2013 was quite a rebuilding season for the Detroit Red Wings. Gone were Nick Lidstrom, Brad Stuart, Tomas Holmstrom and Jiri Hudler. Add those to the previous season’s losses of Brian Rafalski, Mike Modano, Kris Draper and Ruslan Salei, and that’s quite a turnover. In their places were Brendan Smith, Danny DeKeyser, Damien Brunner, Joakin Andersson and Gustav Nyquist.
Despite the upheaval on the roster, the Red Wings managed to qualify for the post season for the 22nd consecutive season. The rebuilding project hit bottom early in the lockout shortened season and they’re on the rise again, finishing the regular season just four points behind third place in the conference and finishing the playoffs just one goal shy of the final four.
So where do the Red Wings go from here? A quick look at the team scoring totals tells us that they need to score more goals. The team finished 19th of 30 teams in scoring, while they were fifth in goals allowed. The eye test tells us that they could use some more grit and size up front to compliment their skilled forwards. Justin Abdelkader is one forward who will mix it up in front of the net. Johan Franzen is not.
There have been suggestions that the club should buy out Franzen, who is signed for $ 3.95 million through 2020. I think that would be unwise, and Ken Holland has rejected the idea recently. Mule is more comfortable waiting in the slot for a pass, and crashing the crease for a rebound than he is setting up camp on the edge of the crease. When he’s scoring, he is a real difference maker who can not be replaced at the cost of his salary.
Franzen, Henrik Zetterberg, and Pavel Datsyuk are the team’s scorers, along with Niklas Kronwall who ranked sixth in the short season in scoring among defensemen. The team needs another top six forward who can add 20 plus goals, and preferably one who isn’t afraid to muck it up in the crease. They could also use another veteran on the blue line who can add some defensive stability and also chip in with some scoring, particularly in the form of assists on the power play.
While it would be nice to add a Jarome Iginla, who has a new found love with Pittsburgh, and my personal favorite would be Nathan Horton of the Boston Bruins, I don’t expect the Red Wings to make a big splash in free agency this off season. More likely they fill needs by making trades and trying to retain some of their own players who are free agents this summer. The club feels that they're better off trying to get more scoring out of Franzen and Filppula than paying top dollar or top prospects for free agents.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
Damien Brunner technically did not qualify as a rookie at age 27, but his first season in the NHL was enough to show that he can provide some much needed offense. His twelve goals were third on the team, and only the top three forwards scored more points despite just 15:35 average time on ice per game. He earned just $ 1.35 million on an entry level contract but is an unrestricted free agent this summer. Signing Brunner has to be the club’s highest free agent priority.
Valterri Filppula was right up with Datsyuk and Zetterberg in scoring during the 2011- 12 season, but disappeared for much of the 2013 campaign. He will want $ 5 million per season for as many seasons as the highest bidder is willing to pay him. Filppula’s scoring would be missed if he were to leave. But then, his scoring was missed this season already, and there’s no guarantee that the scoring will return if he returns. Indications from Ken Holland are that he’d like to sign Filppula, and Valterri would like to stay in Detroit, but finances will dictate whether that will happen.
Dan Cleary is a fan favorite because of his tireless work in the corners and in the crease. He played in all 48 games this season, but his future with the club is uncertain as the club looks to get younger and faster. Cleary earned $ 2.8 million and would like to get a multi year contract but will be 35 next season. If he leaves, that makes the need for a big forward all the more evident. Jordin Tootoo, who is signed for three more years at $ 1.9 million per year, but was a healthy scratch for much of the playoffs, could fill Cleary’s role.
Drew Miller played in 44 of the 48 games in 2013, and played 80 games the previous season, logging under 14 minutes per game, but filling his role as a checker on the fourth line. His relatively modest salary of $ 837,500 is good value for what he provides, as long as there is a roster spot available for him when all the pieces are rearranged.
Ian White did an admirable job making up for some of the scoring lost when Brian Rafalski retired, logging seven goals and 25 assists for a plus 22 during the 2011- 12 season. But as the young defensemen got more playing time, White was left aside and he is surely going to find another team. He didn’t play during the last month of the season or in the playoffs at all. Still, the scoring that the club got from him and from Rafalski before him, has yet to be replaced.
UPDATE: As JJ posted on Friday, indications in the past several hours are that Pavel Datsyuk fully intends to sign an extension with Detroit, but that can not happen until July when the free agent signing period begins. All the rumors about returning to Russia after his current contract expires were much ado about nothing. Although, Dats would like to finish out his career in his native country, he's not nearly done with the NHL for a while.
Datsyuk has one season left on his contract and there are rumors that he would like to finish out his career in his native Russia. One story was that his agent told reporters that he had made a decision about his future and another story, which was denied by Datsyuk and his agent, came right out and said that he has an agreement to play in the KHL starting with the 2014 season.
The Red Wings had been mainly silent, as is their policy, about the status of Datsyuk, other than Ken Holland’s comment that he would be meeting with Pavel’s agent during the summer. Mike Babcock, responding to reports that Datsyuk may be leaving said that there is "that much chance" forming a zero with his fingers, that Dats would be returning to Russia after next season.
Needless to say, the Red Wings would like to extend their leading scorer, who is both one of the most exciting players, and one of the best two way forwards in the world. At age 34, he still has plenty left in the tank and would be a huge loss if he leaves. He has said that if he stays in the NHL, it will be with Detroit, and no other team.
Datsyuk will be back at least for next season, but if he is not extended this summer, that would be a strong indication next season could be his last in the NHL. I would have no problem extending him five more years.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
Although they’ve just arrived in the NHL, Brendan Smith, Gustav Nyquist, Joakim Andersson, and Jakub Kindl will be restricted free agents this summer. Other teams may sign them to an offer sheet and the Red Wings would then have the chance to either match the offer or let them go and receive compensation in the form of draft picks for them.
All four players figure to be part of the Red Wings plans for next season and beyond. Expect the club to try and extend them and hope that another club doesn’t make them an offer they can’t refuse.
ONE MORE YEAR
In addition to Datsyuk, six current Red Wings, presently earning just under $ 16 million, are scheduled to become free agents after next season. Kyle Quincey ($3.8 million), Jonathan Ericsson (3.25 million), Mikael Samuelsson (3 million), Carlo Coliacovo (2.5 million), Todd Bertuzzi (2.1 million), and Patrick Eaves (1.2 million) are now on the free agency clock.
Ericsson has made enough of an improvement, in my view, that the club would want to keep him as one of the players to build around going forward. Whether they’re ready to extend him is another question, but he stands out to me among this group as probably the only one worth being concerned about.
The remaining members of the 2014 free agent class could be traded or bought out to clear salary cap room while using the money to upgrade areas of need as indicated above. I don’t think that the rest are difficult to replace, either from within or via trade. In fact, I might look to move some of them sooner, rather than later, while we might get something for them. Or not.
My best guesstimate as to what the Red Wings will do this summer:
1. Extend Pavel Datsyuk
2. Resign Damien Brunner
3. Filppula signs, Cleary, and White leave as free agents
4. Miller extended for a modest salary
5. Acquire a veteran defenseman and a big top six forward by free agency or trade
6. Reallocate some payroll through free agency and trades, with Quincey, Samuelsson most likely to go