For the second straight season, the Detroit Red Wings were bounced from the second round of the NHL playoffs by the San Jose Sharks.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at an aging Wings team that will surely undergo some changes this summer, but still has a core to compete at the highest level.
With starting goaltender Jimmy Howard and a group of quality forwards signed through next season, the Red Wings' focus this summer will primarily be on defence, where they have already lost Brian Rafalski to retirement and await Nicklas Lidstrom's decision on whether he will return for his 20th NHL season.
Should Lidstrom decide that he's had enough, despite clearly playing at a level more than sufficient to continue as a top pair defenceman, then Detroit will have a massive rebuilding plan on its hands. Even the Red Wings would feel the loss of a pair of defencemen that combined for 110 points last season.
More optimistically, however, if Lidstrom returns, the Wings have plenty of salary cap room at their disposal to find another top four or even top pair defenceman via trade or free agency.
Presuming that the Wings land one significant defender to fill the hole created by Rafalski's retirement, they'll still need to address depth at the position, both on the third pair and organizationally, as few of the Wings' top prospects are defencemen.
Given the Wings' track record, it's safe to assume they will be active in their efforts to shore up the position and, once they do, it's fair to expect the Red Wings to have a team capable of extending their current streak of 11 straight 100-point seasons.
The question at that point becomes whether the Wings still have enough to go all the way. They're undeniably an aging team, with Valtteri Filppula the only one of Detroit's top ten scorers last season that won't be at least 30-years-old next season, and when injuries mount during the grueling NHL playoffs, it can be difficult for the Wings to still have enough to get the job done.
That may be an overreaction, considering that Detroit lost in seven games against San Jose, but it could at least be an indication that the younger players in the organization are going to have to take on more responsibility, to make up the difference between being not-quite-good-enough and the championship-calibre that Detroit fans know all too well.
"We have to try to piece it all together," GM Ken Holland told the Detroit Free Press. "We believe in a certain philosophy. We like skill. We believe there are some players who could be good Red Wings. Some players are good players, but they don't fit our system. You try to find players that fit your style of play."
Knowing the success that the Red Wings have experienced as a franchise, winning four Cups in the last 14 seasons, they shouldn't have a lot of difficulty finding quality players that are eager to keep the tradition rolling in the right direction.
Ken Holland/Mike Babcock
To say that Pavel Datsyuk is a rare talent is a disservice to the otherwordly puck skills he possesses, for no one -- not Crosby, Ovechkin, Malkin, Stamkos or anyone else -- has anywhere near the ability to embarrass otherwise talented NHL defencemen with his array of dekes and deft stickhandling.
Datsyuk missed time with a broken hand, a lower body injury late in the season and appeared to have a wrist injury in the playoffs, yet he scored 59 points and was plus-11 in 56 regular season games before adding 15 points and a plus-10 rating in 11 playoff games.
A three-time Selke winner as the league's best defensive forward, Datsyuk is a complete player that will keep the Red Wings competitive, as long as he's in the lineup. He'll be 33 this summer, but his performance in the playoffs didn't indicate that his performance is slipping in the least.
Datsyuk's partner in crime, as superstars that play both ends of the rink, Henrik Zetterberg finished with the first minus rating of his career (minus-1), but finished with 80 points, the fourth straight season in which he's scored at least 70 points.
Like Datsyuk, Zetterber is good in the faceoff circle and can play both centre and wing. When they play together, they form one of the league's most dangerous lines -- no matter who is given the third spot on the line -- and when they are anchoring different lines, it stymies opponents that are trying to get defensive matchups against them.
Though he's never scored more than 34 goals in a season, and scored 28 last season, Johan Franzen ranks among the league's elite in goals per game over the last four years, ranking 22nd in the league with .40 goals per game.
Factor in his postseason goal-scoring (.56 per game in the last four years, ranking sixth among players with at least 10 playoff games; second to Ovechkin among those with at least 25 games) and Mule has the ability to be a game-breaking scorer, an elite-level complement to Datsyuk and Zetterberg.
At 32, Dan Cleary enjoyed the most productive year of his NHL career, scoring 26 goals and 46 points in 68 games. An offensive disappointment early in his career, Cleary has been re-modeled as a checker in Detroit, but has nearly come full circle, providing much more offence than the typical grunt.
At the same time, Cleary's taken his lumps, missing 59 games over the last four seasons and as he gets older, it could be all the more difficult for him to stay healthy.
Valtteri Filppula teases with his production, doing just enough to think that he's ready to take the next step but, inevitably, he ends up with 35-40 points, as he has for each of the past four seasons, then turns in a productive postseason (44 points in 68 games over the last four playoffs).
