97-point season, the 22-year-old’s $6.3M cap hit through 2022-23 stands as arguably the best steal in the NHL. Things are looking up for Colorado right now, yet eventually GM Joe Sakic should be judged by whether or not he can leverage that jaw-dropping bargain to greater success.

Speed isn’t the only area where MacKinnon and Larkin share some fascinating similarities, either.

MacKinnon had long been a low-percentage shooter before 2017-18, hitting a low point of 6.4 percent in 2016-17. That changed last season, playing some role in his leap from “very good” to “one of the best.”

What if Larkin can parallel MacKinnon in the near future? He only scored 16 goals this past season, but Larkin connected at just a 6.9 shooting percentage (232 SOG in 82 games). Like MacKinnon, Larkin’s career has been a bit on the quantity over quality side, as his career average is just 8.9 percent.

The nightmare scenario is that he simply lacks shooting talent, yet the ideal one is that a spike is looming. Sometimes people get a little too wrapped up in believing that every prospect simply hasn’t unlocked some fleeting potential, but that’s a lot more reasonable in a guy who’s a) already produced, b) will turn just 22 on July 30, and c) probably has, at times, tried to do too much on bad teams.

Beyond the bridge

Alongside sending baffling contracts to veterans who are unlikely to be part of any broader solution, the Red Wings also frustrate a bit in only signing Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha to two-year deals.

Yes, the cap hits were very reasonable, but the Red Wings face the very real threat of having to pay up for more expensive deals once they’re in a better situation to more viably contend. That will be the time when they’ll wish they rolled the dice with younger talent boasting some room to grow, particularly since those same players are easier to trade if management sours on them.

Of course, there’s the possibility that neither player wanted to ink a lengthier deal with the Red Wings, so getting something done is absolutely better than nothing.

Either way, handing a substantial, prime-covering contract to Larkin would serve as quite the balm for the concerns of future-minded fans and critics.

***

Look, there’s no denying that the Red Wings’ cap situation is tight, even with Johan Franzen headed for LTIR. Such concerns raise the degree of difficulty for signing Larkin, and a reasonable six-year deal certainly wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Smart teams find bargains when they can, and show foresight in their planning.

Such descriptions haven’t exactly fit the bill for the Red Wings in some time, but if they want to get back to that level, they’ll need to get things right with players such as Larkin. He’s easily worth the risk.

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.

ProHockeyTalk’s NHL free agency tracker

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The NHL’s off-season is under way and with free agency beginning July 1 there will be plenty of action this summer. Check back here for all of the trades and signings that teams will be making in hopes of improving their chances at winning the 2018-19 Stanley Cup.

July 17
• The Devils agree to terms with Blake Coleman on a three-year, $5.4 million deal (Link)

• A busy morning for Ray Shero also sees Stefan Noesen agree to a one-year, $1.725 million deal. (Link)

Ryan Pulock, Islanders agree to a two-year, $4 million contract. (Link)

Jimmy Vesey and the Rangers avoid arbitration and agree to a two-year, $4.55 million deal. (Link)

Tomas Nosek re-signs with the Golden Knights. One-year, $962,500. (Link)

July 16
Ryan Hartman and the Predators agree to a one-year, $875,000 deal. (Link)

Elias Lindholm inks a six-year, $29.1 million extension with the Flames. (Link)

• The Ducks lock up Adam Henrique with a five-year, $29.125 million extension. (Link)

Juuse Saros signs a three-year, $4.5 million extension with the Predators. (Link)

• Jon Gillies and the Flames agree to a two-year, $1.5 million deal. (Link)

July 15
• The Blue Jackets and Oliver Bjorkstrand agree to a three-year, $7.5 million extension. (Link)

• Philip Danult re-signs with the Canadiens. Thee years, $9.249 million. (Link)

July 14
Ryan Murray accepts his qualifying offer with the Blue Jackets. One year, $2.825 million. (Link)

Rob O'Gara re-signs with the Rangers. One year, $874,125. (Link)

July 13
Joel Armia and the Canadiens come to terms on a one-year, $1.85 million contract. (Link)

