Brian Rafalski Retiring? Five Current Detroit Red Wings Who'll Need to Step Up
If you were among the Detroit Red Wing fans who believed this offseason was going to be an interesting one—you were right on the money.
After retirement talk surrounded Nicklas Lidstrom following Detroit's second straight early playoff exit, Brian Rafalski has seemingly stolen his thunder. Sportsnet in Canada is reporting that Rafalski is ready to hang them up after a 12-year NHL career that saw him win three Stanley Cups.
His play may not be akin to what we were used to seeing from him as a member of the New Jersey Devils and through his first few years as a Red Wing, but the guy still played some effective, top-end minutes.
Now there is a void, and a chance for some players to step up and fill that space like nothing happened. After all, this is what has made the Red Wings one of the most consistent sports franchises—allowing their young assets plenty of time to develop in the minors—while making sure they get everything they can out of their veteran players before they move on.
From the outside, the departure of Brian Rafalski may seem like a reason to panic for Detroit. I'm sure plenty of pundits will love to play the angle of a big hole left on the blue line.
What they are forgetting is that this is a team that has seamlessly moved forward after losing greats like Dominik Hasek, Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Chris Chelios, Sergei Fedorov—the list goes on.
And this, too, should pass. Here are the five players currently playing for the Red Wings, or in the system, who will need to step up:
Dale MacMillan/Getty Images
Lets get the obvious out of the way first.
The Red Wing blue line is Kronwall's to inherit once the old guard moves on. Rafalski's departure will increase the pressure on Kronwall to continue to produce offense while remaining sound in his own end.
If his play this postseason was any indication of things to come, we may have not seen the best Kronwall has to offer just yet. After beginning his career with setbacks due to injury, Kronwall appears to be finding his health.
While Rafalski had more points than Kronwall throughout the regular season despite playing fewer games, Kronwall was the better goal-scorer at full-strength and on the power play.
The Red Wings will miss Rafalski's 16 helpers with the man advantage, but they should be able to find enough puck movement to cover those losses.
The Red Wings seemed to be centering their power play on Kronwall during the playoffs, as if they had seen this coming. He only found the back of the net once, but seemed to really be getting the hang of the strategy by the time the San Jose Sharks finally eliminated them.
Kronwall will be rehabbing the ankle he injured late in the year over the offseason and should return in prime form to fulfill the potential Detroit saw when they drafted him.
Dale MacMillan/Getty Images
This could be the make-or-break year for the former first-round pick.
At 24, he is matured enough to take on a larger role through an entire season of play. He skated in 48 games with the Red Wings this past season.
In those 48 games however, Kindl only managed four points, so the offensive void following Rafalski's retirement probably wouldn't be filled should Kindl make the squad.
What makes me nervous is that he was a 30-plus point player in the AHL before getting consistent called up. Such a drastic drop off may point to a player not being capable of elevating his game.
Management still seems to like the blue-liner and out of all the defensive prospects the Red Wings possess, he is likely to get the most serious chance to make the team out of training camp.
The expectation was that he would step in and fill Ruslan Salei's reasonably-sized skates. With the surprising departure of Rafalski, he may be asked to do just a bit more than that.
Kindl has all the tools and is surrounded by the right people to make this happen.
Red Wing fan's hope he can find his big-league game, and get more comfortable using his sizable frame.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Rafalski's surprise departure may force the Red Wings out of their usual bring them on slowly routine and Smith may be good enough to allow it.
He's only 22, and is an infant in a Red Wings system that would love to see him play big minutes in the minors for another year or so before giving him a bigger taste of NHL action. This is much the same way they have brought Kindl along.
Smith made the AHL All-star game as a rookie—the first Griffin to ever do so—and put up 32 points in 63 games. He also plays with a bit of fire, racking up 124 PIMs to go along with his offensive numbers.
Talk about filling up a stat line.
Those numbers look a lot like his first two years at Wisconsin did right before he exploded for 52 points in 42 games, which led all defensemen.
The 6-foot-2,195 pound defender is only a summer workout program away from having enough mass to at least hang with players at the NHL level. If all the pieces come together, Smith has the makings of a top-pairing defensemen.
His growth may just have to be under the brighter lights of Joe Louis arena.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Last year Detroit was 23rd in the NHL in goals allowed, seeing the red light kick on behind their net close to three times a game.
Luckily for them, they were a very potent offensive team. They were no. 2 in the League at scoring goals.
These numbers need to depolarize a bit for the Red Wings to take a step towards another Finals birth.
He showed us what he is capable of and the time for Jimmy Howard to truly shine is now.
He's been spectacular in net for stretches in Detroit and is the only reason the team made the playoffs two seasons ago. He was also the central piece in the Wings near-comeback against San Jose in round two.
What if he can find that level of play consistently? He was clipping along at a save percentage not too far off the Vancouver Canucks' Roberto Luongo during the playoffs.
He'll probably come down to earth a bit, but after two seasons as the starter in Detroit, he is poised for his best season yet.
And the timing couldn't come at a better point as the Red Wings are now in a transitional stage on their blue line.
Whoever They Decide to Bring in as a Free Agent
Rich Lam/Getty Images
This may seem misleading as the title of the article is five current Red Wings who need to step up.
Rafalski leaving, however, just emphasizes the importance of picking up the correct guy out of the free agency pool this summer. While they may not have had to before, they almost certainly will take a run at a player now.
There are several names that could end up on the back of a Red Wings jersey.
That's Kevin Bieksa in the photo and it's likely Vancouver won't be able to resign both he and Christian Ehrhoff, either of which could fit in for one reason or another. It just depends on what management thinks they have coming down the pike in players like Smith and Kindl.
I've seen a lot of people talking on message boards and in comments about how Rafalski leaving opens up room for a deal with Tomas Kaberle. I don't know if I am a big fan of this, and he's played pretty poorly since going to the Boston Bruins.
A blue-liner who disappears in the playoffs doesn't tickle my fancy.
An older shutdown guy like Hal Gill may even fit in with the plans of the Red Wings, but who knows.
Whatever the case may be, the importance of what Detroit decided to do with their newly found $6 million in cap space will have a large impact on how smoothly the Wings move forward following Rafalski's retirement.