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Tough decisions coming for the Wings: perhaps loyalty is overrated in the cap era? Perhaps not.

02/02/2010 at 5:31pm EST

So with the return of Johan Franzen, barring any other injuries, the Wings are going to have to trim salary to stay under the cap. As was pointed out yesterday in this MLive Article , there are only a few ways out of the financial thicket and it’s starting to seem obvious what Ken Holland is going to do… waive (or trade, but I’m not sure what other GM would want to bale out the Wings) Ville Leino.

Well, I am here to say that I think it would be a mistake. (did I just dare question the greatest GM in professional sports?!). It’s true that his options are very limited. I think it’s clear that Drew Miller and Patrick Eaves are off the table. They have more than earned roster spots on this squad and will both likely be resigned. And if only waiving Brad May were enough, because he is not likely to be picked up and we will not really need him in the playoffs (I realize how controversial this last statement is to the “protect our stars at all costs” crowd. But the thing is, when’s the last time Brad May was on the same line as a star anyway? How do you protect Datsyuk when you aren’t on the ice with him? Staging a fight with the other team’s goon in your 6 minutes of playing time?). Regardless, if he were to clear waivers, we could recall him for the playoffs anyway (or next injury, which we all know is right around the corner). But as most of us are aware by now, waiving Brad May still leaves the Wings around $100k over the cap. Enter Ville Leino…

Needless to say, Leino has been a disappointment. He clearly hasn’t put in the effort that Babcock demands. He has underperformed and NOBODY thinks he should be on the ice right now. His confidence is shot and he really isn’t helping the team at all. So, seeing that his salary alone would bring the Wings under the cap, the conventional wisdom as that he is the obvious man out. But it gives me a very uneasy feeling to think that we are waiving a rookie (albeit a 26 year old rookie) with a ton of untapped potential who was burdened early by outrageous expectations to score because of injury woes. And when he didn’t produce immediately, his confidence started to waiver and he hasn’t had much of an opportunity since, banished to the 4th line when he’s lucky enough to not be scratched. But, this is also the same rookie that showed great hands in limited action last year, put in his time in Grand Rapids, and has one more season on his contract. The Red Wings know better than anyone that players develop at different paces and that some guys just take a little time to figure out the NHL. I think the Wings probably went into this season expecting Leino to have some growing pains and knowing they had until the end of next season to gauge his true potential… that is until the injuries hit, the playoffs were no longer a given, and Drew Miller brought his prematurely gray determination to the table.

But the question remains, if the Wings are hesitant to give up on Leino already, who IS the odd man out? Who’s expendable that will get us under the cap? Well, here’s where I make an unpopular suggestion, a suggestion alluded to in the title of this blog - to me, Kirk Maltby should be the one to go. It’s true, he has been on the team for 14 years, has been a crucial part of the dynasty and knowing the Wings and Holland, there isn’t a chance in hell that he gets axed. The Wings value loyalty too much. And for good reason. There’s no doubt that players, especially veterans, take less money to be on the Wings because of this loyalty. And there’s no doubt that Maltby brings a veteran presence into the locker room and onto the ice. He’s also a player who steps up his game come playoff time. But the fact of the matter is that his contract is up after this season and I really don’t see the Wings resigning him. If Holland is planning to resign him, that sort of deflates the argument I’m making, but by all indications, I think Maltby is done after this season.

So we would be sacrificing a rookie with a lot of potential, who we have locked up for another season, for three more months of Maltby playing on the fourth line… and this is a Kirk Maltby who contributes very little offensively, isn’t nearly the pest he once was, and has essentially been replaced on the penalty kill by guys like Miller and Eaves. And I hate to bring a little bitter realism into this blog, but it doesn’t appear right now that the Wings have that great of a shot of winning the cup this year anyway and even if we do make a good run, I don’t see Maltby being the deciding factor. In short, we could lost Malts for the rest of this season and it probably wouldn’t affect the outcome. But if 3 years from now Ville Leino is lighting it up for the Islanders or the Oilers or the Leafs, we will greatly regret tossing him out without giving him a fair shot. Now, of course, he might be a bust and be playing in Finland 3 years from now, but he really seems like the kind of asset that is worth the minimal risk of waiting to find out.

But, like I said, it’s unlikely… in fact, near impossible that this will happen. I think the Red Wings just value loyalty too much and as Babcock always says, they are in “the business of winning” - TODAY. If Leino doesn’t help us do that, Babs sees him as expendable. But, its Holland’s job to look at the big picture and make calculated risks as to how we can field the best possible team today, without sacrificing the best possible team tomorrow. “Calculated risks” is the key phrase. Keeping Leino is clearly a risk, but it’s a very small risk with a very high reward potential. I’m really starting to wonder if loyalty can’t be taken a bit too far, especially in a cap world where assets are finite and are therefore that much more valuable to a team. If we can get something back for Leino that’s one thing. And if Maltby is still part of the future, that’s another thing. If it comes down to waiving Leino and letting Maltby grind out a few more months in the closest thing to a rebuilding year the Red Wings have had in recent history, I think maybe the priorities should shift temporarily. There will be plenty more opportunities to show loyalty, hell, we could even offer Malts a front office position. But, I think this is one circumstance where Holland may want to think twice before taking the easy way out. I mean, perhaps loyalty really is overrated in the cap era?

But then again, perhaps not. Watching Maltby lift the cup one more time would definitely prove me wrong on this one.

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