Marc-Andre Fleury and the Golden Knights agree to a three-year, $21 million extension. (Link)

• Andreas Johnsson accepts his qualifying offer, a one-year, $787,500 deal with the Maple Leafs. (Link)

• The Stars extend Devin Shore with a two-year, $4.6 million contract. (Link)

July 12
Connor Hellebuyck signs a six-year, $37 million extension with the Jets. (Link)

• The Blackhawks send the contract of Marian Hossa’s contract, Vinnie Hinostroza, Jordan Oesterle and a 2019 third-rounder to the Coyotes for Marcus Kruger, Jordan Maletta, Andrew Campbell, MacKenzie Entwistle’s rights and a 2019 fifth-rounder. (Link)

Cody McLeod returns to the Rangers on a one-year deal. (Link)

Jamie Oleksiak and the Penguins agree to a three-year, $6.4125 million extension. (Link)

July 11
Adam Erne re-signs with the Lightning. One-year, $800,000. (Link)

Anthony Mantha and the Red Wings agree to a two-year, $6.6 million extension. (Link)

July 10
Patrick Maroon heads homes to St. Louis and signs a one-year, $1.75 million deal with the Blues. (Link)

Nikita Kucherov signs an eight-year, $76 million extension with the Lightning. (Link)

July 9
Ross Johnston gets a four-year, $4 million extension with the Islanders. (Link)

• Rasmus Dahlin inks his three-year, entry level contract with the Sabres. (Link)

• The Islanders add forward Jan Kovar, who spent the last five seasons in the KHL, with a one-year deal. (Link)

July 7
• Alex Lyon re-signs in Philadelphia. Two years, $1.5 million. (Link)

Dmitrij Jaskin and the Blues agree to a one-year, $1.1 million extension. (Link)

Colin Miller signs four-year, $15.5 million extension with the Vegas Golden Knights (Link)

Dylan DeMelo re-ups with the San Jose Sharks. Two years, $1.8 million total. (Link)

July 6
Matt Nieto stays with the Colorado Avalanche. Two years, $3.95 million total. (Link)

• Oscar Dansk re-signs with the Vegas Golden Knights. Two years, $1.35 million total. (Link)

• The Dallas Stars re-sign Jason Dickinson to a one-year, $875,000 contract. (Link)

Alexander Petrovic re-signs with the Florida Panthers with a one-year deal. (Link)

• After getting bought out by the Wild, Tyler Ennis signs with the Maple Leafs. One year, $650,000. (Link)

Ryan Strome re-ups with the Oilers with a two-year, $6.2 million extension. (Link)

Oskar Sundqvist inks a one-year, $700,000 to remain a St. Louis Blue. (Link)

July 5
Cedric Paquette gets a one-year, $1 million deal to stay with the Lightning. (Link)

Trevor van Riemsdyk, Hurricanes avoid arbitration with two-year, $4.6 million deal. (Link)

Anthony Duclair heads to the Blue Jackets on a one-year, $650,000 deal. (Link)

Andreas Athanasiou stays with the Detroit Red Wings with a two-year, $6 million deal. (Link)

Jacob De La Rose re-signs with the Canadiens with a two-year, $1.8 million contract. (Link)

• The Ducks bring on Andrej Sustr with a one-year, $1.3 million contract. (Link)

Boone Jenner gets a four-year, $15 million extension from the Columbus Blue Jackets. (Link)

Christian Folin gets a one-year deal from the Philadelphia Flyers. (Link)

Jordan Nolan heads to the St. Louis Blues. One year, $650,000. (Link)

July 3
Robby Fabbri stays in St. Louis with a one-year, $925,000 deal. (Link)

• The Boston Bruins re-sign Sean Kuraly for three years, $3.825 million. (Link)

• Remi Elie re-signs with the Dallas Stars. One year, $735,000 (Link)

Calvin de Haan signs with the Carolina Hurricanes on a four-year, $18.4 million contract in free agency. [Link]

• The Islanders signed goalie Robin Lehner to a one-year contract. [Link]

Brad Richardson is back with the Arizona Coyotes on a two-year contract. [Link]

