It's been a long time since I bothered to write anything on the Detroit Red Wings. A lot has happened since the elimination game in the first round of the playoffs. The retirement of Nick Lidstrom has been widely mourned by Red Wings fans worldwide and better bloggers have paid tribute to Nick's accomplishments. I'm glad I survived the retirement of the best positional defenseman ever to play professional hockey, but it's time to be happy for Nick moving on and it's time for all of us as fans/bloggers to start thinking about the future.
It's true that you can't replace Nick Lidstrom. The hard truth of the situation is that there is no one in the NHL who is anywhere near his level in terms of ability at peak performance level, hockey intelligence, discipline, and general winning attitude. However, there are plenty of elite defenseman who will be more than capable of leading the Detroit Red Wings blueline corps for the future; many of these candidates are currently not signed to a contract with the team. Ken Holland is no spring chicken to reloading talent and adjusting the roster to suit retirements or trades, so there is no cause for alarm when one looks at what Detroit has available on the roster today.
Today I would like to give my two cents on how the Red Wings should look come October 2012-2013. I fully expect to be slammed and/or criticized for my choices, but if I didn't want my opinions heard, I wouldn't be a blogger, would I?
The best way to break down the team changes is to fall back into that comfortable structured article discussing forwards, defense, and goaltending. My intention to look at the team from as wide a scope as possible, so there will be some looks at talent currently resting in the CHL leagues as well as the minor league affiliate of the Red Wings, the Grand Rapids Griffins.
According to Capgeek, The Red Wings have 12 forwards under contract: Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula, Danny Cleary, Darren Helm, Todd Bertuzzi, Patrick Eaves, Gustav Nyquist, Drew Miller, Jan Mursak, and Cory Emmerton. As of today, Justin Abdelkader is a restricted free agent, while Jiri Hudler and Tomas Holmstrom are unrestricted free agents. Top forward prospects currently under some form of contract include Riley Sheahan, Calle Jarnkrok, Teemu Pulkkinen, Joakim Andersson, Landon Ferraro, Tomas Tatar, Andrej Nestrasil, newly drafted Martin Frk, and a host of others who are less likely to crack the lineup anytime soon. RFAs and UFAs in this crop of minor league talent include Fabian Brunnstrom, Andrew Murray, Chris Conner, Chris Minard, and Jamie Johnson. A lot of names being dropped, but those familiar with the Red Wings depth charts and minor league affiliates will know who the top prospects are. If not, go check out Winging it in Motown, The Production Line, the Malik Report, or some place cooler than here. Then come back to me. Please.
The Red Wings forward corps did well with offensive output last season, with 9 forwards scoring 10 or more goals (Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader just missed out on the cut, scoring 9 and 8 respectively). The downside to have a deep amount of scoring threat was that no specific player put up impressive goal scoring numbers individually; Johan Franzen tops the list at 29 goals. With 5 players boasting 50 or more points, the criticism of the Detroit forward corps ultimately lies with preference: do you want your offensive to rest on 1 to 3 big star scorers, or have it spread out over all four lines? With Datsyuk's numbers limited by his 12 missed games and Henrik Zetterberg being increasingly relied upon to shut down the better lines on teams, the Red Wings lack that potent punch that existed with Yzerman, Shanahan, Fedorov, and later the Datsyuk/Zetterberg combination in injury free seasons. Detroit managed the league's 7th best goals-for number this past season, and while it is pure conjecture, a fully healthy 82 game season from Datsyuk almost certainly would have led to the few goals needed for the team to rise into the top four teams, just behind Pittsburgh, Boston, and Philadelphia.
Assuming that Jiri Hudler (more money), Tomas Holmstrom (retirement), Fabian Brunnstrom (not good enough?), and Chris Conner (too many bottom six forwards) all walk on July 1st, Detroit has an opportunity to reload by way of free agency. As has been said in other places, forwards like Riley Sheahan, Teemu Pulkkinen, Joakim Andersson, Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco, and now Martin Frk are all long-term or longer-term solutions to Red Wings forwards growing long in the tooth. Certainly all of these forwards will be seen at either development camps or even training camp come the fall, but none of them will see a realistic chance at a top 12 forward, unless Tomas Tatar relishes his dark horse role and snags a 4th line spot at the expense of one of Detroit's many bottom six forwards.
Looking at ONLY the internal options of the organization, here is how the lineup could look in 2012-13 if nothing happens in free agency:
Top Six: Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen, Filppula, Nyquist?
Bottom Six: Cleary, Helm, Bertuzzi, Eaves, Miller, Mursak, Emmerton, Abdekader? and Tatar?
