There was degree of consternation among Wings’ fans as the sun went down on July 1.
Two years after failing to land Ryan Suter and Zach Parise; several months after limping into the playoffs to be flicked aside by the Bruins; the organization failed to land any of the right-handed free agent defensemen it desperately wanted.
Not only that, there was even a degree of insult to injury. Christian Ehrhoff appeared to feign interest, then sign with sorta-rival Pittsburgh for less than Detroit offered. Matt Niskanen told the Wings he didn't even pencil them in his short list. Dan Boyle took less money from the Rangers, who he felt were a better team. Anton Stralman offered the organization one word via text when asked to field an offer – "No."
Stephane Robidas landed in Toronto, Tom Gilbert in Montreal.
Niskanen and Boyle partly went to Washington and New York to play with their friends Brooks Orpik and Marty St. Louis, respectively, but there was a time when skating with Detroit outweighed sharing a hotel room your buddy.
But those days, it appears, are done, and throughout the summer anyone with a byline in the hockey media jumped in with the same assessments: No wants to play in Detroit anymore, the playoff streak will end, the coach is mean, the coach is leaving, the organization is doomed.
Harsh times, indeed.
But just over six months down the road, Detroit is near the top of the Eastern Conference in the standings and fifth in the NHL at 2.42 goals against per game. The penalty kill, until recently, was among the best in the league, and, importantly, fans aren't filled with dread anytime a defenseman not named Kronwall faces an oncoming forecheck.
By any measure – in the gut, in the fancy stats or in between – the Wings’ defense is not simply overachieving. Instead, the youth is continually maturing and improving faster than expected, and, perhaps, the team wasn't as bad off as previously thought.
On the other hand, with only one exception, the 2014 UFA defensemen the Wings targeted are underachieving duds that have provided a marginal return on investment, and that especially hurts in the salary cap era.
So with the Wings pushing for the East’s top spot and proving to be among the toughest to score on, and with all the excitement and speculation that comes ahead of the March 2 trade deadline followed by the March 3 post-trade deadline let down, it’s a good time to take a look back and evaluate what might have been.
(Before doing that, Jimmy Howard, who returned to form after a shaky 2013-14, needs to be given credit for his role in keeping pucks out of the net.)
New York Rangers, 2 years at $4.5 million annually
Talk about a dud. Boyle’s diminishing production was no secret, but his 2014-15 numbers slipped further than anyone expected. After putting up 12 goals and 24 assists last year in San Jose, he’s on pace for 14 goals and eight assists this season. But four of those goals came in the last eight games, meaning it’s unlikely he’ll even reach that point tally.
The numbers come despite Boyle, who is now 38, bouncing between the second and third pairings, facing softer competition and seeing better zone starts than most of his teammates.
His possession numbers aren't bad, and nothing says he isn't a sturdy, veteran defenseman, but the Wings sought a skilled puck mover who could run the power play. Boyle has just seven power play points, which is the same as Jakub Kindl. In other words, Boyle is putting up Jakub Kindl numbers with a Niklas Kronwall contract.
Pittsburgh, 1 year at $4 million annually
The Macomb Daily’s pre-UFA day assessment of Ehrhoff basically read as a cover letter for Detroit’s job opening.
"He’s a premier skater who logs a ton of minutes who can move the puck and likes to join the rush. He can also quarterback the power play," Chuck Pleiness wrote.
There was the guy. But it turns out Pittsburgh put up the same help wanted ad. And that’s where Ehrhoff landed. How’s that working out?
"Ehrhoff has been a bit of a disappointment offensively this season with only three goals and 13 points in 43 games," the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently raved. His possession numbers are the worst of the Pen’s theoretical top four (a relative corsi of -3.6 – yikes!)
Which is a little surprising. No one expected Ehrhoff to reach his totals from the Sedins-at-their-peak era, but it was assumed his dip in production was a direct result of playing with a borderline-AHL team in the Sabres. He's at an age, 32, where he should be producing more, especially with the Crosby-Malkin-Letang effect, but failing to capitalize on that for the rest of the season could land him back in the free agent mix, and it's doubtful Detroit would be interested.