As a supporting player, though, Filppula remains an asset. He's talented enough to play with high-end skill guys like Zetterberg if need be, but can also handle third-line duty if that's what's required. Still, it seems he could score more than 50 points under the right circumstances.
Tomas Holmstrom was never the most fleet afoot, so it's not the end of the world if he's lost a step at 38-years-old, but it's understandable if he plays a reduced role as time marches on. He still screens goaltenders as well as anyone in the game and, for that, he's a valuable role player.
A blossoming checking centre, Darren Helm continues to develop into a very effective player. Even though he doesn't see a lot of ice, Helm is a strong penalty killer who creates more and more offensive chances with his speed. He doesn't finish a particularly high percentage, but the 24-year-old should be able to score 40 points in a season at some point.
There's a certain consistency to Todd Bertuzzi's game at this stage of his career. Not from game-to-game so much as from season to season. He's scored between 40 and 45 points in each of the last four seasons and has been a minus player the last three. He still has the hands to contribute offensively but, now 36, he doesn't move like he did when he was a feared scorer.
After a year in the KHL, Jiri Hudler struggled to re-acclimate himself to the NHL, scoring one goal in his first 30 games, on his way to 10 goals and 37 points. Hudler did rise up a bit midseason, scoring a point-per-game in February but, for the most part, he was relegated to a depth role after establishing that he couldn't be counted on offensively.
If a veteran Wings forward is liable to get moved, it might be Hudler, though Detroit could probably afford to hang onto him with the hopes that he'll fare better next season.
24-year-old winger Justin Abdelkader adds youthful energy and a physical presence to the lineup. He's a useful player on the fourth line, with some upward mobility as he can fill in higher up the depth chart, but hasn't shown enough touch with the puck to warrant consistent playing time with the scorers.
With four unrestricted free agent forwards, there could be some turnover for the Wings. Mike Modano and Kris Draper have to be nearing the end of the line, while Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller have proven to be helpful, but not irreplaceable if they happen to get better offers on the open market.
The Wings will be able to fill out the forward lines with at least one internal promotion, as Jan Mursak has done his apprenticeship in the AHL, but a veteran free agent or two may be needed as well.
With enough cap room that they may be able to take a shot at some of the top-scoring free agents, upgrading their talent on the top lines, which will have a trickle-down effect through the lineup, the Wings may want to look to free agents like Brooks Laich, Erik Cole, Alex Tanguay, Simon Gagne or perhaps even a return of Tomas Kopecky, who has improved since last wearing the Winged Wheel.
Niklas Kronwall can be overlooked in Detroit -- Nicklas Lidstrom casts a long shadow -- but he's mobile, a good passer and much more physical than his size would suggest.
With the retirement of Brian Rafalski, Kronwall becomes even more critical to Detroit's defence, perhaps with more offensive responsibilities, depending on who Detroit acquires this summer.
Brad Stuart provides a steady physical presence in the top four. His offensive contributions have become more rare (55 points total in last three seasons with the Wings), but Stuart can play a shutdown role and kill penalties effectively.
A first-round pick in 2005, Jakub Kindl finally got to see his first extended action in Detroit last season, playing 48 games, but the 24-year-old didn't show a great deal to indicate he's going to be more than a depth defenceman.
Whether the Red Wings embark on a rebuilding program now annually falls on the decision of Nicklas Lidstrom, the 41-year-old defenceman who still faced the toughest defensive matchups in the league and, while he finished as a minus player for the first time in his career and his minutes were cut back from prior seasons, Lidstrom finished with 16 goals and 62 points, numbers that would be a career season for the vast majority of NHL defencemen.
Again, now that Rafalski has already retired, it's difficult to fathom the Red Wings trying to re-load in the summer if they've lost their top two defencemen and Lidstrom, a Norris Trophy finalist again, is playing well enough to warrant a fair contract in the $6-million to $7-million range but, until he actually decides to come back, the Wings will have to hold their breath, keep their fingers crossed and wait for decision from the best defenceman of this generation.
In the name of continuity, the Red Wings may try to keep Jonathan Ericsson in the fold, but it's possible that Ericsson and veteran Ruslan Salei will be on the way out, leaving plenty of work to do on the back end.
The silver lining to Rafalski's retirement is that it gives Detroit the salary cap room to be a major player in free agency and they'll presumably have to re-appropriate some funds towards a free agent defenceman or three.
Free agents like Kevin Bieksa, Christian Ehrhoff, James Wisniewski, Tomas Kaberle and Joni Pitkanen will be most in-demand and Detroit could take a run at any one of them.