As you can see, there's a considerable log jam in the bottom two lines of the team. Cleary and Bertuzzi have previously seen time in the top six, but for the purposes of this exercise, I am labeling them as bottom six forwards because that is where I believe they will spend the next season, for the most part. Gustav Nyquist is an interesting question mark because while he is young and there is room for him to grow, there is not going to be space in the bottom six for him next season, assuming Ken Holland doesn't unload two or more of the bottom six forwards for whatever reason. Even then, Nyquist should be logging more minutes, whether it is as a top six forward in Detroit or a top six forward in Grand Rapids. Nyquist looked good in the 18 regular season games he played in last season, but only scored one goal. He's a playmaker, and with Filppula and/or Zetterberg there could be some magic on the ice. With that said, Nyquist has one final year on his entry level deal, and that could be burned up in one final year of AHL. The question for management/coaching is now whether Nyquist has anything more to gain from being in the minors. By the numbers, it would appear not, as he clocked in over a point per game in the AHL. Nyquist is an NHL player, no question, but it's now or never for us to find out whether he can cut the mustard on the top lines in Detroit.
Similarly to Nyquist, Tomas Tatar is a question mark for the bottom six forwards. There isn't much room to fit him into the lineup, but he's still an entry level guy who has done well in Grand Rapids the past three seasons. He could find himself back in Grand Rapids, which is unfortunate because he has the skills to play in the NHL, albeit not in the same capacity as Nyquist.
Inevitably, the conversation over how to solidify the top six forward situation must lead to free agency. Cleary and Bertuzzi are good stopgaps who have filled their roles well over the years, but neither has the jam or the skills to be the kind of player the Red Wings need in the top six. There is a strong crop of stars who are becoming unrestricted free agents on July 1st, and there has already been a lot of Red Wings-related discussion. The top few options are as follows:
(Editor's Note: Some good Damian Brunner notes here via SBNation. Apparantly this slipped through my radar so this is a post-editing note to include him in the talks.)
Zach Parise: Every Red Wing blogger has weighed in on Parise coming to Detroit. The reports on Parise's supposed interest in Detroit are extensive, so I will refrain from rehashing the works of better men and women. Parise would be a great fit because he is a bona fide superstar who can put in point per game productivity and would thrive playing alongside talented playmakers like Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Filppula. Parise is a top-line kind of player who captained New Jersey in 2011-12 and brings the American star power to an American team. While nobody really cares about him being American, where he was born may or may not weigh in on where he signs. A Minnesota boy born to a Canadian father who also played hockey, there is a good chance that Detroit may be competing with Minnesota, who might just throw a fat contract at Parise just to turn him into a superstar draw in the North Star State. New Jersey is just as much a contender for Parise's services, as it is his first team and he already has seven seasons with the club under his belt. Realistically, Detroit is probably not Parise's number one choice, but he is definitely top three and he will receive plenty of attention from Ken Holland come July 1st.
Alexander Semin: Similar to Parise, there is extensive information available through the Red Wings blogosphere on Semin coming to Detroit, so I will once again sidestep the usual arguments over why we would want Semin on this team. With all the dislike of Semin that's out there among Detroit fans, there's tremendous upside to signing Semin to a solidly long contract. The biggest reason is that Semin appears to be very interested in signing with Detroit, at least out of interest in playing with fellow Russian Pavel Datsyuk. Playing with a playmaker like Datsyuk might be the renaissance that Semin needs to revitalize his scoring touch. In the last two seasons Semin has produced 54 points twice and has been relatively invisible in any kind of clutch or playoff situation. This doesn't bode well for a free agent looking to land a contract, hence the second reason why landing Semin in a solid contract could be good. The offensive upside is better than outgoing Jiri Hudler, who will demand a pay raise. While it remains to be seen what Hudler will do come July 1st, at the very least everyone knows that Semin is interesting in being a Red Wing. The downside to Semin is the obvious fear that Semin will poison the locker room with bad work ethic. This won't fly on a team that defines itself with hard work and perseverance. This could be Semin's chance to go Fedorov or go Radulov. It's a bit of a gamble, but for a paycut down to 4-5 million, it could be doable in tandem with Parise. Imagine that.