• The Islanders bring back Matt Martin in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Link)

July 2
Tomas Hertl re-ups with the Sharks on a four-year, $22.5 million contract. (Link)

Carter Rowney gets a three-year deal from the Anaheim Ducks. (Link)

Joe Thornton re-signs in San Jose with a one-year, $5 million deal. (Link)

Brian Gibbons lands a one-year, $1 million contract with the Anaheim Ducks. (Link)

Slater Koekkoek is back with the Tampa Bay Lightning. One year, $865,000. (Link)

Zac Rinaldo has a new home with the Nashville Predators. One year, $650,000. (Link)

James Neal gets a five-year, $28.75 million deal from the Calgary Flames. (Link)

Tom Kuhnhackl joins the Islanders on a one-year deal. (Link)

July 1
Matt Calvert joins the Colorado Avalanche on a three-year, $8.4 millon deal. (Link)

Valtteri Filppula joins the Islanders on a one-year, $2.75 million deal. (Link)

• The Buffalo Sabres send Ryan O'Reilly to the St. Louis Blues for a 2019 first-rounder, 2021 second-rounder, forwards Tage Thompson, Patrik Berglund, and Vladimir Sobotka. The Blues also pick up O’Reilly’s $7.5 million signing bonus. (Link)

Luke Schenn will be manning the Anaheim Ducks’ blue line next season. One year, $800,000. (Link)

• Defenseman Nick Holden is joining the Western Conference champion Vegas Golden Knights. Two years, $4.4 million (Link)

• Islanders sign Leo Komarov for four years, $12 million. (Link)

Sven Baertschi is back in Vancouver on a three-year, $10 million contract. (Link)

Riley Nash cashes in on a big year and gets a three-year, $8.25 million deal with the Blue Jackets. (Link)

Vladislav Namestnikov is staying with the New York Rangers with a two-year, $8 million extension. (Link)

Tobias Rieder hooks up with the Oilers on a one-year, $1.3 million contract. (Link)

Matt Cullen goes back to Pittsburgh on a one-year. $650,000 deal. (Link)

John Moore gets a big contract from the Boston Bruins. Five years, $13.75 million. (Link)

• #TavaresWatch is over. John Tavares has signed a seven-year, $77 million deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Link)

• The Sabres and Blues basically swap backup goalies now that Chad Johnson signs for one year, $1.75 million in St. Louis. (Link)

• The Hurricanes find their backup in Petr Mrazek. One year, $1.5 million. (Link)

Michael Grabner heads west with a three-year, $10.05 million deal with the Coyotes. (Link)

Kyle Brodziak joins the Oilers for two years, $2.3 million. (Link)

• After two seasons in the KHL, Val Nichushkin returns to Dallas with a two-year, $5.9 million deal. (Link)

J.T. Brown joins the Wild on a two-year, $1.375 million contract. (Link)

Ryan McDonagh inks a seven-year, $47.25 million extension to stay with the Tampa Bay Lightning. (Link)

• The Stars stay busy adding Roman Polak (one year, $1.3 million) to their blue line. (Link)

Tomas Plekanec is member of the Montreal Canadiens again. One year, $2.25 million. (Link)

• The Chicago Blackhawks add Cam Ward ($3 million) and Chris Kunitz ($1 million) on one year deals and ink Brandon Manning to a two-year, $4.5 million contract. (Link)

• The Coyotes make Oliver Ekman-Larsson‘s eight year, $66 million extension official. (Link)

• The Colorado Avalanche add to their blue line bringing in Ian Cole on a three-year, $12.75 million deal. (Link)

Blake Comeau is signed by the Dallas Stars, three years, $7.2 million. (Link)

Tyler Bozak joins Perron in St. Louis as the Blues ink the center to a three-year, $15 million deal. (Link)

Thomas Hickey heads back to the Islanders with a four-year, $10 million contract. (Link)

Paul Stastny leaves Winnipeg for the Vegas Golden Knights on a three-year, $19.5 million deal. (Link)

• The Jack Johnson to the Penguins deal is real and it’s $16.25 million over five years. (Link)

Thomas Vanek (one year, $3 million), Mike Green (two year, $10.75 million) and Jonathan Bernier (three year, $9 million) have all signed with the Detroit Red Wings.

