Red Wings’ cap situation is going to require some careful consideration going forward

Even without signing Andreas Athanasiou, the Red Wings find themselves in a tricky cap situation. So, what will Detroit do in order to get under the cap to start the campaign?
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In terms of off-season activity, the Detroit Red Wings haven’t done all that much through the first half of the summer. Trevor Daley was signed on the opening day of free agency, making him the Red Wings’ lone big summer signing, but have otherwise only added AHL pieces or made signings out of Europe. But don’t take that to mean Detroit is done for the summer, because if any team needs to be active — or at the very least creative — before the season begins, it’s going to be the Red Wings.

A simple look over Detroit’s roster indicates there’s at least one move that is a must before the campaign starts, and that’s inking restricted free agent winger and promising offensive talent Andreas Athanasiou to a new contract. The 22-year-old had a career year in 2016-17, posting 18 goals and 29 points in 64 games for the Red Wings, and is in line for a decent-sized raise on the $575,000 base salary he had over the course of his entry-level deal.

Athanasiou’s contract, whenever it does come, will need to set off at least one move or a series of transactions, though, because whatever cap hit the young speedster carries will only add to a cap situation in Detroit that is in dire need of some cleanup. 

As of Aug. 1, little more than two months before the season is slated to begin, the Red Wings are sitting more than $3.02 million over the salary cap, and unlike other teams with cap overages — the Toronto Maple Leafs are $3.929 million above the $75-million limit, the Chicago Blackhawks nearly $35,000 — there is no easy way out of the red for Detroit. No, not even by using long-term injured reserve. 

In fact, if Athanasiou signs a contact worth anything more than $933,333, there’s not even a way to be cap compliant by placing Johan Franzen, whose concussion issues have effectively ended his career, on LTIR with the way the roster is currently constructed. The reason for that, of course, is that Athanasiou’s contract carrying a value higher than that would mean the Red Wings’ total cap overage would be beyond Franzen’s $3.955-million cap hit, thus putting Detroit over the spending limit. That’s a tough spot to be in, and with Athanasiou surely worth more than $1-million on his next deal, one can see why there’s going to need to be more roster shuffling.

Maybe the simplest solution, and one that some Red Wings fans have been clamoring for, is a buyout, and that would have been an idea worth considering, to be sure. The thing is, though, the buyout window has closed. Even if Detroit wanted to bite the bullet and spend the money to send someone such as, say, Jonathan Ericsson packing, they wouldn’t be able to at this point in the summer. The window has shut, leaving the Red Wings without the option. So, the focus then has to shift to the trade market, and one would think the primary target has to again be Ericsson.

While Ericsson can be of some use to the Red Wings as a fourth or fifth defenseman, the reality is his cap hit is entirely too large for what he’s been able to contribute, especially over the past few seasons. At $4.25 million — a contract that, per CapFriendly, is comparable to the ones signed by Niklas Hjalmarsson, Alec Martinez and Anton Stralman — Ericsson simply isn’t worth the scratch. And getting rid of that cap hit, even if just $3-million of it in a trade, would help immensely.

Maybe there are other trade options, too. It might not be ideal, particularly if the Red Wings want to have even an outside shot at a playoff spot this season, but someone such as Mike Green or Gustav Nyquist could draw interest on the trade market. Green’s $6-million cap hit would be tough for several teams to take on, but the money it stands to open for the Red Wings could make such a deal worthwhile for Detroit. Likewise, Nyquist’s $4.75 million, minus whatever the Red Wings take back, could get the Red Wings in a position to be cap compliant on Night One of the season.

Of course, if Detroit wants to optimize its cap space, the goal would be for Detroit to be only slightly under the cap when the season begins. Such a scenario would then allow Franzen to be placed on LTIR with the cap “savings” coming back the Red Wings’ way, allowing them to spend additional money on their roster. And maybe that’s an option in order to get Athanasiou signed. Wait until the season begins, get cap compliant, throw Franzen on LTIR and ink Athanasiou to a deal with the newly acquired cap space. But there’s a catch there, too.

Without a trade, such a shuffle would require, at the very least, a few players to be sent to the minors. Among those would likely be Nick Jensen, Ryan Sproul and Luke Witkowski, and each of those players would have to clear waivers, putting Detroit at risk of losing a skater for nothing. That’s not an ideal situation for a team looking to build and refresh its roster with young players after a disappointing season, so maybe a veteran — ahem, Ericsson — is buried along with younger players for Detroit to get as close to the cap as they can in order to maximize cap space through LTIR.

But no matter way you slice it, no matter what roster shuffling you do, it’s awfully evident that the Red Wings are going to need to get creative in the near future in order to get down below the salary cap next season.

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