Jeff Halpern: In the "out of left field" category, Jeff Halpern is the kind of player who every team desires at some point: a third or fourth line penalty killing, minute gobbling center who has enough offensive upside that you don't balk at putting him in the bottom six and plays with a level of discipline that could rub off on younger players. Halpern has never been a scorer, which is why you have to ask yourself, why, in a situation with almost ten players already competing for six spots, would bring this guy in knowing it's scoring they are looking for? Well, even though he sat out ninteen straight games at one point, Halpern still has ability to work hard and contribute to teams. the bottom six surely cannot be filled with 20 something underachieving forwards, which is why his position as fourth line center opens up the possibility for Detroit to get some value for some of the forwards who are not going to make the team. Certainly, one could argue that trading a bunch of young up-and-comers is foolhardy, but with nearly ten players competing for six slots, it may be inevitable. A package containing some combination of Drew Miller/Jan Mursak/Cory Emmerton/Justin Abdelkader's rights could entice a team to part with an overpaid second line forward in a cap dump, or alternatively provide another team with a reload of young blood (Calgary) in a "it's not a rebuild but it's a rebuild" trade. It's a very complex notion with some potentially foolhardy fallback for Detroit, but if I didn't entertain something out of the blue I think I would get bored just listing the top point producing forwards for Detroit's UFA shopping list. I have always been a Halpern fan and him coming in to Detroit, if only for 2-3 years to solidify the 4th line in time for the new breed to come along, would not be the worst thing possible. It may also force the hand of Ken Holland to dice up the spare parts and try to get some modicum of value for them before they yield no benefits due to free agency.
Petr Sykora: Potentially another "out of left field" choice, Petr Sykora is a 35 year old right wing who has seen better days in the NHL. Never truly a point-per-game superstar or an elite talent, Sykora has offensive upside and previously has played for Stanley Cup Champions. His previous two contracts saw gigantic paycuts, which could mean Sykora is the second or third forward signed by Detroit in response to acquiring Parise or Semin. Sykora could slot in to a top six position and reap the benefits of playing with Filppula and Zetterberg, but there may not be room for him if the organization decides to take a chance on Nyquist (despite playing different positions). Sykora could also be a signing in response to Detroit sending a package to another team that includes one or both of right wingers Cleary and Bertuzzi. It appears most likely he will want to finish his career in New Jersey, so we will file this one under the "not likely, but fun to entertain" category.
Jiri Hudler: Last but certainly not least, Jiri Hudler may be the logical choice to sign to a long term deal simply due to familiarity. Yes, he walked away from the team before in order to explore the KHL. Yes, he has a very disappointing return to the NHL. Yes, he made a nice comeback this season, and reaped the much-sough after comfort of playing with playmakers Filppula and Zetterberg. Is Hudler the answer to solidifying the second line? Logically, Hudler has reached a point in his career where he will garner the most money on the free agent market. He's 28, consistently a 40+ point scorer, and best of all he's not likely to miss time--aside from skipping town for the KHL, Hudler's only missed 17 games since becoming a full time Red Wing. With that said, he's likely reached his potential productivity and is the kind of player who will not settle for anything lower than the second line and the money that follows. In my opinion, Hudler would do better in a place like Minnesota or Montreal where he will have a fresh start, a decent money offer, and get plenty of PP time. His loyalty to Detroit is questionable, which is justified. Hudler resigning is certainly a possibility, but is it desirable?
The Red Wings have a shade over $24 million dollars to spend, according to Capgeek. It is entirely possible, however unlikely, that the Red Wings could wind up signing no forwards simply because they were outbid. With that said, I believe that Detroit's lineup will include at least one of the five potential free agents I looked at. (Editor's note: Shane Doan's more recent public expression of interest in testing the free agent waters makes him a viable candidate for Detroit to acquire, perhaps moreso than Halpern and Sykora.)
Most Red Wings fans, bloggers, and analysts will say, rightfully so, that Detroit's defense corps took two brutal hits thus far in the offseason in the form of Nick Lidstrom retiring and Brad Stuart leaving town. Both of these exits were predictable come March, but the sting of losing two top-four blueliners doesn't go away with foresight. As of today, per Capgeek, Detroit has five defensemen signed through 2012-13: Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson, Ian White, Jakub Kindl, and Brendan Smith. Kyle Quincey, who was acquired before the trade deadline from Colorado/Tampa Bay, is a restricted free agent. Top prospects in the system include Xavier Oulette, Ryan Sproul, Adam Almqvist, and Brian Lashoff. RFAs in the minors include Travid Ehrhardt and Logan Pyett, and UFAs in the minors include Garnet Exelby and Doug Janik. Check out the previously mentioned links for more information.
Similarly to the forward situation, Detroit has roster positions and cap space to go buck wild on July 1st and look for some top tier talent. The difference between the forwards and the defense situation is that is is paramount to the future success of the franchise that Detroit acquire an elite, Norris caliber defenseman to supplement the loss of the legendary Lidstrom. As has been said ad nauseum across all strands of media, Lidstrom is irreplaceable, but the notion of building a defense corps around a young stud defenseman is enough to supplant the wild concerns that Detroit will topple without their go-to hero on the blueline. There are plenty of solid choices to be made in the free agency pool, but before we peek at the pool of potential paragons, let's discuss promotion from within and what's on the roster sheet.
