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Ask Me Anything: how to fix the Detroit Red Wings

What moves should Ken Holland make next? How would Erik Karlsson look in an Oilers sweater? And more from our readers.

Hey everyone. This is my last mailbag of 2017. After this edition, I take some time off over the holidays to recharge the batteries for the second half of the hockey season. Don’t worry – Ryan Kennedy will keep you up to date on the world juniors.

I’ll try to make these answers count since my next mailbag won’t arrive until Jan. 5! If you’re enjoying this weekly feature, please spread the good word on Twitter and retweet the heck out of it. It’s admittedly a large time investment every week to do these deep-dive answers, so the traffic has to be good to justify the blog’s existence.

Happy holidays, all, and thanks for reading.

Johnnaro Purcelli (@Winging_it) asks…

You are given the role of Red Wings GM. How do you fix the problem?

Boy oh boy. There may not be a tougher question in hockey today. In the office yesterday, I actually said, “I think the Detroit Red Wings are the furthest team away from the Stanley Cup.” And in the edition of the THN magazine we’ve just finished putting together, I rank every team’s salary-cap situation for summer 2018 and place Detroit dead last.

The Wings are furthest from the Cup, in my opinion, because they have the dreadful combination of a roster not good enough to win and a roster with too many veterans on board to truly bottom out. Arizona and Buffalo are in better shape because they at least can’t get any worse and have plenty of cap space.

I spoke with Wings GM Ken Holland about his team in summer 2016, when they had just extended their playoff streak to 25 years. They’d also just inked Frans Nielsen to a six-year, $31.5-million deal and re-signed Darren Helm for five years and $19.25 million. I was a bit nervous to challenge Holland and ask him a question he probably wouldn’t like, but because he’s an avid THN reader and always likes talkin’ hockey, I went for it. I asked, “What if the 25-year playoff streak is a curse? It forces you to hang around this No. 8, No. 9 seed playoff bubble. You make moves to stay competitive but can’t get over the top, and your team isn’t bad enough to finish last, either.”

He had many thoughts on that idea. Here’s just some of what he said (his answer was way longer. The guy loves to talk hockey, like I said):

“The philosophical question you’re asking me is, ‘Do we head in a direction where we make a determination that it’s all about five years from now? Or do we continue to try to be a playoff team?’ And when you’re got Mrazek, and you’ve got Larkin, and you’ve got Sheahan, Abdelkader, and you’ve got Tatar, and Nyquist, and you’ve got DeKeyser, and you’ve got Frans Nielsen, and you’ve got Glendening and Miller on a checking line…we either got to have those people and we’re trying to win the division, we’re trying to qualify for the playoffs…or don’t sign Frans Nielsen. Don’t sign Thomas Vanek. Don’t bring in Steve Ott. And just go with a bunch of kids. And let the chips fall where they may, if you’re going to do a massive rebuild. And when I say massive rebuild – get a core of players that you think can carry your team for a decade – you’ve got to miss the playoffs five, six, seven years in a row. That’s what Pittsburgh did. That’s what Florida did. That’s what Chicago did. You can just go team after team. You don’t miss one year, and all of a sudden, ‘Boy, we’re back.’

“I like to think I’m proud of the job that we do. When Yzerman retired in 2006, many people thought that the ceiling was going to collapse. And then we kind of kept it going, and when Nick Lidstrom left in 2010, they thought the ceiling was gonna collapse. And now Datsyuk is gone, and they’re waiting for the ceiling to collapse. And at some point in time, they’re probably going to be right. In the meantime, at the deadline last year, it’s the reason why I didn’t trade away any assets for futures.

