With the retirement of Brian Rafalski earlier this offseason, the air was electric with rumors of free agent signings and trades galore. This would be the first time in a long while that Ken Holland would be able to spend freely on whoever he wanted.
And I bought into this, just like most other Red Wings writers and bloggers. Back in May, I wrote this slideshow dreaming up a list of free agents that Detroit could bring aboard to shore up their defense and spur their offense into action.
Looking at that slideshow now, I feel mildly silly. I wasn't completely off though, because a lot of those players could have helped the the Red Wings in both the short-term and the long run.
But, after remaining inactive on the market, Detroit has a lot of work to do to get ready for the upcoming season.
A lot of their current roster is due to move on, and the squad has several youngsters that will be itching for play in the pros. Now more than ever, the choices that Holland and co. make will directly impact the team moving forward.
Here are five players that will make or break their careers in Detroit over the coming season, based on the pressure coming from the minors, and the players that the team could land in free agency during the next offseason.
Darren Helm didn't come to the Detroit Red Wings with the buzz of a second liner. His play during the last two seasons (especially during the playoffs) has changed that.
His speed is incendiary, and Helm is widely regarded as one of the fastest players in the National Hockey League. That isn't too shabby, especially in a league featuring players like Steven Stamkos. Even on a team filled with quick-footed players, this is a guy that stands out.
Helm is an outstanding penalty killer. It was during this single shift that No. 43 embedded himself into the psyche of the Red Wings and their fans. There are few players across the 30 NHL teams that have his wheels, and the wherewithal to use them when need be.
This is a kid who can flat out play, and he forechecks his way to the top end of Detroit's system on a nightly basis.
His cap hit is just over $900,000 this year, the last year of his current contract. So this is a forward who is in line for a hefty raise—perhaps to the tune of $2 million a season. Would he be worth it as a RFA?
Without a question.
Within the year, look for Ken Holland and his managing group to lock up this lightning rod forward for another half decade or so. Helm is a kid who, at worst, is a forward who can fill bottom-six minutes. At best, he can take a role on the first or second line, and has the hockey sense and speed to play along with guys like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
They call Justin Abdelkader a cannon ball of a forward, and with good reason.
The youngster hits everything that moves, and even some things that don't move. A deer on the road home? Abby hops out of his car and body checks it, at least he would if he thought it would help his team win a hockey game.
So while the deer may be a healthy dose of overstatement, you get the idea—this is a forward who will play the game body on body, and pays the price to win almost every battle along the boards. With the flat-out talented players that the Wings have coming up the pipeline, gritty players like Abdelkader only gain value.
Because who else is going to crush Patrick Kane in the playoffs when he comes storming across the blue line at home during Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Western Conference Finals? If it isn't Abdelkader, the options for Detroit are scarce.
But fortunately, Abby is a back-checking forward who could take care of that kind of momentum while heading the other way. And in a system that doesn't run on an abundance of sandpaper, this is an irreplaceable aspect of the team.
He will make shy of $780K this season, and he's due for a raise. Look for a doubling of his salary at the end of the season, especially if Abdelkader ends up cracking a lot of heads and netting some points during the season and playoffs
Todd Bertuzzi has been a 45 point player for the Red Wings for the last two seasons. He has played almost all 82 games for the squad over the same time period, and is in line for an extension.
Not a large raise, but an extension.
He's in line to make nearly $2 million dollars with the squad over the upcoming season. This is less than Jiri Hudler and Daniel Cleary. Hudler has not earned this kind of money, while Cleary has, as both he and Bertuzzi are good for over 40 points a season.
While Bertuzzi struggled to find a role with the Anaheim Ducks and Calgary Flames prior to signing with the Wings, he has since found a place among Detroit's forward group. He works hard on both ends of the puck (despite his reputation) and could very well earn a small raise based on his play coming out of the season.
This is just my gut feeling, but I think Bertuzzi will retire as a Red Wing.
Since his incident (I refuse to link it) he hasn't found a place among any other team in the League. Detroit is his home, and he'll take an extension along the same lines for at least the same amount of money at the end of the season.
Brad Stuart has been a mid-range defender for the Red Wings since he was brought aboard via a trade with the LA Kings in 2008. Since then, he has been a second paring blueliner in Detroit, playing along side Niklas Kronwall.
The duo has thrown massive hits since then, and Stuart has already earned one raise with the Red Wings. While he may not be up for another big bump in pay, he will still be hugely important to Detroit moving forward.
After all, this could very well be Nicklas Lidstrom's final year as a Red Wing, and the team probably couldn't afford to lose any more blueline talent—especially after Rafalski called it a career after this season.
The underrated Stuart is important to the Red Wings and their future.
He will make $3.76 million this season, and he could very well end up making that same figure across the next season or two. Given the market for free agent defenders this offseason, it isn't bonkers to think that Stuart could make an extra half a million or so after the current contract is up.
Some view him as overrated, and not worth that money, but that money would be used in a much shorter, less useful fashion at the end of the year if he walked. Look for Stuart to be extended before the end of this season.
Like it or not, love it or hate it, Niklas Kronwall is the answer for Detroit. After Lidstrom hangs them up, and after a year without Rafalski, Kronwall will be the team's top-end defender.
If he can continue to play the way he did in the playoffs against San Jose, then this may not even be an issue. Kronwall played more minutes than Lidstrom did against the Sharks, and this is a positive sign for the Red Wings.
Out of all the players mentioned in this slideshow, Kronwall is the most important guy. For the team, for Detroit's success, and for the security of the Red Wing blueline moving forward. He has always been known to make big hits.
Now, he's beginning to earn a reputation for something else.
As health finally takes the side of the big Swede, he begins to play more sound positional hockey. Kronwall doesn't put himself out of position to make the big hits that he was known for earlier in his career.
He is now good to make the stick-check when that is necessary, make the big check when needed and commit to the body play when that helps the team the most. In short, this is a guy who has slowly developed into a prime NHL defender, and this is his season to prove it.
Kronwall makes $3 million clean over the next 82 games. If he can continue to elevate his play on the back end, then look for him to garner a one or two million dollar raise before free agency with Detroit.
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