It's time for Brendan Smith. Yes, the blue chip prospect many Red Wings fans have been excited for is about to embark on his first full NHL season in Detroit. This is not a prediction or a plea but a fact based on desperation and desire. Nik Kronwall is more than capable of being a top four defenseman anywhere in the league, if not top two, so all shouldbe comfortable leaving the D in the hands of the man who hits people so hard his name is now a verb i.e. Kronwalling or to be Kronwalled. After Kronwall, Ian White is a capable top-four defenseman who has been the most subtle of renaissance projects. White benefited greatly from playing with a future Hockey Hall of Fame alumni, but the time has come to see what White is made of as the lead in a pair. His 32 points this past season were nothing to sneeze at, and while some could say the replacement of Brian Rafalski was a downgrade, White is young enough to continue to grow and old enough that he may find himself agreeing to a long term deal with Detroit next season when he becomes a free agent. After being dumped by three teams after Toronto decided he wasn't good enough (because that's never happened before, Larry Murphy), White has found a home in Motown. So, where do Jonathan Ericsson, Jakub Kindl, and Brendan Smith fit in? I ask myself that question often. The confidence in Ericsson is certainly there from management, otherwise he would not have been offered the $3.25 million dollar deal he was given last season. Ericsson produces a variety of different emotions by fans and bloggers, namely his obsession with taking untimely penalties and his disappointing production on offense. Still, to his credit, Ericsson cut his penalties nearly in half in 2011-12 compared to the previous season, so there is still hope that he will round out into a reliable everyday player. Jakub Kindl has given bloggers fits over his growing pains, but he has yet to post a full NHL season as a Red Wing. In 55 games last season he put up one goal and 13 points, which isn't exciting, but he's a average enough player that he can fill the number 6 or 7 role in a pinch. Brendan Smith, on the other hand, is exciting and tantalizing. In 14 games last season, he had a goal and 7 points. He has been touted for years as being Detroit's top defense prospect, maybe the best overall in the system. It's impossible to predict how he will do as a leading man in what will be his rookie season, but hopes are high. Kyle Quincey as an RFA seems a lock to be resigned simply out of need as well as the obvious point that he was acquired at the expensive of a first round draft pick. After all, why would Ken Holland go out of his way like he did to snag Quincey unless he was returning to the fold as a long term solution to Brad Stuart leaving? Finally, Ryan Sproul and Xavier Oulette are next in line to receive the Brendan Smith development, so unless they magically explode with more talent and strength than they have shown most recently, there is no chance either will make the team this season.
Free agency is going to be a war to acquire the top defenseman available. Obviously, Ryan Suter is the man every fan on every team wants to sign, but will he be Detroit bound? Here's a look at the top three defensemen Detroit should pursue via free agency:
Ryan Suter: Let's address this one quickly. Ryan Suter is the best available defenseman. He is young, talented, and has the potential to be the guy Detroit builds their blueline around, along with Kronwall and Smith. He will not come cheap and the competition is fierce to acquire his services. He could be a 50 point guy on the back end. He could be everything Detroit needs right now to fill the hole Nick Lidstrom left. Unfortunately, every team in the league is after him. It has been said/guessed/speculated/perceived that Suter wants to stay in the Western Conference, which strikes out half of the league from contention. Assuming this is true, as well as the desire to win Stanley Cups, one would assume the team with the best track record in the last fifteen years would be a contender for his services. It's a precarious situation for Detroit, but every dollar they have to spend on Suter will be worth it. I'm not sure what else there is to say about Suter aside from the obvious fact that he's the best guy available and Detroit wants him. July 1st could be a big day for the Red Wings if they can sign this superstar.
Matt Carle: While nowhere near as coveted as Suter, Carle is a good defenseman who boasts a bevy of playoff experience and point scoring. But is he resigning in Philadelphia? It's difficult to say, but the acquisition of Brayden Schenn's brother Luke from Toronto recently seems to suggest the team would like a cheaper option than Carle. Still, if the Red Wings can't land Suter, Carle is 27 and could be a viable second place option. He may command a larger salary than he is worth, but most defensemen will in the 2012 UFA frenzy.
