Since being eliminated from the playoffs little more than a week ago, the Detroit Red Wings front office has been hard at work preparing for the off season. With 9 of the 24 players who were regular members of the Red Wings roster this season entering unrestricted free agency, there is plenty of work to be done.
Over the next week or so, I will take on each component of the Wings lineup, from goaltending, to defense, to the forwards. Today, we'll look at who Ken Holland and Co. will turning to as a backup for starter Jimmy Howard.
Obviously, the starting job is Howard's for at least the next two seasons. He is signed until July 1st, 2013 at a cap hit of $2.25M, and his play suggests that he will continue to give the Red Wings very solid goaltending for the forseeable future.
What the Red Wings need, then, is a guy who can take about 20-25 starts from Howard to give him a breather, without their being a tremendous drop-off in production.
We all remember what happened when Howard and Osgood were both injured at the same time, and the Wings were forced to turn to Thomas McCollum - albeit briefly - in the backup role. Although that was a situation beyond their control, it showed that McCollum is not nearly ready for NHL duty, even as a backup.
For that reason, I am going to eliminate him from the discussion of potential backups for Howard next season. He has not even shown yet he can handle regular duty in the AHL, having been demoted to the ECHL (think AA in baseball, where the AHL is AAA) multiple times over the last two seasons.
Jordan Pearce, who nearly backstopped the Griffins into the playoffs after taking over for McCollum, is a restricted free agent, but his services will likely be retained. The Wings will likely want to stockpile as many young goaltending options as possible in the hopes of eventually grooming one for the backup role. The question is, who will seize the opportunity?
Like McCollum, Pearce isn't ready to be an NHL backup yet, but will likely be back as the starter or in a platoon situation with McCollum.
Petr Mrazek, who was taken in last year's draft, will likely spend one more season with the Ottawa 67's of the OHL as an overager, and then turn pro for the 2012 season. Mrazek blossomed into one of the top goaltenders in the OHL this season, leading the 67's to a second place finish in the Eastern Conference.
Chris Osgood, whose contract has expired, has expressed interest in returning. The question is, will the Red Wings take a chance on an aging goalie who was only able to play 11 games last year? My gut says no. He was a key piece in 2 Stanley Cup teams (1998 and 2008), while backing up Mike Vernon for another (1997), but the time might have come for him to hang up the pads. He has achieved more in his career than most goalies will ever dream of, with the aforementioned 3 Stanley Cup wins, as well as recording his 400th win this season, something only 9 other goalies have done.
Joey MacDonald, who came up from Grand Rapids in November after Chris Osgood initially went down with a groin injury, and then from January until the end of the playoffs following Osgood's hernia surgery, was the Wings primary backup this season, compiling a respectable 5-5-3 record, as well as the team lead in GAA and SV%.
Aside from his final appearance of the year, a 10-3 shellacking by the Blues where he and McCollum offered very little resistance to Blues shooters, he did everything you could ask for from a backup. If I had to wager on who would be the Wings backup next year, my money would be on Joey Mac.
The wild card in all of this is Daniel Larsson. He was taken with the 92nd overall pick in the 2006 draft after his lights-out play at the World Juniors for Sweden. He then put up very solid numbers for Djurgardens of the Elitserien the next two years before making the jump to North America.
He played 93 games in those two years, but decided he'd had enough of the AHL and returned to the Elitserien, claiming two seasons in the minors was enough for him. He has stated that his goal is still to play in the NHL, but he felt that he would have a better chance of getting there playing in Sweden.
He might have been right, after all. I am positive that even if Joey MacDonald is re-signed, Larsson will be given every chance to win the backup job this year. If he does win the job over MacDonald, then MacDonald could be sent down to Grand Rapids. If MacDonald wins the job, then Larsson would be able to return to Sweden, where he is still under contract with HV71. The two-year deal he signed with them prior to last season has an out-clause after the first year.
Larsson will be a restricted free agent at the end of that contract. My gut feeling is that the time is now for Larsson. He obviously won't ever return to playing AHL hockey. If he doesn't win the backup job in Detroit this year, he will return to Sweden and probably never come back unless it's with another NHL franchise.
If the Wings don't re-sign MacDonald, expect them to bring in another, similar veteran goalie to either backup up Howard, or in the event that Larsson takes the backup job, act as a mentor to Pearce, McCollum, or both in Grand Rapids.
The Wings will likely about the league minimum on their backup goaltending position, as per usual. Joey MacDonald made $550,000 this season, and could be back at a similar figure.
Larsson would need to be signed in order to play in the NHL (while the Wings still own his NHL rights, he doesn't currently have an NHL contract). His rookie deal, which expired following the 2010 season, was for an average salary of $625,000, so think somewhere in that range.
A guy like Ty Conklin, who has experience with the Red Wings, backing up Chris Osgood in 2009, may be available. The Blues are already set with Jaroslav Halak as the starter and Ben Bishop looks ready to be the backup. Conklin earned $1.3M this year, but a poor season in St. Louis probably lowered his asking price. Would he come back to Detroit for the $750,000 he earned here in 2009?
One player I'm interested in is Josh Harding. He was the backup to Minnesota's Niklas Backstrom the last three years, and was in line for the same role this year until tearing both his ACL and MCL before the season. In his time as the Wild backup, he put up respectable numbers, and is still young - he will turn 27 next month. If he can prove he is fully healed from the injury that cost him the entire 2010-2011 season, he could be a very attractive option. He will likely have to take a paycut from the $1.2M he made last year, but he does have the kind of long-term upside that an older guy like Ty Conklin does not.
If it were up to you, who would be backing up Howard next year? Keeping in mind the Wings will likely not spend much more than a $1M on this position, who would you go out and get? Bring back Osgood or MacDonald? Give it to Larsson? Sign another NHL veteran? Let me know in the comment section!