Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski Ponder Retirement: Red Wings on the Defensive
The Detroit Red Wings entered this offseason assuming that their only real concern was Nicklas Lidstrom possibly retiring. If the reports are true, then they are in for a major upheaval next season. There has been a press conference called by the team and it appears that Brian Rafalski will be retiring. This will create a large hole on defense and that assumes that Lidstrom is still coming back. If he retires, then a complete rebuilding of the defense will need to occur.
The Red Wings went through, by their standards, a poor playoff season with an early exit in the second round for the second year in a row. The offseason was bound to see a few tweaks to the roster. They have nine players looking at free agency, however Chris Osgood, Kris Draper and Mike Modano are looking at retirement. Players like Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller are pretty easy signings, which only leaves a few spots open on the team.
Rafalski’s impending announcement will now put the Lidstrom watch on full alert as Red Wing fans will hold their collective breath until he makes his decision on retirement.
Red Wings GM Ken Holland will have a busy offseason as he seeks to fill at least one major roster spot. It looks like he will have Rafalski’s $6 million salary available. If Lidstrom also retires he will have over $12 million available.
Before he goes shopping it is important to review what he currently has and what is available for him. Most experts have remarked at the overall weakness of this year’s free-agent class. Despite there only being a few stud players available, there is still value to be had.
Here is a review of what the Red Wings have on defense and what options remain.
The captain of the team is mulling over if he will return for another season. With the nucleus of the team being so strong many assume (or maybe it’s hope) that he will return for another Stanley Cup run.
He is still playing at a tremendously high level. This season he has been nominated for the Norris Trophy for the 11th time in his 19 seasons. For the first time in many years he did not lead the team in minutes during the playoffs. While some might consider that a negative, at age 41, Lidstrom may be enticed by a slightly lighter workload.
His achievements are hard to match as he already has four Stanley Cups, six Norris Trophies, a Conn Smythe and is one of only 24 members to the Triple Gold Club (Stanley Cup, the Olympics and the worlds). Despite all the accomplishments, his passion for the sport is still strong and I believe he will likely return.
The only issue will be how much to pay him. With Rafalski’s retirement the team will need to fill his spot. Will Lidstrom take one for the team and lower his salary? Former captain Steve Yzerman took a huge pay cut to help the team in what ended up being his final season. Lidstrom made $6.2 million this past season. Ideally that will be at least $1 million less next year.
It appears that knee and back injuries have convinced Rafalski that it is time to retire: "This was probably the most challenging season of my career...physically, mentally and spiritually," said Rafalski per the Detroit Free Press.
Rafalski has been a huge asset to the team since joining the Red Wings in 2007. He was a strong defender, pin-point passer and also chipped in with scoring.
He has won the Cup four times in his career and was able to finish his career with his hometown team. He will be missed.
Kronwall has made a name for himself with some crushing hits, often called being "Kronwalled." This season he picked his game up beyond the big hits.
He led the team in minutes during the playoffs, taking over Lidstrom’s longtime role. He had his best scoring season as he chipped in 11 goals during the season and two more in the playoffs.
He was already going to be looked at to take on an increased role next season. Without Rafalski and with Lidstrom in limbo, he will need to be a defensive leader on the team. With the growth he has shown, he should shine in that role.
Stuart is the type of player every teams wants on defense. He plays good defense and is more than willing to block shots and delivers strong hits. He even chips in with great passes to help set up teammates. His offensive numbers are not gaudy, but that is not his role with the team. He can be on the ice in any situation and will excel at it.
Like Kronwall, Stuart will also need to step up next season to cover the loss of Rafalski and maybe Lidstrom.
Ericsson is a frustrating player. He has talent, but does not seem to play at his full potential often enough. He played great during the 2009 playoffs, but hasn’t lived up to those standards since then. It is not as though he is playing bad, just not where he needs to be or can be.
For a player his size, 6’4" and 220 lbs., he should be able to play a more physical game. He tends to only bump or push opposing players off the puck rather than get in there and just take it.