Pavel Kubina: I wish I could say I was pulling everyone's leg with this choice, but the fact is that the defense pool becomes pretty shallow after Suter, Wideman (who is now signed in Calgary), and Carle. Kubina used to be a fairly reliable 40 point defenseman who has played on some pretty awful Toronto and Tampa Bay teams throughout his career. Winning the Stanley Cup in 2004 almost feels like an anomoly for Kubina, who somehow managed 50 PIMs in 22 playoff games that season. While he may not be the guy responsible for winning it all, Kubina could be a steady 3-4 defenseman who finishes his career (he's 35) in Detroit helping to bolster the skills of Ericsson, Kindl, Smith, and later Sproul and Oulette. His signing would seem to imply that guys like Kronwall and White will be the 1-2 punch moving forward, while Ericsson, Kindl, and Smith can work to figure out who gets second pairing. This would be a "we couldn't sign anyone else" kind of deal, but a nightmare like signing Kubina might be just enough encouragement for the younger defenseman to improve fast, or watch Detroit sink in the standings.
Jimmy Howard proved last season that he is absolutely the elite level goaltender we had always hoped he would be. His numbers, which you can find anywhere on any stats page (like here!) are rock solid and at a top-10 level even with a major injury. There is no fear in Detroit about who the man moving forward is going to be. However, a competent backup seems to be a difficult question for Detroit to answer. Last season, Ty Conklin began the season with a shutout and finished with such abysmal starts that he was sent down to Grand Rapids. He never complained like a good little soldier, but that gap forced Joey MacDonald into playing like a man possessed while Jimmy Howard recovered from injury. The result was something unexpected: MacDonald played outstanding, put up great numbers, then got injured himself. The back spasms kept him out of work since April 20th and heading into the new season it's unknown whether Joey will return. Currently in the system are goalie prospects Thomas McCollum, Jordan Pearce, and Patr Mrazek. Mrazek is the strongest of the three at this moment and McCollum's stock can't plummet much lower after a couple of mediocre seasons in the AHL and ECHL. Conklin is the only UFA goaltender in the system.
So what does Detroit do, knowing Joey MacDonald is not a surefire bet to return? He's on year two of a deal where the second year is one-way, which means he can't go to the minors without being waived. If management decides that he is unfit for the role or they would just like to improve, here are three options that might serve Detroit better should something ever happen to Jimmy Howard:
Scott Clemmensen: Clemmensen is 34 years old and wouldn't command a salary much higher than 1-2 million per season, if that, so he is in both the age range and the salary range to be a good consideration for backup. After bouncing around the NHL and AHL in New Jersey's system for a while, Clemmensen took over Martin Brodeur's job upon major injury back in 2008-09 and performed well beyond expectations, picking up 25 wins in 40 games. He won a solid contract from Florida the following year, and has been maintaining himself as an adequate backup on an average team. There's something charming about Clemmensen's career trajectory in a fashion similar to Conklin when he first came to Detroit. He has bounced around between a few teams, never had much stability in any job until very recently, but has proven there is potential to serve a team well in dire straits. That could be what Detroit needs to ease a 70 game workload off of Howard.
Al Montoya: Touted many years ago, Montoya has suffered from other goaltenders usurping what initially appeared to be his role. After winning gold in 2004 with the American team at the World Junior Ice Hockey Championships, he waited patiently for his turn with the New York Rangers, playing well in the AHL. Then Henrik Lundqvist happened. Montoya was deemed expendable and was shipped to Phoenix. Then Ilya Bryzgalov emerged as a top tier goaltender. By 2011, Montoya was again shipped out, this time to the New York Islanders, where he seemingly found a place among the goalie graveyard that was the 2010-11 New York Islanders. He performed poorly after a one year contract with the Isles, and now faces free agency, where his career could very well end. Montoya should be appealing to Detroit for a couple of reasons. First, that he is a renaissance project. Second, the talent is there. Montoya has never truly received a proper opportunity to shine as anything but a backup goaltender on a very poor Islander team. Why not sign him? There isn't much to lose with potentially Joey MacDonald there to pick up the pieces. Montoya is just 27 years old, and imagine what kind of advice Jimmy Howard or Chris Osgood could offer to a guy like Montoya?
This off-season is going to be Detroit's most interesting and most difficult in years. There is a large sense of despair and loss after the team was defeated handily at the hands of the Nashville Predators. Losing Lidstrom and Stuart was the extra sting. Ken Holland has proven himself time and time again as a genius GM, and hopes are high that Detroit can sign some big time stars rather than spare parts. If Detroit can land some permutation of Zach Parise/Alex Semin and Ryan Suter/Matt Carle, that despair could quickly be replaced by a sense of hope and optimism that there is success after Lidstrom.
To the viewers of this wall of text, what are your thoughts on the Red Wings' pursuit of free agents?