Free agency is going to be a very interesting time for the Detroit Red Wings in 2011. In seasons past the key has been to lock up key players to long-term contracts. Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen were all the recipients of long-term, heavy contracts.
Obviously the twist that makes the upcoming offseason interesting for Detroit is Nick Lidstrom. Should he decide to retire, it will suddenly free up a massive amount of cap space for the Red Wings.
Should he decide to finally end his illustrious career the Red Wings will have over $12 million to spend on free agents, with all but five roster positions covered by players currently under contract (this number of dollars is also assuming that Kris Draper retires as well.)
To put the power of $12 million in proper context, that is what Datsyuk and Zetterberg will be making together next year.
When broken down, the team needs two forwards, two blueliners and one backup goaltender.
Detroit has several young skaters coming up the pipeline that should be able to finally crack the lineup, and who fans should be legitimately excited about. Tomas Tatar should be able to find a spot on the team despite his designation as a left winger, and lack of size (5'9'', 175 pounds). He is wicked fast, has outstanding vision and anyone who remembers his play in the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championship will know why he is so highly touted.
Jan Mursak was impressive and noticeable in his stints for the Red Wings as well, but is also slotted on the left side. He is very tenacious in his puck pursuit, is tough down low and also has decent hands and good vision.
The competition for the few available roster positions throughout training camp is going to be a major story line for the Wings this summer. Also in the picture are center and Hobey Baker award runner-up Gustav Nyquist and the younger Landon Ferraro.
For the sake of this examination I am going to assume that Tatar ends up making the Red Wings lineup full-time, leaving one forward slot open. He's also the most expensive option to come up from the minors, so if another player makes the team it will just mean more money.
A lot of people in the hockey world, including myself, think that Brendan Smith (linked video has questionable language in the song...if you don't like cursing mute it and marvel) is ready to step up and play in the big league next year. I think he's going to make it, and want him to. So we'll assume his cap hit as well.
Jakub Kindl could also get the call from the Red Wings as mostly everyone in the organization is very high on him as well.
We'll slot at least one of them in the third pairing as a sizable upgrade over the dutiful Ruslan Salei.
Detroit has a few goaltenders in the system right now, and could look to Joey MacDonald to back up Howard so that their prospects (McCollum and Jordan Pearce) can log substantial playing time.
But I think they will go the UFA route in net and sign a proven backup, while continuing to allow MacDonald to season in the minors.
This scenario leaves Detroit with three open positions—one forward, one defenseman and one backup goaltender. And it also leaves the Wings with just shy of $11 million to spend across the board. Nice.
Now for the fun stuff. With all this in mind, here are the seven players the Wings should seriously consider signing to the lineup for the upcoming season.
This move seems like a given as Patrick Eaves has been an outstanding addition to the Red Wings club since he made the team in the first place.
What also seems like a given is Tomas Tatar playing more games with the big club.
He now has two seasons of minor league hockey under his belt, and the Wings likely want to see what Tatar can do during long stints in the NHL. He has another season left on his entry-level contract however (expires in 2012-13) so he may be relegated to part-time duty through the season.
Eaves has already shown that he can click with this team, and keeping him is obviously less risky than bringing in another depth forward from elsewhere to do what Patrick already does. Eaves kills penalties and scores the occasional goal—he had 20 points in 63 regular-season games, while scoring three goals for the Wings through two rounds of playoff action.
He is well liked in the locker room, and at 27 years old, he still has plenty of good hockey left. Signing Eaves for two or three years would be the likely scenario here. He should have earned that after coming on for single-season contracts twice now.
Look for Ken Holland to lock up this key role player before July 1st. Drew Miller is pretty much in the same boat as Eaves, and the situation at forward could be locked up that easily and quickly. But that speculation is no fun!
Let's look at some interesting pickups for the boys in Hockeytown.
Shoring up the middle of the top six with an experienced, minute-munching blueliner like Brewer could be a great move for Holland and the Wings.
