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Thomas Vanek in Trade Deadline limbo

Red Wings forward unsure where he'll be after Wednesday

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

DETROIT -- After the Detroit Red Wings practiced at Joe Louis Arena on Monday, they packed for a road trip. They were flying to Vancouver, where they play the Canucks on Tuesday. Forward Thomas Vanek said he had a couple more suits than usual and an extra suitcase. Defenseman Brendan Smith said he was trying not to think about it.

In this situation at this time of year, it's destination unknown.

The Red Wings are last in the Eastern Conference and likely to miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 1989-90. General manager Ken Holland traded forward Tomas Jurco to the Chicago Blackhawks for a third-round draft pick Friday and signed defenseman Nick Jensen to a two-year contract Monday, and now he has to decide what else to do before the NHL Trade Deadline March 1 at 3 p.m. ET.

Holland does not plan to tear down and rebuild. He is likely to focus on four pending unrestricted free agents -- Vanek, Smith and forwards Drew Miller and Steve Ott -- while listening to offers on others. Vanek and Smith are his best assets among the UFAs. Vanek sounds unlikely to sign a contract with the Red Wings. Smith sounds eager to sign one but uncertain if he will.

"We haven't talked much contract, but there's really no point to talk right now anyways," Vanek said. "July 1st is around the corner. It's a place that I like, but at the same time, I might as well wait and see what else is out there."

Smith said: "Do I want to go to free agency? I would rather have a contract, to be honest. I would like to know where I am [going to be playing]. I think becoming a free agent is the unknown, and that can be kind of scary at the same time."

Vanek has bounced from the Buffalo Sabres to the New York Islanders to the Montreal Canadiens to the Minnesota Wild to the Red Wings over the past four seasons. He was traded twice in 2013-14.

After signing a three-year, $19.5 million contract as a free agent with the Wild in 2014, he was bought out after last season and signed a one-year, $2.6 million contract with the Red Wings. When healthy, he has been one of their best players. He has 38 points (15 goals, 23 assists) in 47 games.

At 33, he might like some stability. He and his wife, Ashley, have a 9-year-old son, Blake, and 6-year-old twin sons, Luka and Cade. They are living in a house in the Detroit suburbs. The boys are in school. If traded, he will be living in a hotel in another city. If elsewhere next season, they will have to move yet again.

But it doesn't make sense for either side to sign a new contract now because of the looming expansion draft. The Red Wings don't want to protect him over someone else but wouldn't want to lose him either. Vanek doesn't want to risk signing with one team and playing for another.

"Not saying Vegas isn't going to be a great spot," Vanek said. "But talking to other guys it's, OK, if they're going to go there, I think they want to go there on their own terms instead of being picked up."

Video: DET@PIT: Vanek gets to the slot, scores with wrister

And while the Red Wings and Vanek might be good fits for each other, they have to reach a deal. Vanek has had a good season at perhaps below market value. Could he land a better contract elsewhere? Would it be worth leaving?

"It's hard, especially now," Vanek said. "I think my boys are getting to a good age where they miss Dad, too, and not just Mom. You miss a lot of their games and not seeing them. It's obviously not easy, but at the same time, it's the business we're at. I love what I do, and I can only do it for so long."

If Holland receives a good offer for Vanek, he must trade him and hope he can re-sign him July 1. If Holland receives only tepid offers, he could hold onto him but would risk losing an asset for nothing.

If the Red Wings did not trade Vanek, would that help their chances of re-signing him?

"Probably," Vanek said. "Yeah. For sure."

Holland would need to be as sure as he could be.

"I won't be surprised either way," Vanek said. "Will I be shocked that I'm going somewhere else? Not at all. Would I be shocked that I stay? No, because I think even though … the chances are slim [of making the playoffs], you just never know."

The Red Wings drafted Smith in the first round (No. 27) of the 2007 NHL Draft. Smith hasn't developed the way they had hoped, but he's still 28 with skill. They would like to bring him back at the right price. Smith would like to re-sign now even though he at least could explore his options.

"I've always been happy here," Smith said. "I like playing here. Like I've told you before, this is all I know, the Wing way, and I like it that way."

But does he like it enough to reach a deal with the Red Wings? If not, Holland must move him.

"I've got buddies texting me and calling me, 'Are you going somewhere? Are you coming with a contract?' " Smith said. "I just answer, 'I'm not really sure at this moment.' "

Destination unknown.

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