James van Riemsdyk heads back to Philadelphia with a five-year, $35 million contract. (Link)

David Perron returns to St. Louis and signs a four-year, $16 million deal with the Blues. (Link)

Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel each get four-year, $12 million deals from the Vancouver Canucks. (Link)

• The Calgary Flames pick up Derek Ryan (three years, $9.375 million) and Austin Czarnik (two years, $2.50 million). (Link)

Greg Pateryn gets a three-year, $6.75 million deal from the Minnesota Wild. Eric Fehr (one year, $1 million) is joining him. (Link)

• The Bruins, Sabres Stars find backups with Jaroslav Halak (two years, $5.5 million) headed to Boston, Anton Khudobin (two years, $5 million) on his way to Dallas and Carter Hutton (three years, $8.25 million) going to Buffalo.

Matt Hendricks moves on to the Wild with a one-year, $700,000 deal. (Link)

June 30
• Winnipeg Jets clear valuable cap space by shipping Steve Mason to Montreal Canadiens. (Link)

Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks agree to eight-year, $64 million extension. (Link)

Ryan Reaves is sticking in Sin City, signing a two-year, $5.5 million contract with the Vegas Golden Knights. (Link)

Chris Wagner heads to the Boston Bruins on a two-year, $2.5 million deal. (Link)

Eddie Lack returns to New Jersey on a one-year, $650,000 deal with the Devils. (Link)

• The Carolina Hurricanes hand Andrei Svechnikov his three-year, entry level deal worth $2,497,500. (Link)

Niklas Hjalmarsson inks a two-year, $10 million extension (kicks in 2019-20) with the Arizona Coyotes. (Link)

June 29
Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings agree to eight-year, $88 million extension. (Link)

Michal Kempny stays in Washington with four-year, $10 million extension. (Link)

• Capitals name Todd Reirden as Barry Trotz’s replacement. (Link)

Frank Vatrano returns to Florida Panthers on one-year, $925,000 contract. (Link)

• Carolina Hurricanes re-sign Valentin Zykov with two-year, $1.35 million contract. (Link)

June 28
• Penguins hand one-year, $650,000 deal to J.S. Dea. (Link)

June 27
• Penguins deal Conor Sheary, Matt Hunwick to Buffalo Sabres. (Link)

Devante Smith-Pelly returns to Washington Capitals with one-year, $1 million deal (Link)

• Penguins re-sign Riley Sheahan to $2.1 million, 1-year deal. (Link)

• Arizona Coyotes bring back Kevin Connauton with two year, $2.75 million extension. (Link)

June 26
• Vancouver Canucks re-sign Derrick Pouliot, one year, $1.1 million. (Link)

• Pittsburgh Penguins re-sign Bryan Rust with 4 year, $14 million deal. (Link)

• Ottawa Senators buy out final year Alex Burrows’s contract. (Link)

J.T. Miller gets five-year, $26.25 million extension from Tampa Bay Lightning. (Link)

• Sam Morin gets three-year, $2.1 million extension from Philadelphia Flyers. (Link)

Joe Morrow re-signs with Winnipeg Jets for $1 million over one year. (Link)

Penguins’ big defense spending continues with Oleksiak

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Perhaps it’s fitting that the Pittsburgh Penguins put a bow on big defense spending by re-signing Jamie Oleksiak, one of the largest humans you’ll see roaming a blueline.

The team announced that they signed the 25-year-old to a three-year contract that will carry a $2,137,500 cap hit. He’s generally listed at 6-foot-7, which is just a couple inches shorter than Zdeno Chara.

(It only seems fair that he was frequently called upon to drop the mitts once he arrived from Dallas then, right?)

In a vacuum, it’s an inoffensive contract, although some will grimace a bit at giving three years to a potential depth defenseman. Your overall opinion of the big blueliner will vary depending upon how you value what he brings to the table. His size is valued by many, and he didn’t take on too much water from a possession standpoint.