He is a free agent this year. It is hard to tell if the Rafalski retirement helps or hurts his chances at coming back. It will likely come down to cap space. He made $900,000 last season and will likely be looking for a healthy raise.
Ansar Khan at mlive.com reported that Ericsson has already turned down a $2 million offer. The Red Wings will not overpay for his services so if another team wows him with an offer they will let him walk away. If he can be had for a decent deal then they may take another chance on him and hope that the 2009 playoffs were a glimpse of things to come and not a one-time deal.
Salei joined the team this season as a free agent. He gave the team a veteran presence for less than $1 million, which is important in the salary cap world.
His role was to be a part of the third defensive pairing. He was inconsistent at times and almost lost his playoff roster spot. His play did pick up in the playoffs and he proved to be an asset to the team.
The question will be, was that enough to earn him a contract for next season? It is doubtful as the team will want to take a look at some of its younger talent to fill the third pairing and will need to look for a bigger name for a top-four defenseman.
Kindl played 48 games in this, his rookie season. As the season went on his play improved. He did have some defensive lapses and must solidify his defensive play. He has made strides getting acclimated to the NHL style of play. He definitely has talent and will likely be on the roster full-time next season as a part of the third defensive pairing.
Next season he will need to continue to grow and develop. Even if Lidstrom does return for another season, the end will eventually come and players will be needed to fill roles higher up the depth chart. The time is now for Kindl to make his move
Smith is the wonder prospect that people can’t wait to see play in the NHL. He is an offensive-minded defender who even filled in at forward while playing in college. He was selected to the All-Rookie team as well as the 2011 All-Star Game for the AHL. He was also a candidate for the Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding rookie for the 2010-11 season.
Scouts have him projected to be a top-line defender, the question is how quickly he will be able to turn that potential into an NHL, on-ice performance. He will get a chance next season and don’t be surprised to see a third-line pairing with Kindl as the two young defensemen will be able to learn, grow and battle for more ice time against each other.
Many message boards, sports talk shows and fan sites have clamored for Weber, thinking that he is a free agent. The key issue is that Weber is a restricted free agent. This means that the Nashville Predators will be able to match any offer. If they don’t match, then the Red Wings would owe them draft picks.
With Rafalski’s $6 million available, they could offer Weber a good raise as he made $4.5 million last year. However it is highly unlikely that the Predators would let him go, especially to a division rival. The Red Wings historically have not gone after restricted free agents as the price is too steep. As much as it would be great to see Weber wearing the winged wheel, you have a better chance at winning the lotto than seeing this one happening.
Bieksa is playing with Vancouver right now on a very deep defensive team. The Canucks will have five free-agent defenders this offseason and will not be able to sign all of them. Bieksa will be in line for a raise from his $3.75 million that he is making this year.
He has always been a two-way force on defense but this season has cut down on his risky play. He is often on the shutdown defensive pairing and is strong in any situation.
Ehrhoff is another Vancouver defender who will be a free agent this offseason. A great puck mover he has shown solid growth over his seven-year career.
Vancouver will not be able to sign both Bieksa and Ehrhoff so look for the Wings to try to make a strong move for at least one of them.
Jovanovski is a workhorse. He has a big body and is a weapon on the offensive side as well. He would easily step into any defensive roll on the ice. He will be 35 this season, which is a slight drawback; however, he is still an upper-echelon defender.
The big draw for Jovanovski would be a return home. He grew up just across the river from Detroit in Windsor, Ontario. Perhaps playing near home and next to Lidstrom would be enough to lure him to Detroit.
Hudler had a disappointing season in his return to the Wings. He too often went long stretches of games without scoring a point or even having any type of impact. He was able to show flashes at times but his salary his much too high for the performance he was giving. If the Wings can find a taker it is time to move him, especially if they can get something of value on defense.
While Filppula played OK during the season, he also disappeared at times. His availability as trade bait isn’t so much a knock on his ability or play, but speaks to the growth of Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader. In addition to them the Wings also have Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller. All four of these players have earned more playing time.
If the Wings can move Hudler and/or Filppula to not only make room for these four but to also bring a strong defensive force into the fold, then it is a very good move to make.