Stop me if this sounds familiar: the Red Wings are about to enter the offseason with a lot of cap space and roster spots to be filled after a disappointing 5-game playoff loss to a physical team with outstanding goaltending. Their biggest need is a top-4 defenseman, preferably someone who could play on the top pairing and take some pressure off the rest of the young defense corps. They also need to get a backup goaltender and additional scoring if available, and all this has to happen with an eye towards the future because the core is rapidly aging, and prospects need to start getting playing time.
If you thought "hey, he's talking about 2012", then you're right. If you thought "he's talking about today", you're also right, and it's very concerning that we could be looking at a repeat of The Summer of Our Discontent.
I won't go into great detail about what happened that season, but the tl;dr version is this: the Wings were bounced in the first round and entered the offseason with a big need on defense due to the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom and departure of Brad Stuart. It was a relatively thin UFA market but the Wings needed to make a move or two to offset their losses.
Detroit went hard after Ryan Suter, but lost out when he signed for slightly more money and a chance to play closer to home in Minnesota with his fellow UFA, Zach Parise. The Wings' response? Re-sign Todd Bertuzzi to a 2-year extension, bring back Mikael Samuelsson, and sign Damien Brunner, Jonas Gustavsson, Jordin Tootoo and Carlo Colaiacovo.
How did that work out? Let's take a look at how each have performed in the 130 regular season and 19 playoff games the Wings have played over the past 2 seasons:
It's hard to look at those numbers and feel any positive emotions about that summer. What makes it even harder to take is knowing that when next season starts, Gustavsson will be the only member of this group that will be on the Wings' roster.
Ken Holland and the rest of the Wings' braintrust find themselves in a similar position this summer. They've already announced that Samuelsson and Bertuzzi won't be back, Colaiacovo and Tootoo have been bought out, and Detroit has a shade under $19M to work with in cap space.
Fate, it would appear, is somewhat on the fans' side, because it's saddled the Wings with so many injuries over the last few seasons that young players like Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan, and Danny DeKeyser have been allowed to play more minutes and start to develop into legitimate NHL players. Nyquist was a key player in helping the Wings get out of the first round last year and was a force down the stretch this year, while Tatar and DeKeyser are slowly becoming players the Wings can depend on to provide stability in a lineup that is getting younger. Next year should see them continue to trend up and get better.
This doesn't take into account that the Wings' farm system is stronger than it has been in a long time. The Wings have held on to their higher draft picks and better prospects for this point in time, where the core group is getting older and the new generation is almost ready to assume bigger roles. Guys like Tomas Jurco (who should be on the Wings in October), Teemu Pulkkinen, Ryan Sproul, Xavier Ouellet, Alexei Marchenko, Petr Mrazek and even Anthony Mantha could and should be Wings sooner rather than later. We're all aware of the Wings' system of overdeveloping players in the minors, but one would hope that seeing the younger players come up and contribute right away tells Wings' management that sometimes it's better to see what a guy can do at the NHL level rather than keep them in the AHL until they're 24.
What all of this means is that the Wings are at a crossroads, and this summer could be a big indication of where the Wings want to go and how they're going to get there. They could continue this youth movement, signing a couple of veterans as stopgaps until the young guys are ready. Or, they could do what they did in 2012 and sign a bunch of over-the-hill, no-longer-effective veterans and hamstring this team for a couple of years in terms of both roster size and cap space. We're not talking about a "sign Dan Cleary to a 2-way contract and force him to make the team" kind of signing; this is more focused on the Wings' admirable but misplaced loyalty to older players who, while they may be wonderful people off the ice who at one time contributed to the team's success, ultimately don't make the Red Wings better.
At the end of the day, it's about winning, and the Wings have attempted to be at or near the top of the league for 20+ years. The moves made in the summer of 2012 saw the Wings take a significant step back, but the Wings have been given a blank slate to work with as those contracts have expired or been removed. We as fans can only hope that Ken Holland and the rest of the Wings' management staff remember the lessons of 2012 and don't repeat the same mistakes they made two years ago. Otherwise, it might be time to start looking at whether bigger changes are needed beyond the just the players on the ice.