Though the playoff run is over, the Wings’ personnel struggles are about to begin.
If they hope to make another run at the Stanley Cup next season, GM Ken Holland’s next foe will be much more formidable than the San Jose Sharks.
The NHL Salary Cap has depleted many teams, and turned championship-caliber squads into cellar-dwellers.
Losing to a team in the playoffs will, at most, cost you your season. Not playing the Salary Cap correctly could set your franchise back decades. If Holland thought last off-season was tough, he’s in for a doozy this year.
He currently has 12 players (eight forwards, four defensemen) under contract to the tune of about $44 million. To clear up the roster mess, let’s take a look at who remain unsigned, and their realistic future with the Wings.
Tomas Holmstrom, Todd Bertuzzi, Jason Williams, Kirk Maltby, Brad May, Nicklas Lidstrom, Andreas Lilja, Brett Lebda and Doug Janik are all unrestricted free agents.
Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, Patrick Eaves, Drew Miller, Derek Meech, Jakub Kindl, and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen are restricted free agents.
Williams fell out of favor with coach Mike Babcock, only playing in three playoff games.
With Maltby’s contract up, it looks more and more like he’s going to call it a career.
Brad May has become obsolete as a one-dimensional enforcer. While Lebda and Meech are serviceable defensemen, but often looked overmatched if caught in unfavorable matchups.
Doug Janik only played 13 games with the team, and his role can easily be filled by any of the up-and-coming defensemen in Grand Rapids.
Adding up all these expiring contracts, it’s a savings of $4.6 million.
It would be in Detroit’s best interests to bring back Holmstrom, Bertuzzi, and the restricted free agent forwards, but that’s where the Cap will come into play.
Now, if we are to believe NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, the cap won’t move much, if at all.
For sake of this article, let’s call it $58 million.
That means that the Wings have roughly $14 million to fill six roster spots. Sounds easy, right? Not so fast.
Future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom and goalie nuisance extraordinaire Tomas Holmstrom are unrestricted free agents.
Should neither decide to retire, they’ll command more than half of that surplus. Lidstrom was making $7.45 million last season, while Holmstrom pocketed $2.25 mil.
For the sake of argument, let’s say they both come back, and at a hometown discount: Lidstrom signs for $6 million, and Holmstrom for $1.5. That now leaves the Wings with $6.5 million to sign at least four players.
Again, this doesn’t sound like a terribly daunting task. But if the Wings are to contend for a title, they’ll have to do so against the reigning Western Conference champion Blackhawks, and the much improved Predators. And that’s just in their own division.
So with that $6.5 million, what moves should be made?
To start, not re-signing Andreas Lilja saves money.
Instead, the Wings can re-sign both RFA defensemen Ole-Kristian Tollefsen and Jakub Kindl for roughly the same amount of money.
Not only are both players younger, but Tollefsen will add the grit and mean streak the Wings’ blue line has lacked since the days when Vladimir Konstantinov patrolled the back end, while Kindl will bring a more refined puck-moving and transition game.
With the remaining $5.2 million, the Wings have one unrestricted free agent (Bertuzzi), and four restricted free agents (Abdelkader, Helm, Eaves and Miller) to try and resign, or take their chances signing someone from the open market.
Todd Bertuzzi earned himself a new contract in Detroit. With Franzen out and Zetterberg hobbled, Big Bert carried the Wings, keeping them in contention with timely goal scoring and gritty play. In the playoffs, he was even more valuable, tallying 11 points in 12 games, and was one of the few Wings immune to the Coyotes’ relentless physical presence. He is one of the few Wings with both size and skill, and the willingness to use both. If the Wings can re-sign him to the same $1.5 million contract, it would be a steal.
Darren Helm is a player the Wings would love to have back, but I have a sneaking suspicion some team will make an out-sized bid for him, and the Wings would be foolish to match it. The recent resigning of Mattias Ritola could play a part in the Wings’ ability to let Helm move on.
Out of the three remaining players, Patrick Eaves and Justin Abdelkader have the best chance of coming back. Both play a much more physical game than their stature might indicate, and that is something that the Wings sorely lack.
While Drew Miller did play well since coming over via wavers, The Wings can hit the market and find more value for their money.
Finding free agents that will fit not only into Detroit’s budget but style of play is much like looking the SUV with a sports car’s performance for a moped's price.
But one player does stick out as a perfect fit.
Manny Malhotra plays the fast, physical style that aggravates the Wings so much. Putting him between Abdelkader and Eaves, players that are comfortable playing the grind/cycle game, makes the Wings more adaptable and therefore harder to predict and contain.
In addition, he was only making $700k last season. Even with a pay raise, he’s a guy Ken Holland would be hard pressed to ignore.
All in all, the Wings’ safest bet to make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals is to focus on re-signing their own free agents, bringing up some of the kids from Grand Rapids, and filling a hole or two created by free agency.
While this year’s free agent pool is good, Detroit is better served trying to keep their own talent, rather than overpaying for someone else’s.