I'll say it: the hand-wringing over the loss of Damien Brunner over the last few days has gotten absolutely puzzling.
Don't get me wrong; I'm more than a bit disappointed that all indications point to Brunner playing the 2013-14 season outside of Detroit after a promising rookie season. I wish he and the team had found a way to come to an agreement that would have kept him cruising behind the Winged Wheel.
But his departure isn't on Ken Holland or Daniel Alfredsson or even possibly Danny Cleary. Damien Brunner isn't going to be with the Wings because Damien Brunner chose to test the free agent market and Damien Brunner isn't an important enough piece to be worth waiting around for while he circles the dance floor looking for a better partner. Before Alfredsson was driven out of Ottawa by the hardball tactics allegedly caused by Eugene Melnyk's financial constraints and before the idea that the Wings would be interested in making space for Dan Cleary, Damien Brunner was offered multiple-year deals to stay in Detroit and he turned those offers down.
As much as Ken Holland let him go, he chose not to re-sign. The difference appears to be about a million dollars. According to the whispers from the diggers, the Wings were offering in the neighborhood of $2.5M while Brunner is looking for between $3-3.5M.
Frankly, the difference in cost is between a 2nd-line winger right now and a 3rd-liner who has to prove he can perform consistently well against the tougher competition his job entails. Brunner might grab those 2nd-line minutes and responsibilities somewhere else. In Detroit, where we watched him over this shortened season, we saw a guy who spent three months proving he was better suited for the lesser role right now (and therefore is better suited for the lesser pay).
Speaking of the money, there's a concept that in the NHL, you can be a mid-tier contender if all of your players are worth their cap hits but if you want to really compete, you need a few underpaid overperformers to make a difference in your lineup. $2.5-3.5M is certainly in Brunner's range. I don't feel he'd be overpaid, but I do feel that it's an acceptable risk for the Wings to chance getting underpaid performance in that particular role elsewhere.
While Brunner started off with a bang, his overall goal pace over an 82-game season was about 21 goals. While an improvement is expected with more experience, the Wings have a guy who plays much the same offensive-minded winger role and who's also expected to improve off the roughly 18-goal pace he put up in his 18 games with the Red Wings last season. The added bonus? That player has a cap hit of only $840,000.
While we're on this comparison (to Tomas Tatar, BTW), it's important to note that Brunner spent twice as much time on the power play (most of it on the first unit) and four more minutes per game. While Brunner is older and seemingly closer to reaching his potential than Tatar, the price difference pays the premiums on the risk.
The other part of the Brunner considerations I feel keep getting lost is the concept that somehow the decision is coming down to Cleary vs. Brunner in a meaningful way. While there certainly is a relationship due simply to roster and cap limits, the direct competition idea is a little disingenuous considering that Mike Babcock's line-creation system is well known and that Brunner and Cleary aren't in direct competition role-wise. Any line with a Damien Brunner-type will also have a Dan Cleary-type on it. Brunner's competition at wing is between him and either a more-complete veteran scorer or a couple of much cheaper prospects.
Put simply: if Damien Brunner had been willing to accept what the Red Wings were willing to pay, no part of the Cleary rumors or the Alfredsson signing would have one bit of effect on him being a Red Wing. I do feel that Brunner will be worth what he gets from another team, but I do not feel that he's important enough to the Wings to be worth changing their free agency strategy to wait for him to come around after testing the waters.