He has been playing huge minutes for the Bolts since being traded to Tampa in a deft deal made by Steve Yzerman, averaging over 22 minutes during the regular season and a whopping 26 in the playoffs.
Yzerman will try to re-sign the free agent-to-be, but will have his hands full with No. 1 priority Steven Stamkos. If that saga drags out through the summer, Brewer could end up testing the free-agent waters. The Lightning suddenly have deep pockets, but should they win the Cup some players will be looking for raises.
Cup rings tend to elevate value, and Brewer's wallet could be the beneficiary. Depending on his asking price he could fill a valuable role playing for the Red Wings—a pairing with Brad Stuart as two solid stay-at-home guys comes to mind.
As with most players his age, however, injuries are a problem.
It is reported that Brewer still feels lingering effects from a back surgery he received two years ago, and he performs a specific 60-minute warmup routine before each trip he takes onto the ice to prevent any further damage. But so far in his tenure with Tampa Bay he has looked excellent, and has been the team's best blueliner.
Also noteworthy are his leadership and international experience. He served as the captain of the St. Louis Blues from 2009 up until his trade. Brewer has won Olympic gold as well, serving with the Canadian squad in 2002.
The Canucks find themselves up against the cap wall, and will have to choose between Christian Ehrhoff and Kevin Bieksa to patrol the blue line for them next season. The general consensus is that they will not be able to retain the services of both.
Bad news for Vancouver—good news for another NHL team.
Talk about good timing. The Germanic blueliner had his biggest season to date this year, tying a club record for most points by a defender during the regular season, and currently has 10 points through 14 playoff games.
Ehrhoff has now put up three straight 40-plus-point seasons, and is solid in his own zone—don't let his plus/minus stat this postseason fool you. He can play the body when he needs to, and pinches responsibly in 5-on-5 play.
But where he'd really benefit the Wings is on the power play.
Since we're assuming Lidstrom will be gone, most of the heavy lifting will be left to Kronwall. He looked comfortable in the role through the playoffs, as he cycled towards the net and ended up with some great looks from just inside the slot.
Ehrhoff would give Detroit a whole different dimension, and could create matchup nightmares for PK units. He has a heavy shot that usually hits the net, and would be able to step into the role of a power-play quarterback immediately upon his arrival.
But he won't come cheap. Puck-moving defensemen are invaluable in the NHL these days. This is a guy coming off of a career year, who has seen steady improvement in his play for three seasons now, and is just entering his prime.
Needless to say, he will be looking for a big payday.
Would Detroit dole out the bucks—probably in Rafalski's range—to land him? Brian's contract is up at the end of next season. Perhaps Ehrhoff could take over those dollars since 2013 seems to be a big free-agent period for the Wings.
Detroit has its important pieces locked up for a long time, but looking ahead, the 2013 season sees several young Wings coming off the end of their entry-level deals. Some of the names there could be big—Jakub Kindl, Brendan Smith and Tomas Tatar all see their contracts expire that summer.
As for already established players, Valtteri Filppula, Dan Cleary and Jimmy Howard have contracts ending at that time as well.
Obviously, the Wings will need to (and will) keep those raises in mind when signing any player to a big contract. If Ehrhoff ends up in Motown, it will either be on a shorter, pricey contract or a longer (much longer), average-diluted deal that would make him a core part of the team.
With Lidstrom on his way out soon and Rafalski coming to the end of his large-contract days, Ehrhoff could be the man for the job in Detroit.
You're Brad Richards. You like your current place in Dallas, and would really like to re-sign there. But you're hesitant due to the lack of ownership. It makes sense—a hot-shot lawyer fresh out of Harvard Law isn't going to join a firm named "Question Mark, We Don't Know Inc."
If that ownership deal isn't hammered out for the Stars by July, you'll walk.
You wake up on the morning of July 1st to 12 voice mails, 26 text messages and your face on the lead story of every NHL news outlet in existence. "Where will he sign?"
