We've been hearing all this year about how the Red Wings have several key defensive prospects that are about ready to make the leap - in particular Ouellet, Marchenko, and Sproul seem to be the three that have at least a shot of cracking the lineup next fall. I would go so far as to predict that it's a high likelihood that one of them gets into 20-30+ games next year. However, as Brendan Smith has reminded us, it can often take longer for a defenseman to really take the leap. When evaluating whether or not to pursue a UFA defenseman (assuming Quincey walks as seems likely), the real question is whether or not this UFA is going to take opportunity away from one of the young guys. Is one of these guys going to be ready for full-time duty in the fall? Maybe, maybe not. I think a lot of fans that saw Ouellet in particular play would even go so far as to say "probably." However, nobody is really certain, and that's because defensemen often take weird trajectories in their development. That said, will one or more of them be ready for a full-time job in 3 years? 100% yes without a doubt seems to be the obvious answer. And so here we are, figuring out how to fill out our fall roster. The two big names that Wings fans like to float as signings are Dan Boyle and Matt Niskanen. Two big names in extremely different stages of their career. I'm here to suggest that if the Wings are going to go that route, Dan Boyle is the better choice.
Dan Boyle scares me. I'll admit that up front. I'd like to dive into his numbers in a more in-depth manner in the future, but the short of it is he wasn't the Sharks best blue-liner this past year, and really he hasn't been for a couple years. He hasn't been bad necessarily, but he's not the Dan Boyle of old who made the Sharks considerably better just by stepping onto the ice. He's got an injury history, he's got one, MAYBE two years left in the tank, and his underlying numbers have faded a little bit. I'm concerned that the only way to get him may be to offer him 2 years rather than 1. I'm also even tired of the old cliche that is the Wings fetishistic obsession with well-past-their-prime players whose teams let them walk for a reason.
That said, he sure makes a lot of sense for this team, and the chief reason is the aforementioned young players. If Boyle comes on a 1 year deal, that means 1) Detroit gets blueline production now that is at absolute worst equal to the impact the youngsters would make and at best, considerably better. 2) Detroit gets to let these young guys have a little more time to refine their game and let them come up as injury replacements - which WILL be needed knowing this team. This seems preferable to being forced to depend on them playing big minutes for the whole 82 game season. Sure those guys all looked fine in their brief call-ups playing extremely sheltered minutes, but what happens on the second night of a road back-to-back when they accidentally ice the puck after a long shift in Chicago as Toews and Hossa climb over the boards? That's a pretty different story. Boyle is an ideal stop-gap - a veteran on a short deal who will be gone by the time these guys are ready to play real minutes. Niskanen is going to require a much longer term, and that by default means he's taking opportunity away from kids.
Kid factor aside, Boyle is a natural fit with the Wings style of play. He's a puck moving defenseman who has played years now on a Sharks team that plays an awfully familiar style. Boyle's coach literally used to be Babcock's assistant. We saw how seamlessly Daniel Alfredsson fit in this year after coming from being coached by a former Babcock assistant, and a major perk of Boyle is that it's reasonable to expect a similarly easy transition. Boyle brings the mythological right-handed shot, ability to play PP, etc. He's basically everything the Wings have been trying to get for awhile now. Besides, with all the young players joining the team and all the older players that are walking as UFAs, Detroit no longer has the "oldest team in the league" crown, and that just won't cut it for us true Wings fans. Let's take this first step in regaining the crown.
Counterpoint - by J.J.
I see the attractiveness of Dan Boyle as an addition to the Wings' blueline, both as a stopgap until the prospects have matured and as a mentor to those very same prospects (not to mention Brendan Smith). I'll also readily admit that I'm not entirely sold on Matt Niskanen as the defenseman the Red Wings need for the term that he's going to command on the free agent market.
But here's the thing: the Wings are actively trying to build a contender, not just waste time until they know for certain whether a group of promising kids in Grand Rapids can give them and, by every important consideration as far as what makes them better on defense for the near future, Matt Niskanen is a better fit and a better defenseman. Niskanen is bigger, younger ,and produces more points while playing more defense.
I get the concern that a defenseman on a longer term makes it tougher for the prospects, but the opposite side of that coin is that it really boils down to being worried that guys aren't going to be able to win the competition for the best six defensemen to play every night. The sad truth is that the likelihood that all of these guys are great isn't... well... great. There's a decent chance that some of them are essentially going to be Kindl 2.0. Having a solid defender in the top four doesn't keep guys out of the lineup, it gives the Wings options on what to do with a glut of talent at a position where teams are constantly in need.
Yes, it's possible that we run into another Kyle Quincey situation where Detroit has to lose a guy to waivers simply because of the position they're in with D-men, but if you'll remember, Detroit managed to stay solid defensively for years after that and the return of Quincey didn't exactly blow us away.
Matt Niskanen is a better defenseman. He's going to get paid more and will get a longer term than Dan Boyle because he deserves to. If the Wings can get Boyle on a one-year deal, it may be worth the gamble that he won't run into concussion problems again and can help turn around power play issues, but I'm not confident they'll be able to talk him into that without having to gamble with one of those 35+ cap-deferment kind of deals.
In short: Niskanen is a lower risk...anen.