Red Wings deserve the benefit of the doubt

There seems to be a slight air of disappointment among Red Wings nation this week, as it was announced Tuesday that the prize of this year’s free agent class, Vincent Lecavalier signed with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Count me among those clad in red and white who’s eyes widened when the Tampa Bay Lightning bought out the contract of the face of their franchise. And sure, I drooled a bit when he spoke of the two teams he revered most – Detroit and Montreal.

It seemed the perfect marriage. The Red Wings are widely assumed to be shipping off the rights to free agent Valtteri Filppula, so they are in need of a reliable second-line center. Filppula was never quite it in Detroit. A consistent second-line center enables Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg to play together on the top line and the Red Wings are at their best when that happens. Filppula’s shortcomings often forced coach Mike Babcock to move Zetterberg down to the second line.

So Lecavalier would come in, provide consistency and skill in that spot, and instantly make second-line winger Johan Franzen better in the process.

Except, he wanted too long of a contract. Detroit, I’m assuming was looking for somewhere in the 2-3 year range at $5 million per year. Lecavalier, reportedly demanded no less than five years.

Well, after 22 consecutive years of making an appearance in the postseason, perhaps Detroit should get the benefit of the doubt here. The Red Wings didn’t get where they are by overpaying for free agents. Even during the free agent free-for-all frenzy of 2001, Hall of Fame winger Luc Robitalle was signed for a paltry $3 million. Brett Hull? $2 million.

General Manager Ken Holland is as savvy as they come and always has one eye fixed on the present and his other scanning the future. He sees forwards like Riley Sheahan and Tomas Jurco being refined in the minors, he sees ripe prospects such as Gustav Nyquist and Joakim Andersson ready to contribute full time. He can spend $25 million over a five year contract now on a free agent, but then what happens when you need to sign the talent developed within the organization?

This much is true, since the advent of the salary cap, giants have risen and fallen. Only two franchises, Detroit and San Jose have made the playoffs every year since. That doesn’t happen by accident. Great organizations are not built by wooing the top free agents, but by being the best at drafting and developing talent. The top NFL organizations mirror this truth as well. Just look at the New England Patriots. Aside from the occasional splurge, like signing Randy Moss, there is a core of drafted and developed talent.

Detroit also has a history of letting their prospects ‘over-ripen in the minors to coin a term used by Holland, at least when the environment of the team allows.

It is even more revealing then, that when Nyquist, Andersson and Danny DeKeyser, along with others, were pressed into action early, they not only contributed, they looked good doing it. Detroit’s competitive advantage of old, of being able to scour the wilderness of the European leagues is now gone. Everyone knows everything these days. But it’s clear that the Red Wings still have the upper hand in drafting and developing talent. So much so, that for the past few seasons, team’s begged and pleaded to speak to assistant GM Jim Nill; until he finally listened this offseason and accepted a job with the Dallas Stars. Already, the Dallas media is singing Nill’s praises. The Tampa Bay Lightning swiped Steve Yzerman from the Detroit front office a couple years ago as well. He won’t be the last hot executive from this franchise to come in demand.

So though it is an adjustment for Detroit fans, not to get the hot free agent, it’s not worth a worry. With the best amateur scouts, the best GM, the best coach in the NHL aboard, this franchise will stay competitive. Bank on it.