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free agency

Frans Nielsen signing helps Red Wings rebound

Bring in former Islanders forward, Thomas Vanek after missing out on Steven Stamkos

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

In a perfect world the Detroit Red Wings would have signed center Steven Stamkos when the NHL free-agent market opened Friday, giving them a No. 1 center and marquee attraction as they move from Joe Louis Arena this season to a new rink in 2017-18.

They would have signed Milan Lucic or Kyle Okposo or Andrew Ladd or Troy Brouwer, giving them more size, scoring and veteran presence on the wing. They would have signed forward Matt Martin for more bite on their fourth line too, and they would have signed them all to salary-cap friendly contracts.

But this isn't a perfect world, and free agency particularly is imperfect. In the end, the Red Wings signed center Frans Nielsen instead of Stamkos, left wing Thomas Vanek instead of Lucic or Okposo or Ladd or Brouwer or Alexander Radulov for that matter, and center Steve Ott instead of Martin. They also re-signed forward Darren Helm.

Nielsen is an excellent fit for his smart, skilled style and all-around game, and though the term of his six-year contract worth a reported $31.5 million presents some risk, it's reasonable risk. Vanek and Ott are low-risk, low-cost moves. Each signed for one year: Vanek for a reported $2.6 million, Ott for a reported $800,000. Helm received a lot of term to keep him off the market: five years for a reported $19.25 million.

Video: Thomas Vanek signs with the Red Wings

Vanek could turn out to be a particularly high-reward move because of his considerable talent and need to show he deserves another contract.

"We're hoping we've got a motivated athlete," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said Friday.

Nielsen, who played with Vanek for part of the 2013-14 season with the New York Islanders, said: "He could be the steal of this free agency."

There were few steals in free agency. There usually are considering the heavy demand for players and the limited supply.

The Lightning convinced Stamkos to stay for eight years and $68 million. That's less than he could have gotten on the open market, but they were the only NHL team he had known, he was the face of the franchise and they gave him the best chance to win. The Red Wings never got the chance to make a pitch to him personally.

Lucic and Okposo each received seven-year contracts worth a reported $42 million: Lucic from the Edmonton Oilers, Okposo from the Buffalo Sabres. Brouwer signed a four-year contractworth a reported $18 million with the Calgary Flames. Ladd signed a seven-year contract worth a reported $38.5 million with the Islanders. Ladd reportedly was to visit Detroit but never made it. And Martin signed a four-year contractworth a reported $10 million with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"If you wanted to land an unrestricted free agent you had to be prepared to step up or you were going to miss out," Holland said.

Video: Frans Nielsen on why he signed with the Red Wings

The Red Wings stepped up for Nielsen, but just as important he stepped up for them. He said it was hard to leave the Islanders, the only NHL team he had known. But he said there was something special about Detroit and that it was hard not to listen when the Red Wings called. He said it was exciting and that he was "really honored to be a part of the Red Wings organization." That had to be good to hear for the Red Wings after other players weren't interested enough to even listen or visit.

Nielsen is in the Red Wings' mold in the sense that he's a two-way center who thinks the game at a high level, an important addition now that Pavel Datsyuk has left for Russia. He can help both special teams and in the shootout, a Detroit weakness. He even patterns himself after Detroit captain Henrik Zetterberg.

"He's always a player I look up to and try to copy a little bit," Nielsen said. "I think you're going to see a little bit of a similar player in me. … I feel the all-around game is my strength. I feel like you see a lot of that kind of players in Detroit, and I think that's why too it was a good fit for me."

Nielsen is 32; this contract will take him through age 37. But the Red Wings hope younger players take more responsibility as Nielsen ages and Nielsen's intelligence will help him continue to contribute.

"I think the players that are smart, as Father Time bangs away they know how to cut corners and still be effective," Holland said.

Video: MIN@PHI: Vanek tips it by Neuvirth on the power play

Vanek will be fascinating. He's 32 also. The Minnesota Wild bought out the last year of his contract June 24, after he had 18 goals and 41 points, both NHL career-lows for a full season. But if he repeats those career lows, that's pretty good value for $2.6 million. And if he can find his game again, look out. He scored 27 goals as recently as 2013-14 and has scored as many as 40 in a season. He will play with skilled players, and as a right shot he will help the power play.

He needs to show up every night, and he also needs to backcheck. But if he doesn't work out, it's a one-year contract, so no big loss. It's even less risk than another forward with something to prove, Radulov, who returned to the NHL from the Kontinental Hockey League and signed a one-year contract worth a reported $5.75 million with the Montreal Canadiens.

"I hope we're going to see the old Vanek here, because he's a top, top talent in this League," Nielsen said.

Ott is short-term sandpaper for a team that needs to be harder to play against. He's also another log in the logjam up front. Holland is well aware that he needs to improve his defense, but there were few good options in free agency. Now that he has a surplus of forwards, does he have something to trade for a defenseman?

That will be perhaps an even bigger challenge for the Red Wings than free agency.

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