Winning the Stanley Cup puts the Detroit Red Wings in the enviable position of playing with house money this summer.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what the Wings might try to accomplish as they re-load in an effort to defend their championship next season.
Detroit's consistently strong regular seasons -- eight straight seasons with more than 100 points -- have been undermined by some earlier than expected playoff departures, but a trip to the Conference Final in 2007 and a Stanley Cup win in 2008 puts the Wings at the top of the hockey world with a team that promises to stay competitive for the forseeable future.
"I think we're getting better; we'll be better next year," head coach Mike Babcock told MLive.com. "That doesn't mean we'll win more games or be in this situation (next season), but we got great kids coming up and our core guys are (mostly) young and are going to be better."
What makes the Wings' roster so amazing is that it is comprised of so many mid-to-late-round draft steals, something imperative for a team that has been drafting late in the first round every year if they are to stay at the top.
For example, the Wings have one returning forward that was drafted in the first round of the NHL draft and that was Dan Cleary, whose career was in a tailspin before it was salvaged by the Wings after the lockout.
On the blueline, it's a similar story, as Niklas Kronwall is the only returnee taken in the first round yet somehow the Wings still have the most dominant puck-control team in the league.
That being the case, the Wings deserve all the praise they get, particularly when it comes to the talent evaluators. General manager Ken Holland, assistant general manager Jim Nill, director of amateur scouting Joe McDonnell and Hakan Andersson, Detroit's Director of European Scouting, are the best in the business right now and this is their brief time to reap the rewards before getting back to work on the draft and free agency.
"We got a real nice mix of youth and veterans, a lot of young players who are close," Holland told CanWest News, appraising his team's future. "Most of our team is signed up; we have lots of cap space. We certainly have the option if we want to be aggressive."
Yes, it's good to be the Wings.
Ken Holland/Mike Babcock
Top Prospects: Ville Leino, Jan Mursak, Justin Abdelkader
Quite possibly the top all-around player in the NHL, Henrik Zetterberg's work in the defensive zone sets him apart from the rest of the league's snipers and his Conn Smythe-winning playoff performance helped spread the word of his excellence.
Pavel Datsyuk has been better than a point-per-game scorer for three straight seasons, with his plus-minus increasing in each of those seasons, culminating in a Selke Trophy in 2007-2008. The tandem of Zetterberg and Datsyuk is right there with the league's best when comparing franchise forwards.
After more than two seasons of work as a grinder, power forward Johan Franzen emerged as a big-time goal-scorer late in the season and into the playoffs. If his scoring touch is legit, it's almost unfair for the Wings to have discovered another elite player.
Mikael Samuelsson's goal output has declined for the last couple seasons, but he's still a quality complementary winger who plays well defensively and can contribute offensively.
Crease crasher Tomas Holmstrom suffered through a number of injuries, with his 59 games representing his lowest total since 1997-1998, but he's very effective around the opposing goal.
Tiny playmaker Jiri Hudler is making gradual progress as he battles to establish himself as an NHLer. Despite playing a little over 13 minutes per game, Hudler still produced 42 points in his second NHL season; a solid offensive contribution in a limited role.
Dan Cleary has saved his career in Detroit and, despite being limited to 63 games when he suffered a knee injury and a broken jaw, Cleary still put up a career-high 42 points.
A Red Wing since 1993-1994, Kris Draper was a solid contributor on the Cup run, but his regular season showed some slippage. 17 points was his lowest total since 1999-2000 and his minus-2 rating was his first minus rating since 1996-1997. The 37 year-old may be due for a reduced role soon.
Tomas Kopecky played a minimal checker's role in his first full NHL season, generating promise for the future, but his off-season will be spent rehabilitating a torn ACL, suffered late in the regular season. As such, expectations for next season will be based on his health.
The next generation of Red Wings checkers will get a boost from Darren Helm, the rookie who was an effective part of the Wings' run to the Cup. Helm's not going to be a big scorer, but his speed will make him a fine penalty killer and defensive role player.
Veteran checker Kirk Maltby's game has dropped off in recent years, scoring 32 points and recording a minus-26 rating in the last three seasons combined.
Valtteri Filppula's second NHL season was a step in the right direction, bumping his point total from 17 to 36 and adding 11 more points in the playoffs. On his career ascent, Filppula should only improve in the coming seasons.
As the Cup champions, it's not surprising that the Wings are already well-stocked up front, but they could add further talent to the group.
The signing of Finnish sniper Ville Leino gives the Wings another potential scorer, while the Wings also have the cap room to make a significant free agent addition if, say, Mats Sundin could be lured to join his fellow Swedish stars.
Top Prospects: Brendan Smith, Jakub Kindl
The consistent excellence that Nicklas Lidstrom provides gives the Wings a real advantage over the rest of the league. Now 38, Lidstrom just won his sixth Norris Trophy, coming off a season in which he put up 70 points and a plus-40 rating.
Michigan native Brian Rafalski returned home as a free agent last summer and may have come up with the best season of his career, scoring a career-high 13 goals and tying his previous season's career-best of 55 points. The 34-year-old is vulnerable down low against bigger forwards, but his style of play suits Detroit's puck-possession style so well.
Rising star Niklas Kronwall has never played more than 68 games, so injuries are still a question with him, but everything else about his game is on the upswing. His point and plus-minus numbers improved dramatically in his third season and he used the playoffs as a showcase for his hard-hitting style.
Smooth-skating Brett Lebda is kept in a limited role because of the experienced blueliners ahead of him on the depth chart, but the 26-year-old may be ready for a bigger role.
The rest of the returnees (and restricted free agents) are an inexperienced lot.
Derek Meech is a little undersized and can move the puck well enough, but he plays so little in Detroit that he hasn't had much chance to be more than a bit player.
Jonathan Cricsson is a tall and rangy defender who has put up a couple of good seasons in the American Hockey League and fared well in his short stint with the Wings as an injury replacement. He should be under consideration for a depth spot next season.
Kyle Quincey has played 13 games with Detroit over the last three seasons, but has developed his game in the AHL, showing the willingness to mix it up that, coupled with his pro experience, might help him earn a spot.
With veterans Andreas Lilja, Brad Stuart and Chris Chelios slated to hit free agency, the Red Wings need to consider going into the free agent market to replace at least some of them, depending on who re-signs.
Given the current state of the Detroit blueline, one top four defenceman should headline the shopping list, with a physical presence like Jason Smith or Mike Commodore making some sense at the right price, though Stuart may be the best fit for the unit overall because he has some puck skills to go with his physical presence.
Top Prospect: Daniel Larsson
35-year-old Chris Osgood emerged to replace a fading Dominik Hasek in the postseason and, coming off possibly his best regular season, the Wings took flight with Ozzie in goal. He'll provide veteran leadership and be a reliable, if not spectacular, presence in goal.
Prospect Jimmy Howard has been biding his time in the American Hockey League for three seasons and, with Dominik Hasek retiring, Howard may finally get his chance to stick in the NHL.
If the franchise isn't so keen on Howard, they could always take a run at a free agent goaltender like Nashville's Dan Ellis, who showed the Wings his stuff firsthand in Round One of the playoffs.
30th - Anton Gustafsson, David Toews, Daultan Leveille
The Red Wings have approximately $41-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: One top nine forward, Two defencemen
What I said the Red Wings needed last year: Two top six forwards, One top four defenceman
Who did they add? Dallas Drake, Brian Rafalski
Jiri Hudler, Brett Lebda, prospects
Scott Cullen can be reached at email@example.com