This is the second installment of a three part series where I will look at the three segments of the Wings roster, and what moves they might make in the off-season to shape their lineup. On Saturday, I walked you through the potential candidates to become Jimmy Howard’s understudy. Today, the defense is under the microscope.
Earlier today, shocking news came down regarding the picture of the Wings blue line. Brian Rafalski was brought in for his power play prowess to replace Mathieu Schneider, who left for Anaheim. Rafalski gave Nick Lidstrom a right-handed shot to play catch with on the point, and for the few seasons where they were regular partners together, they put up some magnificent numbers.
Whatever your opinion of his defensive abilities -and in my opinion, he was underrated and an easy scapegoat for fans looking for someone to blame for defensive deficiencies – his ability to generate offense will be missed. If you need any evidence of how important he was to the Wings, go back and look at any tape from a game he missed, and see how difficult it was for the Wings to break out of their own zone and to mount an attack. His first pass out of the zone, and his vision on the power play are two things you can’t easily replace.
There is an opportunity now, though, for a tremendous makeover for the Wings back-end. Obviously there are very few guys in the league who can put up 40-50 points the way Rafalski has been. Even fewer are available as free agents. But with him retiring, along with Salei likely doing the same, and Ericsson potentially leaving via free agency, the Wings could have a very different, and better, group next season.
The three guys that we know for sure – or about as sure as you can be I guess – will be in the opening day lineup are Nik Kronwall, Brad Stuart and Jakub Kindl.
Those are the only players signed for next season that played regularly in the NHL with the Wings last year. I fully expect Lidstrom will join that trio to make an even two pairings, but the Wings still must add at least two more, and likely three, defensemen to round it out.
The Wings could choose to promote from within their organization. Very few players in the Wings system have made the jump directly to the big club, without having to go through a couple years of seasoning in the AHL. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are two notable exceptions.
Brendan Smith could be one player who makes the jump after just one season in the minors. He was selected 27th overall in 2007 after playing his minor hockey in Ontario. He then went on to a fantastic collegiate career with the Wisconsin Badgers that saw him nominated for the Hobey Baker trophy.
Last season, his first as a professional hockey player, was by all accounts a fantastic success. His 12 goals and 32 points were both second among the team’s defensemen, despite missing 17 games to injury. With Smith on the team, the Wings would be gaining a very talented power play quarterback, and hopefully one who will continue to develop into a complete, all around player, who would eventually play top-pairing minutes.
There is not necessarily any pressure to bring Smith up yet, as he can still be sent to Grand Rapids without having to clear waivers, but his play, coupled with Rafalski’s retirement, might get him into the Wings opening day lineup.
If the Wings are looking for a Brian Rafalski body-clone, they need to look no further than Smith’s Grand Rapids teammate, Logan Pyett. Pyett had 9 goals and 22 points for the Griffins this season, and like Rafalski, is an under-sized, right-handed shot.
With his contract set to expire, Pyett will be a RFA this summer. He is also out of minor league options, meaning if the Wings retain his services, and he doesn’t make the team, he would be exposed to waivers before he could be sent to Grand Rapids. He might stick around as a 7th defenseman just so the Wings don’t have to risk losing him, although he could possibly pass through unclaimed.
Doug Janik is signed for another season at a modest cap hit of $512,500, but he played the majority of the season in the AHL for a reason. At 31 years old, Janik doesn’t have any upside of developing into an everyday NHL defenseman. He can, however fill in on a limited basis when injuries force the Wings hand, as he did the last two seasons, logging 20 games with the Wings and 126 with the Griffins.
There are a handful of options if the Wings choose to fill their needs via a free agent signing, but first, they must identify what those needs are. Obviously, losing Rafalski hurts the power play tremendously. I would think that Jakub Kindl and Jiri Hudler would get extended looks on the point of the power play, with Kronwall and Lidstrom being the two main quarterbacks. Brad Stuart could also see a lot of time there, as he was drafted by San Jose to be a power play specialist.
So, while the Wings may be looking for some offensive help from the free agent market, they could also address the need for a shutdown defenseman or two.