“So right now we’ve won one playoff series in five years. We’ve sort of eked in. It just gets tighter and tighter every year. Certainly somebody from afar could say, well, the program, sooner or later it’s got to fall apart. But I’d like to think we’ve built a culture and a structure that’s gonna allow us to be competitive. Does that mean I’m telling you we’re going to make the playoffs this year? No. We might miss the playoffs. But I’d like to think that Athanasiou is coming and Mantha’s coming and we like Tyler Bertuzzi, I think he’s a real prospect. Larkin’s just turned 20, and Mrazek’s 24. Tatar is 25. Nyquist is 26 and DeKeyser’s 26. Sheahan’s 24. What we haven’t been able to do is get that superstar, those players that carry franchises like Zetterberg and Datsyuk and Lidstrom and Yzerman. Ten, 15 years ago, we did find a sixth and seventh round Zetterberg and Datsyuk. But that’s not a philosophy I go by, ‘Let’s try and wait around until we find a superstar in the seventh round.’ That can’t be your managerial or organizational philosophy.”

I’m no GM, and Holland has a tremendous track record of success, but I do think everything that’s gone wrong with the team can be found in his quotes there. He decided not to bet on only youth, and he decided his core of mediocre players was good enough to push forward with. He didn’t want to pack it in. As a result, he handed out a bunch of long veteran contracts that look ugly right now. That’s why the Wings are in such a tough spot. Not only do they not look like a playoff team, but they also don’t have many contracts that look tradable to me. Mike Green is an obvious and attractive rental offering as a UFA this summer, but Nielsen is 33 and carries a $5.25-million cap hit for four more seasons after this one. Helm: three more years at $3.85 million. Justin Abdelkader: five more years at $4.25 million. Jonathan Ericsson: two more years at $4.25 million. You don’t trade your captain in Henrik Zetterberg, but he’s 37, has five goals in 31 games and carries a $6.08-million cap hit for three more campaigns.

So the Wings will have a difficult time moving any of those veteran deals and, as a result, will limp along as a weak team but not the weakest team. If the draft started today, they’d have the fifth-best lottery odds. Even a No. 5 overall pick would be their highest draft slot in 28 years. Michael Rasmussen at No. 9 last year was the highest Detroit pick since Martin Lapointe at 10th in 1991.

So I should stop beating around the bush and actually answer. What would I do? I’d start by moving Green, obviously. That’s the easy part. We know Holland has received some interest in goalie Petr Mrazek, too. If he can bring you a decent draft pick, sure, go for it. I’ve always liked Mrazek, but he’s fallen short of his potential. He turns 26 in February. He’s no longer a prospect. With a few of your veteran assets with just a couple years left on their deals, guys like Trevor Daley, maybe you successfully ship them out if you offer to retain some salary.

As for the true albatross deals: buyouts, baby. If you do so with Helm, for example, the penalty would be carrying cap hits of $1.41 million, $1.91 million, $1.91 million, $1.06 million, $1.06 million and $1.06 million over the next six seasons. Honestly? That’s better than lugging around his $3.85 million for the next three years after this one.

Then, if you clear enough veterans, you can give more breathing room for prospects such as Rasmussen and Evgeny Svechnikov to crack the lineup in the future while also helping your roster bottom out and secure some elite draft slots. That’s what I’d do.

Scott (@Scottiooo) asks…

Who will be the first coaching casualty of the year?

Hey Scott. You’re not the first person to ask this question in the mailbag, but I feel like the answer has changed since I last tackled it. My previous response was Alain Vigneault, but his New York Rangers have clawed back into the playoff hunt, and he’s never had a bad season since taking over the club, so he seems safe for now.

One name that keeps popping up is Guy Boucher’s, especially with Ottawa a tire fire at the moment, with the Matt Duchene trade flopping early and all those big-name players, most notably Erik Karlsson, having to submit their no-trade lists. I’ve gotten a lot of questions on Twitter about whether Ottawa will axe Boucher. I don’t see it happening yet. For one, he’s less than half a season removed from helping the Sens to their most successful result since they reached the Stanley Cup final in 2006-07. Deploying that suffocating, trapping 1-3-1 system, he helped Ottawa lull opponents to sleep and crusade to within a single Game 7 overtime goal of knocking off the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference final.

