I want to start by saying I am very fortunate to be a Detroit Red Wings fan. In the 23 seasons since I was born, the Wings are an astounding 1041-552-175-78. In that time, they’ve made 22 playoff appearances, advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals six times and winning the cup in ‘97, ‘98, ‘02 and ‘08.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see players like Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Nick Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg don the Winged Wheel. The Red Wings are a classy organization with talented management and ownership.
And yet, the Wings have been bumped from the playoffs by San Jose in back-to-back seasons. With an aging blue-line and an abrupt retirement from Brian Rafalski, the Wings find themselves with holes to fill and money to spend.
Here are the 10 moves I think will take Detroit from contender to champion.
I’ll admit it; at the start of the season I doubted if the captain had another 82 games in those legs. At 40 years old, few players can perform night in and night out. However, sitting here this offseason, I have few reservations.
After watching Lidstrom perform in the 2011 playoffs, it dawned on me why he’s been so successful here in Detroit: the ability to adapt.
In his 19 seasons with the Red Wings, Lidstrom has been a part of underdog teams filled with grinders ('97) as well as legendary teams filled with Hall of Famers ('02). And yet, he has always been a stellar performer and leader on the blue line.
More recently, as Nick’s quickness has diminished (don’t tell me at 41 he hasn’t lost a step), he’s more than made up for it with superior positioning and intelligence. Nick is just as strong a teacher as he is a player (Kronwall’s development is proof), and his guidance will be crucial in integrating new guys into the system.
Looking back on the 2011 playoffs, two Red Wings players really stood out to me: Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall.
Kronwall introduced himself to the league in 2009 with a devastating hit on Marty Havlat, and since then, getting “Kronwalled” is something a lot of small forwards fear. But in these playoffs, Nick Jr. showed me that there is more to his game.
He didn’t totally abandon the big hits (ask Heatley or Clowe), but he wasn’t putting himself out of position to go for them. He played incredibly well in his own zone and even contributed to the offense, tallying two goals and four assists in 11 games. Nick Jr. has learned from his fellow Swede what it means to play “the right way,” and there’s no telling how good he could be.
His fellow blue-liners Ruslan Salei and Jonathan Ericsson are both unrestricted free agents this offseason, and I believe both will be on the move. I thought Salei was decent this season but didn’t do enough to earn an extension. I believe Ericsson’s potential will inflate his value on the free agent market, and the Red Wings don’t pay for potential.
In all likelihood, Chris Osgood has played his last game as a Red Wing. He has been fantastic over the years, but age and recurring groin injuries have begun to catch up with the fan favorite.
Jimmy Howard has proven an effective No. 1 goaltender, and in limited action, Joey MacDonald has also fared well.
Pearce is a young player whose AHL career has been less than impressive, but it is important to remember goalies are often slow to mature. His time at Notre Dame showed he has the talent to be a reliable backup, which is just what the Wings need him to be.
If you ask a group of Red Wings fans to name their favorite player, I guarantee Darren Helm would come up more than once. Helm is a throwback to the grinding days of Hockeytown.
The kid has a motor that just never stops and he never gives up on a play. He is a prototypical penalty killer and his pestering fore-check has led to several spectacular short-handed goals.
He’s got more speed than one man should, but needs to become a more consistent finisher. I believe with his skill set he should be good for 25 goals a season.
The Wings would be smart to sign him to an extension before he puts it all together and the price goes up.
Over the past few seasons, the Wings have done an incredible job of working young players into the mix and getting them the experience needed to live up to (and often beyond) their billing. Guys like Filppula, Helm, Howard, Abdelkader and Ericsson were all home-grown players that were brought up slow and integrated when they were ready. Tomas Tatar is only 20 years old, but I think he is ready to join the list.
This season with the Griffins, Tatar scored 24 goals and 33 assists in just 70 games. He is a bit undersized, but time with the Wings staff will build that core strength he needs to protect the puck. He is a very fluid skater and would benefit from suiting up alongside the Euro-twins every night.
The Wings are really high on Tomas, and I believe this season will mark his coming out party.
Brendan Smith is an offensive-minded defenseman that fits the Red Wings mold perfectly. In his time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Smith proved he could be a shut-down defender garnering “Defensive Player of the Year” and All-American honors. He was also named a finalist for the Hobey Baker, college hockey’s most prestigious award.
This season with the Griffins, Smith put the puck in the net 12 times and assisted on 20 more, earning a spot on the All-Rookie team. He also showed he has a nasty side, racking up 124 penalty minutes.
Next year I see Brendan in a seventh defenseman role, however with some mentoring from Lidstrom and Kronwall, I believe this kid has the opportunity to be a top pairing defenseman moving forward.
Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller are two solid, underappreciated guys on this Red Wings team. They provide the Wings with depth at the forward position and rarely miss games due to injury.
Although not known for goal scoring, Eaves has netted the Wings 25 goals over the past two seasons.