There’s little denying that he enjoyed something of a career rejuvenation in Pittsburgh, echoing Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz, even though his gritty style makes him quite different from those fleet-footed defensemen. After averaging just 15 minutes per game with the Stars, Oleksiak’s ice time shot up to an average of 17:24 in 41 contests with Pittsburgh.

That ice time plummeted during the postseason, as he only logged an average of 13:43 per contest.

We’ve seen teams get burned by handing an extension to a defenseman who thrived during a brief audition, such as Brendan Smith‘s disastrous turn with the Rangers, although the Penguins didn’t shell out as large of a cap hit here.

The larger concern might be that the Penguins could be guilty of a mistake a lot of contenders fall victim of: locking up a lot of depth players when it might be wiser to allow more room to scour the market for cheaper options in the bottom of the order. On the other hand, maybe Oleksiak will end up being another successful reclamation project in Pittsburgh?

Either way, the Penguins are locked in with quite a few defensemen, so substantial commitments abound.

It’s a pricey group, too. Via Cap Friendly’s estimates, the Penguins are spending almost $27M on seven defensemen: Oleksiak, Schultz, Kris Letang, Jack Johnson, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, and Chad Ruhwedel.

For some, that’s the price of doing business for a team not far removed from back-to-back Stanley Cup victories.

Others will blanche at the thought that, at times, the Penguins overcome this group, rather than being propped up by it. Those critics surely won’t be over the moon about some of their recent commitments, especially oft-criticized Jack Johnson carrying a $3.25M cap hit mere months after the Blue Jackets couldn’t give him away during the trade deadline.

There are some red flags going on with that unit, and maybe the Oleksiak signing will be looked upon as a mistake.

Ultimately, it’s not the sort of decision that will derail the Penguins’ hopes for contending now and in the future. The worry, though, is that the mistakes might start to really pile up for the Pens. After all, flexibility can be crucial in the modern NHL, and GM Jim Rutherford risks painting himself into a corner.

(Then again, the Blackhawks reminded us today that you can often foist your cap problems on other teams, so maybe none of this is all that big of a concern?)

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.

Red Wings agree with Mantha on two-year, $6.6 million contract

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DETROIT — The Detroit Red Wings have agreed to a two-year, $6.6 million contract with Anthony Mantha.

The Red Wings announced the move with the restricted free agent Wednesday, keeping the 23-year-old wing after he led the team with 24 goals last season.

Mantha had 48 points in 80 games last season. He has 43 goals and 44 assists in two-plus seasons with the Red Wings. Detroit drafted him 20th overall in 2013.

The Red Wings re-signed restricted free agent Andreas Athanasiou last year with a two-year contract.

Their next task is completing negotiations with restricted free agent Dylan Larkin on a multiyear contract.

Is this it for Zetterberg with Red Wings? Maybe it should be

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With his back issues in mind, the Detroit Red Wings aren’t sure if Henrik Zetterberg will be able to play next season.

It’s something GM Ken Holland acknowledged as free agency began on July 1, according to reporters including Ted Kulfan of the Detroit News.

“The last I talked to him, he’s planning on playing,” Holland said. “Obviously his back is going to determine whether he can or can’t. Do I have a clear green light (as to whether Zetterberg is returning)? I’m expecting him to play. Do I have a clear green light? No.”

With that uncertainty in mind, it’s not too surprising that something as minor as Zetterberg playing golf was enough to seem like an “encouraging sign” to the Red Wings, as the Detroit Free-Press’ Helene St. James noted today. Apparently Zetterberg joined Erik Karlsson and other pals on the greens, as Karlsson shared:

Another beautiful day. #trumpinternational

A post shared by Erik Karlsson (@erikkarlsson65) on

Sure, playing golf is lot easier when you aren’t in excruciating back pain, but it merely provides a minor bit of optimism about Zetterberg’s health. Without diving too deep into #PleaseLikeMySport territory, it’s fair to say that a jovial day of golf with your pals (pro athletes or not) isn’t exactly the same as dealing with checks, slashes, and hooks in the NHL.

Clearly, there’s little certainty about Zetterberg’s viability.