Ottawa has disappointed massively this season, sure, but that doesn’t immediately erase the goodwill Boucher built last year. It’s also worth noting Karlsson clearly isn’t himself. The Sens go as he goes, and his surgically repaired foot obviously isn’t right. A good point of comparison for Boucher’s job security is Paul MacLean. He won the Jack Adams with Ottawa in 2012-13, then survived a full playoff-less season before being fired the season after that. To me, that’s a realistic expectation for Boucher. He gets at least the rest of the year by my estimation.

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The ice beneath Dave Hasktol’s feet cracked during the Philadelphia Flyers’ 10-game losing streak, but they’ve now won five straight, so he’s gotten a stay of execution. The guy I’m watching closest right now is Todd McLellan in Edmonton. As hot as Connor McDavid is, the Oilers have the second-fewest points in the Western Conference. Bad goaltending or not, they have fallen disastrously short of expectations. And with McDavid’s contract extension kicking in next season and giving him a $12.5-million cap hit, 2017-18 was always thought to be an important “window year” in which the Oil still had cap flexibility to make upgrades. They have just $13.57 million in projected cap space next season with only 14 players signed so far.

So if McLellan loses his job, it’s more likely to be sooner than later, because GM Peter Chiarelli would be firing him in hopes of bringing in a replacement who can save the season. Hey, it worked for the Pittsburgh Penguins two years ago when they were out of a playoff spot and swapped out Mike Johnston for Mike Sullivan in December.

Shorthanded News (@ShorthandedNews) asks…

Everyone’s talking about doping in Russia. How common are performance-enhancing drugs in the NHL? And what is the league doing against it?

Hi there Shorthanded News. That’s a great question. I wish I had exhaustive answers for you, but I don’t. As long as I’ve worked for THN, we’ve talked on and off about PEDs in hockey and how we’ve never unearthed concrete evidence of true widespread use. But there’s just no way hockey would be the only immune sport, right? We couldn’t be that naïve. It can’t be only Sean Hill, Carter Ashton, Shawn Horcoff and Zenon Konopka doping.

I’ve never bought the notion steroids can’t help you in hockey because it’s a speed-and-agility-based sport. No way. Some steroids enhance your fast-twitch muscle fibers, which affect your explosiveness, your skating stride and your shot power. Many PEDs also help with recovery from workouts and injuries. So there’s just as much motivation to use PEDs in hockey than in any other sport. The most likely culprits would be the fringe players, the veterans struggling to bridge the gap from the AHL to the NHL.

Unfortunately, we’re unlikely to catch the majority of PED users – only the unlucky or the foolish. As Eric Duhatschek explained in 2016 when he was with the Globe and Mail, under the league’s current drug policy, teams get tested once during training camp and once during the regular season. Individual players can also be chosen for random tests throughout the season and playoffs – but never on the day of a game. League-wide, the maximum number of individual tests is 60. That’s less then 10 percent of the playing population.

If you follow player training regimens closely, you know all their heaviest lifting – literally – is done during the off-season. That’s when they train the hardest and build their muscle mass to endure the season. They slowly lose it throughout the year when they have to save their bodies for games and shy away from vigorous, taxing workouts. That’s why you get the “jacked” physique for players when a season starts and they’re often “skinny fat” by the end of the playoffs. So players who want to dope are most likely to do so during the summer – which happens to be quite a lax time of year for the NHL’s testing. Players get up to two weeks to respond if they’re tested in the off-season!

The league’s PED laws are too relaxed to catch cheaters en masse. I’m sure there are plenty of users out there, but we’re unlikely to learn about them unless the drug policy changes.

Andi (@Annikaleia) asks…

Is it too soon to put Andrei Vasilevskiy in talks for the Vezina Trophy?

