As a marketer, we have to make these decision at work all the time: is this a job that can be accomplished internally or externally? In other words, do we have a person with the skills already working for us that can accomplish what we need to accomplish or do we need to outsource the job and pay an external party? For NHL teams when it comes to free agency, the stakes are much higher and the decisions affect a lot of lives, but the question is still the same: is this a job that can be accomplished internally or externally?
At this moment in time, the Detroit Red Wings are not a playoff team, nor are they trying to be. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither are champions built in an offseason. Steve Yzerman isn’t trying to build a winner for this season. His focus is 3-4 years down the line when the prospects he’s inherited and just drafted are coming into their primes.
While that’s all fine and dandy, there is still NHL hockey to be played as these players develop and Yzerman will still need to ice a competent roster for a few reasons. First and foremost, a hockey team is a business and a business has to make money. If the Red Wings are going to lose every night, then fans will stop going to games. When fans stop going to games, they’re not buying jerseys or concessions or… I think you get the point. Second, some of the building blocks for Detroit’s future contender may already be in place and you don’t want the early years of their NHL careers to be plagued with a losing culture. Once that infiltrates your psyche, it can be very hard to shake free from it. You want your young guys to be in close and competitive games, not throwing in the towel because they feel they don’t stand a chance.
So Stevie will need to spare some of his offseason focus for next year’s actual roster and making sure it can compete with other NHL teams. As it currently stands, the Red Wings are one forward and one defensemen short with the departure of Thomas Vanek and the pending status of Niklas Kronwall. This is where Yzerman’s big decision lies. He’s already stated that he’s going to try to fill any gaps via free agency instead of by trade, but when you look at the Red Wings salary cap situation, it certainly feels like one will lead to another.
Take the blue line, for example. Dennis Cholowski and Filip Hronek both played significant time in the NHL last season and made a good case for being permanent additions to the D-corps. As it currently stands, even without Kronwall in the lineup, there isn’t room for both of them. If you a throw a Jake Gardiner into the mix, then Yzerman will have to ship someone out and create space for these NHL-ready prospects.
I do think that the Red Wings have some very moveable contracts on the back end, but Stevie will have to be sure that he can move them before bringing another body into the mix, even if that external body immediately becomes the best defenseman on the team.
As for the forwards, this is where Stevie has more flexibility. With Evgeny Svechnikov’s last few seasons, they may want to start him in Grand Rapids and see how he does. Filip Zadina is still young and may want to get a truly dominant season in at the AHL level before making a full-time jump to the NHL. And what about Michael Rasmussen? He struggled in his rookie season last year. Maybe it’s not a bad idea to stick him in the AHL for a bit and give him big minutes.
What I’m getting at here is I could see a situation where external help is sought from a forward free agent while these three prospects compete for the final roster spot that belonged to Rasmussen permanently last season. The Red Wings could use the kind of depth scoring that Ryan Dzingel or Gustav Nyquist would bring, but they do need to be careful about handing out too much term, as unrestricted free agents are normally on the higher end of the age spectrum.
The real hard part about icing a competitive roster now while trying to build a real contender five years down the road is that the decisions you make for the former could really affect the latter. That’s why these free agency decisions tomorrow are such big ones. If you sign Gardiner to a five-year deal now, are you going to have to offload it in four years to fit in everyone else coming down the pipe?
There is a certain amount of “cross that bridge when you get to it” philosophy that you have to have. Player development is such an unpredictable thing that acting as though your five-year vision will come true exactly as you see it is a dangerous thing. Every team has a bad contract or two. Yzerman’s handed out a few in the past, too.
These are the big decisions that come with being the general manager and it’s what makes free agency so exciting. Personally, I always like to take the internal option when presented with the choice. And I would do the same for this year’s Red Wings.
But that’s not my decision to make.
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