Personally, though, this is another case of the wrong questions being asked. The Red Wings aren’t best served asking if Zetterberg could play in 2018-19; instead, they should be wondering if he should.

What’s best for Zetterberg?

With 56 points last season, Zetterberg finished second in scoring for the Red Wings, trailing only Dylan Larkin‘s 63. The sturdy Swede was outright brilliant the year before, easily leading Detroit with 68 points in 2016-17. By just about any reasonable measure, Zetterberg is still good enough to play.

Still, his efforts failed to land the Red Wings in the playoffs in either of the past two seasons, and the Red Wings fell in the first round in 2014-15 and 2015-16.

On paper, Zetterberg could face a Sisyphean task in 2018-19: trying to push a mediocre (if not outright bad) team to the playoffs while suffering through back pain. At 37, the upside seems pretty dismal.

Much of the Red Wings messaging is about “culture,” and such thoughts sometimes trickle down to fans and media. Cameron Kuom of Wings Nation worries about the potential off-ice impacts of the Red Wings possibly losing their captain, for instance.

Yet, what about the possibly grim alternative of fans and young teammates watching Zetterberg getting run into the ground for … what, the lure of finishing in the East’s playoff bubble? Miraculously being bounced from the first round?

What’s best for Zetterberg might also be best for Red Wings

Nostalgia represents a tantalizing siren call, one Ken Holland clearly struggles to resist.

Still, at some point, younger Red Wings such as Larkin, Anthony Mantha, and eventually Filip Zadina will need to serve as the leadership group of this franchise, thus being responsible for “the culture.” Why not ease them into such roles during a season of low expectations, rather than pasting the “C” on someone’s chest later on, when fans are growing more and more restless with a one foot in, one foot out rebuild?

It’s fairly obvious that, from looking at Zetterberg’s contract, the expectation was that he’d probably play his last games in 2018-19. Consider how his actual salary compares to his cap hit going forward, via Cap Friendly:

2018-19: $6.083M cap hit; $3.35M salary
2019-20: $6.083M cap hit; $1M salary
2020-21: $6.083M cap hit; $1M salary

Look, it’s no fun to pay someone not to play, which is what the Red Wings would essentially be doing if they place Zetterberg on LTIR.

It makes sense on a number of levels, however, especially since they don’t need to worry about the cap floor even before handing RFA deals to Larkin and Mantha.

Beyond saving Zetterberg some anguish, the Red Wings would increase their odds of landing another high-end draft pick if their captain goes on LTIR and they wade through a rougher regular season. It’s not as if Zetterberg would lack credibility in going on injured reserve, as there have been plenty of questions about his health for some time now.

***

If the Red Wings are realistic about their near future, they should err on the side of encouraging Zetterberg to way his health more than trying to gut out the 2018-19 season.

Again, what’s the best-case scenario if Zetterberg plays? He’d take a roster spot from a player who might be part of a longer-term solution in Detroit, on a team few expect to contend. There’s also the unsettling possibility that his own play would plummet. Zetterberg would have robust company if he joined the ranks of sports stars who’ve suffered depressing final seasons, but wouldn’t be more pleasant to see him instead end his Red Wings days with his head held high?

Conversely, the Red Wings could instead improve their odds of landing a lottery pick like Jack Hughes in 2019, something that – deep down – they should realize they really need. Along with the torch being passed to the next generation of Red Wings, there might be a better chance of fringe prospects receiving crucial make-or-break opportunities.

Also, a beloved star wouldn’t needlessly suffer.

Of course, this conversation is moot if Zetterberg really wants to play, or needs to find out for sure if he’s done. Perhaps he’d prefer a relaxed schedule, much like Teemu Selanne experienced (sometimes by choice, other times with hard feelings) during his final season?

There are still some questions in need of answers, and plenty can change between today and the moment Zetterberg decides to call it a career (or, like Pavel Datsyuk, an NHL career).

As sad as it will be to see Z go, there’s a strong chance that it will end up being what’s best for everyone involved.

MORE ON RED WINGS’ RELUCTANT REBUILD

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.