Miller, a graduate of Michigan State University, is a great guy in the community and even scored a few during the 2011 playoff run.
Both Eaves and Miller are character guys that are great for the locker room, the depth chart and the payroll.
Since his return from Russia, Jiri Hudler has just rubbed me the wrong way. He is a player that has the talent to be a great success, and yet he appears lost at times, making silly plays and giving up the puck in the worst possible areas.
I've noticed that pucks often end up in his feet, meaning he takes mental breaks from the game. He was practically invisible in these playoffs, except for nearly taking off Dan Cleary's head.
I acknowledge he has shown flashes of brilliance, but they are becoming fewer and farther in-between. Hudler is currently making $2,875,000, which is more than Eaves, Abdelkader and Helm combined.
The Red Wings need the cap room, and if they could get a draft pick or two in a trade, it’d be a bonus.
All right, so let’s reset before we talk free agents.
So far, we’ve renegotiated Darren Helm’s contract to $2,5 million and Niklas Kronwall’s to $4 million. Lidstrom has agreed to take a pay cut to $6 million and Modano, Draper, Osgood and Rafalski have all retired. Salei was released and Ericsson left for more money than the Wings were willing to spend (probably to Chicago). Lastly, we’ve signed Tatar, Smith and Pearce to entry level contracts of $500,000 each.
With help from capgeek.com, and assuming the salary cap will bump to $62 million (reported by Forbes), I’ve determined that as the roster stands, the Wings have about $12 million to spend.
This is where it gets fun. As our roster stands, we have Lidstrom, Kronwall, Stuart, Kindl and Smith on defense. I believe Kindl is ready to be a top six defenseman, but I can’t say the same for Brendan Smith. I think his place is as the seventh guy, so that leaves two starting spots on the blue line. In my mind, our first target is Christian Ehrhoff.
It’s rare to pull a free agent from a Stanley Cup Finalist, but the Canucks have a lot of guys to sign (Salo, Bieksa) and they’re all going to be looking for a raise. Ehrhoff is a young guy who can move the puck out of the zone with long passes, or quick feet. He has the skills to jump in on the rush, and his shot from the point will be a great addition for the second penalty killing unit.
Ehrhoff is currently making $3.1 million but I could see the Wings bumping his salary to $3.5 million. With the raise, and the opportunity to play for such a storied franchise, I think this is an offer he can’t refuse.
The second target for the Wings is…
James Wisniewski. This guy….he’s my kind of guy. Sure, he was the CHL’s Defenseman of the Year in 2004. And he did put up 51 points this season (21 of which were for the lowly Islanders). But the reason I like him is his attitude.
He plays with fire and toughness, but is surprisingly disciplined when it comes to taking penalties. Montreal is notorious for a “grass is greener” mentality, and I can see them undervaluing Wiz’s contributions.
In the past, he has been suspended for a nasty hit to Brent Seabrook, as well as an obscene gesture to Sean Avery, but I think those things were out of character for him. This is a guy who has been productive on some bad teams, and in Red Wings system, I would expect 15 goals and 40 assists from this guy. Cut him a check for $3.5 million (a raise of $300,000) and let’s move on.
Surprise! After adding two big-name defensemen at $3.5 million a piece, the Wings need two more forwards and they still have money to spend. In fact, they still have over $5 million left. So who in this crop of free agents should Detroit pursue? Well, looking at the list of available free agents, a few guys really stand out.
2010 Salary- $965,000
Any Detroit fan knows Ben Eager from the most recent battles with the San Jose Sharks. While he's not flashy, he certainly is effective. Eager is a tough guy with a mean streak and he could be the enforcer the Wings are missing. He's also a very attractive option as we could probably pick him up for about $1 million a season.
2010 Salary-$3.75 million
Sullivan is a veteran player that has shown his ability to score 50 points on a regular basis. When healthy, he is somebody that makes plays in the dirty parts of the ice. The Wings already have a lot of flash, and we all know Detroit is a popular destination for aging players looking for a shot at the cup.
Nabbing Sullivan from the division rival Predators could be easier and cheaper than was first thought. I believe this move would be beneficial for Sullivan, who I think could experience a Jason Arnott-like resurgence in 2011. The addition of a gritty veteran player like Steve could be exactly what the doctor ordered.
Brooks Laich is the type of player the Red Wings have built their reputation on. He is a hard worker that does it all: five on five, penalty killing and power plays. Brooks is on the brink of becoming a 30-goal, 40-assist guy in the NHL and the talent in Detroit could be what he needs to reach his full potential.
More than anything though, the reason Brooks would be a great addition is his passion. Laich was quoted in the Washington Post saying, "If I asked you about your family, you would talk about them forever because it's something you love. That's the way I feel about this team. This team is my life, and I love playing here and I'm passionate about playing hockey. So it's easy for me to talk about it."
He is one of the best two-way forwards in this free-agent class, and if he decides to test the market, he could be in for a big payday. With Detroit's cap space and Laich's talent and passion, this could be a match made in heaven.