After sitting down to a nice bowl of Wheaties, you begin to sift through all the messages. Then your phone rings. You don't recognize the 313 area code at first. Upon answering, you hear the voice of Ken Holland on the other end, and he wants five minutes of your time.
The sales pitch would be a simple one: "Make a few fewer bucks, and come win a Cup with us."
It's a hard offer to turn down. Ask Marian Hossa and Mike Modano.
This is obviously a dream scenario, and is for any team with cap space. The truth is though, if No. 5 hangs up his skates this could easily become reality if the brass in Detroit decided that it made sense. The dollars are there for at least two years—the development of the younger players on Detroit's roster will dictate the money after that. But as it stands Richards could make himself a Wing for at least a little while if he so chooses.
The terms would be the kicker here.
He's now 31, and not getting any younger. He obviously still has plenty of gas left in the tank. And he's also a fan favorite wherever he plays. Richards was very popular in Tampa Bay, and has adorned himself equally to the Stars faithful.
Richards has stated over and over again that he considers himself a Star, and wants to stay. But not a lot of headway has happened on the ownership front. In his insistence I think we see what is most important to Brad, and that is to land somewhere with a solid foundation. To play for a team for the next several years and make himself part of the DNA of the squad, while making a home for himself in his city.
There are several obvious front-runners gunning for the services of Richards. Namely the New York Rangers. No one can be inside of his head (how good of a reporter would you be if you could read minds?) but people see New York as the obvious destination.
I wouldn't be so sure.
Buffalo could be in pursuit of his services to center a line with Vanek now that they have an owner committed to spending money. The Blue Jackets will also throw an offer sheet his way in an attempt to lure him to play with Rick Nash.
Then there are the LA Kings, who still have tons of space and are still going to try and make him the center cog in a young, promising team.
Wowza! That's quite a list of suitors, and one that is probably incomplete. Obviously the choice will be a hard one for a thoughtful fellow like Richards. There are pluses and minuses to every choice he could make.
The Rangers and Jackets haven't had playoff success recently, and appear to be more than one move away from wining the East and competing with the big guns.
The Bruins are obviously having plenty of success currently, but do they have space on an already star-studded roster with tons of young, up-and-coming talent?
With all these questions, why not Detroit? Not that the Red Wings don't have some marks of their own, but none of these potential landing spots is a given.
If Ken Holland called Richards and tempted him to come play with Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen, etc., how tempted would he be? This is a team that should still be in contention for the Cup during the next few years—how hard is that to walk away from to head to a team elsewhere that is generally on the cusp of missing the playoffs?
How dangerous would the front two lines be with a point-per-game player of Richards' caliber joining an already-potent attack? That is a scary amount of vision and hockey sense concentrated into what would be one of the strongest top-six forward units in the league.
It's a long shot obviously, but the space could be there. Richards is worth at least the phone call. Anything can happen after that.
You remember Ty Conklin. He's another ex-Red Wings goaltender gone Blue, following in the footsteps of Chris Osgood and Manny Legace before him. (I've managed to squeak Manny Legace into two articles now without trying. High fives.)
The 35-year-old journeyman backup has played for six teams in the last seven years (sheesh! Looking at that even surprised me a bit), and he registered his highest win total with the Wings back in the '09-'10 season with six of those wins coming in shutouts. The story now is much the same as it was back then: the Wings have an incumbent starter, and are in need of a serviceable backup.
There are numerous goaltenders that the Red Wings could consider signing to back up Howard. Alex Auld is available, as are Mike Smith and, well, a whole other glut of goaltenders.
But Conklin makes sense to me for the obvious reasons.
A lot of the Wings players are familiar with him already. This makes the transition easier for everyone during the second game of a home-and-home series. There won't be a lot of dots to connect here. The blueliners for Detroit will know when Conklin is likely to come out to play a puck, what his tendencies are, etc.
And he'll also mesh readily into a tight locker room. There may be other, more interesting options for the Wings here—namely the younger Mike Smith who has more upside—but I feel like making the jump seamless from Chris Osgood is important for the team.
