I have never been prouder to be a Red Wings' fan. Sure, I've been happier- like when they win the cup, but we should not underestimate the accomplishments of the past season in what has been their most trying campaign for the last 25 years or so.
We knew this would be a tough one from the start, and it got even tougher as the team lost more games to injuries than any team in the long, storied history of the franchise. And it's not just the number of games, but the names of the players who were lost. Datsyuk and Zetterberg played only 45 games each. Jon Ericsson played just 48, Franzen 54. Yet they made the playoffs and kept the amazing 23 year playoff streak alive.
From my vantage point, there were hopes for this season, but not much in the way of expectations. You could see the lack of scoring up front, and the lack of experience on the blue line. Maybe they could squeak into the playoffs and then it's a new ball game. Maybe Jimmy Howard gets red hot and they make a run as they did a year ago, beyond all expectations. In the end, they were summarily dismissed in the first round by the best team in the league. But the streak is alive.
In the process of drudging through the season with all the injuries, the Red Wings called up more players from the minor leagues than we had seen in maybe the past several seasons.
Eleven Eight players on the playoff roster were in Grand Rapids last year, on the Griffins' Calder Cup winning team. They brought energy, excitement, and most importantly, a glimpse of the future. If the Wings accomplished nothing else this season, they gave their future stars some valuable experience, and they gave their fans a reason to be optimistic about the future The near future, like next season.
Looking forward, the combination of stars like Datsyuk and Zetterberg, future stars such as Nyquist, Tatar, and DeKeyser- you know the names, and the addition by subtraction that is about to take place this summer, provide a solid foundation for any optimist.
What is exciting about entering this offseason is the way that the Red Wings roster, and payroll sets up. All the right players are free agents, and all the right contracts are going to be- or at least should be cleared off the books, making room for Ken Holland to bring in a few key players- like maybe a top six forward and a veteran defenseman.
Here is the list of unrestricted free agents. You do the math.
Legwand $ 4.5 million
Quincey $ 3.775 M
Alfredsson $ 3.5 M
Samuelsson $ 3.0 M
Bertuzzi $ 2.075 M
Cleary $ 1.75 M
Gustavsson $ 1.5 M
That's a potential payroll reduction of $ 20.1 million. If they buy out Jordin Tootoo, they would save another $ 1.667 million (and take a cap hit of $ 667K the following year). If I were making the decisions, I'd see if Alfredsson, their leading scorer this season, wants to return at about the same salary, and let the rest of the free agents walk. After that, there aren't any more players on the roster that I would consider an albatross. (no, not even Franzen). All the right players are free agents.
It will take some cash to resign the restricted free agents, including Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar, and Danny DeKeyser. Hopefully, they get those guys locked up for several years to come. They may also try to lock up Nyquist, Tomas Jurco, Joaquim Andersson, and/ or Brendan Smith, who will be RFA's after next season. Those seven players cost the team only $ 5.7 million total last season.
Once the core group of young players is locked up, the Red Wings will have a solid nucleus that can carry them for a few seasons. Tootoo is the only unrestricted free agent after next season, unless another player is signed to a one year deal.
As far as how to spend the rest of the savings, the Wings desperately need another veteran presence on the blue line. They sorely miss Nick Lidstrom, his steadiness and ability to start the play coming out of the defensive zone. Andrei Markov would start my list if they can get him, but we can talk about names from here to eternity, and no doubt we will starting now.
Up front, the Red Wings desperately need a scorer, preferably a right winger. If Alfie leaves, they need at least two forwards. The Wings had nobody with 50 points, leaving them with no players among the top 90 in the league in scoring. Get Dats and Hank healthy, and give Nyquist a full season, and that will change, but the lack of scoring is a huge problem.
Key to the Red Wings next year will be Jimmy Howard rebounding from a sluggish season. It was no coincidence that, just as Howard started to play well, they made the run that pushed them into the playoffs. But overall, he was not among the best goaltenders in the league, nor even close to it. I'd be comfortable letting Monster go, although he was a bargain at his salary, and promoting Mrazek as the backup.
So I'm happy with the Red Wings' past season. Maybe surviving the days of Ned Darkness, winning no cups and almost always missing the playoffs when two thirds of the teams qualified, for a period of 30 years or so makes me look at things differently. But I have big expectations for this off season, and with that will come greater expectations for next season. Well done, guys. For once, I can actually say "wait til next year", and say it with genuine optimism.