Toronto Maple Leafs, 3 years at $3 million annually
At 37 years old, Robidas is slightly less ancient but a bit more useless than Boyle. However, unlike Boyle, it was common knowledge that he was a middling defenseman on such an evident decline prior to suffering a broken ankle last season that everything pointed to "dead weight." Everyone could see that.
So, naturally, Toronto handed him $9 million.
Robidas’s first goal came during a Feb. 10 loss to the Rangers after notching seven assists through the season’s first four months. His possession numbers stink, even for an organization that doesn’t exactly make puck possession a priority. Had Robidas landed in Detroit, he would have likely held onto a roster spot that should have gone to a more deserving Marchenko or Ouellett.
And that would have unfair to Wings’ fans, who never would've found energy or time in the day to grouse about Robidas AND Dan Cleary.
Washington Capitals, 7 years at $5.75 million annually
Like Ehrhoff, Niskanen’s production drop came as a bit of a surprise, After a breakout 46-point-season in Pittsburgh, he made tracks to Washington where he’s on pace for roughly half that total with two goals and 16 assists to his credit.
But there were those who advised careful deliberation before signing a guy with one strong season under his belt to a gigantic, long-term contract. Time will tell if this ends up being a financial anchor for the Caps. It’s not as if Niskanen’s 18 points are horrendous for a top four guy. But a $40.25 million guy?
Montreal Canadians, 2 years at $2.8 million annually
Gilbert put up 28 points on a sorry Florida team last season and landed in the 25- to 35-point range in the past, so it stood to reason that placing him in a line up with good players would boost his production.
Gilbert’s two goals and seven assists have him on pace for 12 points. His puck moving skills aren’t particularly exceptional and his relative corsi of -2.5 is particularly crappy.
It’s hard to find any deficiencies in Detroit’s defensive group that Gilbert could remedy, and while his stats and numbers are fine for a number six or seven defenseman, Detroit is well-stocked in that department.
Tampa Bay, 5 years at $4.5 million annually
Talk about the one that got away. Or should have been considered before any other. It was easy to overlook Stralman, especially if you weren’t yet sold on possession stats. His one goal and 12 assists during the 2013-14 campaign weren’t particularly impressive, but his possession numbers, which were off the charts, offered an indication of things to come.
Every single defensive partner he had in New York – Girardi, McDonagh, Staal, everyone - had better possession numbers when paired with Stralman. Not just by a little, by a lot.
And a 28-year-old guy who makes everyone on the ice better is the option to entertain before the veterans getting by on their name.
Stralman's promise was also evident in the playoffs where his performance stood out, even if he only tallied five points in 25 games. While it’s never wise to go bananas over a playoff performance and saddle a team with a Bickell-esque contract, it didn’t take much watching to see the signs of a defenseman poised for some degree of a breakout.
And, hey, so far, Stralman has three goals and 22 assists while on pace for a career high of 35 points. He faces Tampa’s toughest competition while recording the highest relative corsi of the team's regular defensemen at 7.4, which is a full 11.2 points more than Victor Hedman. When Hedman went down, Stralman quarterbacked the power play, he’s a puck mover, and he’s a right-handed shot. And that sounds like the qualifications listed in the Wings’ help wanted ad.
Of course, Steve Yzerman saw the potential and lured Stralman with, first and foremost, the time of day. Next he offered a $4.5 million contract and the opportunity to play on a team everyone considers a true contender.
Tampa deftly assembled a solid defensive group, but not by dangling a ridiculous contract in front of the most exciting name in the field. Instead Yzerman chose to pay smaller prices for decent guys like Stralman, Matt Carle, and Jason Garrison while everyone else was panting over Suter and Niskanen.
There’s no doubt the Wings could use another defenseman. A puck mover could be the final piece. But the standing-alone-in-the-corner-at-the-dance feeling that stuck with Detroit since last July, or waking up on March 3 with the same roster as the day before, might not be such a terrible thing.