While Ozzie may not have been playing much, he was still a well-liked individual who spent a lot of time with and around the organization. Bringing in a guy who has been in Detroit before and can understand Pavel Datsyuk's odd sense of humor and Mike Babcock's death stare could be reason enough to give this guy a look.
His numbers fell off last year with the Blues, but St. Louis had issues from about game No. 20 on, with its biggest stars and producers all riddled with injuries. Conklin would serve as a great No. 2 option while giving the younger goaltenders in Detroit's system just a little more time to ripen.
This one will probably ruffle some Red Wings feathers.
Nikolai Zherdev is, has been and may always be an enigma—yet another talented player who couldn't seem to find the guts to justify his hype.
Looking at Zherdev, I drool over the potential. That should sound familiar to any Blue Jackets, Rangers or Flyers fans. He is a player that has generally always been paid for what he could possibly, maybe, perhaps if he tried to...do.
He's a slick-skating Russian with great hands, and has what it takes to put up decent points in the NHL. Zherdev is only one season removed from almost breaking 60 points with the New York Rangers, and is only 26 years old. The upside is there. It always has been.
But something has always been off with him.
He hasn't played for an NHL coach that hasn't sent him to the doghouse, and Babcock would not let the guy off easy. If any coach in the NHL can make Babs look a little less scary it's John Tortorella.
Still, this is the kind of situation Detroit marvels in.
The Wings succeed in bringing things out of players where every other team has failed. The squad is an "Island of Misfit Toys" despite its constant contender status. A bunch of late-round draft picks everyone passed on a half-dozen times lead the way, while players like Dan Clearly and Todd Bertuzzi, who everyone else has given up on, fill out the roster.
There's no Sidney Crosby in Detroit. No chosen one. These are guys no one else wanted, and the Red Wings manage to get full value out of them. I'm not sure what the internal process is, but there is something about pulling the Winged Wheel over your head that brings out the best in you.
Or just playing alongside class act and fellow countryman Pavel Datsyuk.
This is the real draw to a two-year deal with Zherdev for me.
Sit the kid down, and tell him exactly what to expect from day one. Make it clear he's more than welcome to go sign anywhere else if he wants to continue to not work both sides of the puck. Then stress to him the resources available.
What he could become by utilizing what is before him in Detroit—playing on a line with Datsyuk, and being taught to play in all three zones.
This guy with the sudden will and determination to out-work the opposition for the puck is a scary, scary thought. He has the rest of the tools. The skill and vision. The stuff you can't teach.
Detroit is the best team in the league at molding players with the brains into players with the attitudes to match. If they can't, no one can. I say this guy is worth a roll of the dice and a few million. It could be a match made in hockey heaven, and one that could put the Wings over the top come the postseason.
Rob Niedermayer isn't going to score a lot of points, and anyone who signs him to do so must have him confused with his brother.
With the departure of Kris Draper (which I am still assuming will occur) Detroit will be without a true shutdown, grinding center. Niedermayer could be a great fit in the bottom six for the Wings. Skating with guys like Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader, Detroit could very quickly find itself in possession of a line that can wear down teams with both speed and size.
Helmer would obviously be the wheels of the operation, while Niedermayer provided the majority of the sandpaper along with the downright obnoxious Abdelkader.
Niedermayer was part of the shutdown unit that aided the Anaheim Ducks greatly during their "Bash Brothers" days, and still brings that kind of game to the table. Helping these younger players with Draper out of the picture would be invaluable, and the guy hasn't gone useless since then like some other players on that infamous line.
He can take some faceoffs, and would bring a lot of experience to the table in an offseason where Detroit could lose a large, heeping dose of it with Modano, Osgood and Salei all figuring to depart, while Drapes and Lidstrom are still up in the air.
Niedermayer still has some hockey left at the age of 35, and would prove to be a useful utility signing for the Red Wings through the next few seasons.