It wouldn't be altogther surprising, provided medical concerns are alleviated, to see Detroit take a chance on Andrei Markov, the Canadiens defenceman who has been injured for much of the past two seasons (playing a total of 52 games), but has established himself as an elite defenceman when he's in the lineup.
Given their cap room, the Wings are going to have flexibility to address this position, whether it's with one of the top free agents or a significant trade. Additionally, prospect Brendan Smith completed a successful first season in the AHL and should be able to move into a prominent role with Detroit next season.
With few top prospects, aside from Smith, the Wings may need to sign several veterans just to have sufficient organizational depth, but if Lidstrom returns and they land at least one high-quality free agent, Detroit's defence should be fine.
After a strong rookie season, Jimmy Howard's play slipped last season, not to disastrous levels, but his save percentage dropping from .924 to .908 is the difference of more than 40 goals on the season.
Howard did play well in the playoffs, which should help him go into 2011-2012 in a more positive frame of mind, which is good because he can expect another 60-plus starts.
Chris Osgood and Joey MacDonald are free agents, which could be an opportunity for the Wings to find a better backup option. Former Wing Ty Conklin or veteran Swede Johan Hedberg might be reliable options to spell Howard.
||Grand Rapids (AHL)
||12-20-32,+7, 63 GP
||Grand Rapids (AHL)
||24-33-57,+14, 70 GP
||Brynas Gavle (SEL)
||11-16-27,-4, 49 GP
||18-32-50,even, 36 GP
||Jokerit Helsinki (SML)
||18-36-54,+23, 55 GP
||Grand Rapids (AHL)
||13-22-35,+17, 54 GP
||Notre Dame (CCHA)
||5-17-22,-6, 40 GP
||19-51-70,+13, 58 GP
||Grand Rapids (AHL)
||12-26-38,-1, 65 GP
||10-17-27,-1, 41 GP
A first-round pick in 2007, Brendan Smith is a top puck-moving defence prospect, who was hugely productive in 2009-2010 at the University of Wisconsin and made a smooth transition to the pros last season.
Smith can still improve his play without the puck, but his assets outweight his liabilities at this point.
20-year-old Slovakian winger Tomas Tatar already has two AHL seasons under his belt and he did get into nine games with the Red Wings last season too. He has the skills to eventually be a top-six forward.
A well-rounded two-way pivot, Calle Jarnkrok is playing at a high level in the Swedish Elite League, but there's no reason to rush the 19-year-old to North America, so he can spend another year or two maturing in Sweden.
Swedish centre Gustav Nyquist tallied 112 points in 75 games over the last two years at the University of Maine and joined Grand Rapids late in the season. Like most Wings prospects, he can spend some time with Grand Rapids getting acclimated to the system and then he'll be ready to contribute whenever he gets his chance in Detroit.
Smallish winger Teemu Pulkkinen was a fourth-round pick last summer and could be a steal. He scored nearly a point-per-game in Finland as an 18-year-old, so if he can get stronger and improve his game without the puck, he'll be an intriguing prospect.
After three years in the AHL, Jan Mursak is signed to a one-way deal, so he should be ticketed for a spot in Detroit. He's evolved into a reliable checker since turning pro, so he'll add speed and skill in a depth role for the Wings.
A first-round pick last summer, Riley Sheahan is a big forward who is having trouble scoring in the NCAA, managing 11 goals in 77 games through his first two years. Sheahan has size and skating ability that should allow him to be an effective checker if he offensive side of his game doesn't materialize.
A skilled forward with good size, Andrej Nestrasil has been more playmaker than finisher in the QMJHL, but he's steadily improved in three junior seasons.
Through three AHL seasons, it doesn't appear that Cory Emmerton is going to be a big scorer in the pros, but he also plays a well-rounded game that could earn him a spot in Detroit as a depth forward next season.
Injuries have hindered Landon Ferraro over his last couple of junior seasons, so he could really use a season with good health more than anything else. Additionally, he will probably need a couple of years of development, to make up for lost time and to adjust to the pro game, before he's even considered for Detroit's lineup.
Here's a look, on www.capgeek.com, at a possible roster for next season, with a bunch of additions, especially on the blueline: http://bit.ly/kPpVOp
24th - Rocco Grimaldi, Tomas Jurco, Matt Puempel.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Red Wings have approximately $41.4M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 15 players.
Needs: Depth forwards, two top four defencemen, two additional defencemen, backup goaltender.
What I said the Red Wings needed last year: Depth forwards, two defencemen.
They added: Jiri Hudler, Mike Modano, Ruslan Salei, Jakub Kindl.
TRADE MARKET Jiri Hudler, Jakub Kindl.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.
Off-Season Game Plan Archive