Hello Andi! No way is it too soon to put Vasilevskiy in talks for the Vezina. The Professional Hockey Writers Association doesn’t get to vote on the Vezina – that’s the one award decided by the league’s GMs – so I won’t get to make official Vezina picks this spring. But if I did, Vasilevskiy would be No. 1 on my ballot right now.

He leads the NHL in wins with 20 and is essentially the league leader in goals-against average (2.11) and save percentage (.934), as the Sharks’ Aaron Dell ranks first in both but is a backup and likely won’t have enough games to qualify by year’s end. Vasilevskiy has a real shot at the goaltending triple crown.

Better yet, his under-the-hood numbers tell us he’s the real deal. Among the 37 goalies with 500 or more minutes played this year, he ranks first in 5-on-5 save percentage at .939. He’s third in low-danger SP (.987), 11th in medium-danger SP (.925) and 15th in high-danger SP. He’s above average to elite in each category.

And this is what Vasilevskiy was always supposed to do. He was a first-round pick in 2012. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman signed him to a three-year, $10.5-million extension in summer 2016, paying him more than backup money and nudging Ben Bishop toward the door. Vasilevskiy was the best goalie prospect in the game for several seasons, so what he’s doing this year doesn’t come out of nowhere. He’s just reaching the ceiling of what was always a lofty projection for him. He has been prone to streaks and slumps in the past, so it’s possible he regresses a bit at some point this season, but he should remain in the thick of the Vezina race.

Vikingstad (@HockeyRockBeer) asks…

Should Peter Chiarelli be doing everything possible to acquire Erik Karlsson if there’s even a chance to put him on the same team as Connor McDavid? Oscar Klefbom, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and a 1st, a 3rd, etc., whatever you have to do. Cap is going up and, like Pittsburgh, have a few core guys surrounded by value players.

What an exciting thought. Karlsson and McDavid, teammates! Their speed would be incredible to watch working together. I don’t think the move would be wise for the Oilers right now though, Vikingstad.

First of all, it’s already well documented that one of Edmonton’s problems this season is being a top-heavy team. Not enough players around McDavid are contributing offense. So it wouldn’t be the wisest move to weaken the depth even further at forward by surrendering Nugent-Hopkins, not to mention your No. 1 defenseman in Klefbom. If the offer were just Klefbom and picks, then sure, it would be a great move for the Oilers, who need to start entering win-now mode and can dangle draft picks as they pursue upgrades.

The other factor that worries me right now is Karlsson’s foot. He’s slumping badly, like we’ve never seen since he broke into the NHL, and he doesn’t look healthy to me. Keep in mind, he revealed in September that doctors removed “half his ankle bone.”

So if I’m targeting Karlsson in a trade, I want more distance between him and that surgery. And maybe the price to acquire him drops if he has just one year left on his deal, though in a perfect world you’d want to be signing him to an extension if you’re trading for him.

Arttu Jukarainen (via email) asks…

Hello! I’m a big hockey fan from Finland, and I’ve talked to you about Buffalo before (big fan), but I came across a question in my head I don’t know the answer to. Does overtime count to teams’ possession? If they do, how much on average do they inflate them? AND if they do not, why?

Hello Arttu! I love getting a question from a Fin, as we have such a great contingent of Finnish readers. We owe you folks a lot. I consulted some friends within the analytics community and learned the answer to your question is far simpler than it may seem.

Think about any of the possession numbers you see quoted regarding teams or players and such – and remember that, in many cases, the stat refers to 5-on-5. So it’s a team’s 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi and such. Different player deployments on the ice are tracked separately. Overtime is 3-on-3 now, except during penalties, so you can find overtime possession numbers on a site like corsica.hockey if you just sort the ‘game state’ to 3-on-3. The only other stat that overtime would impact overall is ‘ES,’ even strength, and the impact would be relatively low considering, at most, 3-on-3 goes five minutes and is thus no more than one twelfth the length of regulation time on any given night.