After looking over the free agent crop, there are a handful of players I feel like the Wings could, and should, target. They are:
Kevin Bieksa: This guy is at the tops of my list, because he fills both pressing needs. He is offensively capable, and he is just about as tough as they come. He is having a fantastic playoff run with Vancouver, which will raise his asking price, but with $6M in house money coming from the Rafalski retirement, the Wings have cash to spend. Bonus: He’s a right-handed shot.
I’d be happy with: a multi-year deal for a cap hit of somewhere less than $5M. He is the real deal; think Brad Stuart with a little more offense and a little more bite.
Ed Jovanovski: Jovo made $6.5M this season with Phoenix. He will be lucky to make half that this summer. His numbers simply don’t justify the kind of money he was making, and you know Phoenix won’t be forking over that much with their whole “will they/won’t they” moving situation. What he does provide, though, is decent offense, and a nasty competitive side. Him and Bertuzzi are good friends from their Vancouver days, though you wouldn’t know if from the way they battled in the playoffs the past two years. Jovo is also from right across the border, born in Windsor, Ontario. Would he take a pay cut to come home? My gut says yes.
I’d be happy with: a one year deal (since he is over 35) for $3M
Christian Ehrhoff: Keeping with the theme of current/former Vancouver Canucks defensemen, may I present Christian Ehrhoff. He made an average of $3.1M on his three year deal with the Canucks which expires this July 1st. By that time, he could be the proud new owner of a Stanley Cup ring. Ehrhoff is in line for a pay day, after putting up 42, 44 and 50 points the last three years. He also has 11 points so far for the Canucks in the playoffs. He is still young – he’ll turn 29 this summer – and is on the upswing of his career. With he and Kronwall as the team’s future defensively, the Wings would be in good shape in the post-Lidstrom and Rafalski era.
I’d be happy with: a four year, $20M deal.
Ian White: Ian White has bounced across the NHL for the past year and change, going from Toronto to Calgary at last year’s deadline, then to Carolina early this year, and then on to San Jose at this year’s deadline. One constant throughout his travels? Offense. White is a guy who will play on your second or third pairing capably, and will be a leader on your power play. He is not afraid to shoot the puck, and as a right-handed shot could work well with either Lidstrom or Kronwall on the blue line.
I’d be happy with: a short-term contract for less than $3M a season.
Niclas Wallin: White’s San Jose teammate, Niclas Wallin, is also available this summer. Where White is all offense, though, Wallin is your typical shot-blocking grunt. He offers little offensive upside (think: Ruslan Salei), but is tremendous on the penalty kill, and is willing to sacrifice his body for the team. I think he would be an excellent partner for either Jakub Kindl or Brendan Smith, allowing them to flex their offensive muscle while he filled the stay-at-home role.
I’d be happy with: a one year deal (again, because he is over 35 and signing multi-year deals to guys over 35 makes me leery) for $2.5M, maximum.
Steve Staois: Staois offers virtually the same package as Wallin, although the contents may be slightly more well-worn. Staois has been slowed a bit by injuries the last two seasons, but like Wallin is a warrior who will put his body in front of anything headed towards his team’s net. Staois will have to take a pay cut from the $2.7M he made this year to stay in the league, I think, but I’d take him on my bottom pair in a heartbeat. He is a righty, although the upside there is negligible because he won’t be playing on the PP.
I’d be happy with: a one year, $2M deal.
Sean O’Donnell: See: Staois, Steve & Wallin, Niclas. He offers a teensy bit more offense, but he’d be playing the same stay-at-home, don’t pinch, clean up the back end role as the two aforementioned players.
I’d be happy with: one year, $1.3 Same as he made this year.
Marc-Andre Bergeron: One of the many additions Steve Yzerman made to the Tampa Bay Lightning this season, Bergeron is a player who, like White, will play on your power play primarily, and on one of the bottom pairings 5-on-5. He’s good for a guaranteed 30-40 points from the blue line, and won’t command a huge dollar amount. I think our money would be better spent on a more defensively reliable defender, but it’s hard to pass up his offense at his asking price.
I’d be happy with: a short term contract, with an average cap hit of less than $2M.
There are a handful of elite defensemen who are set to become RFA’s this summer. Without getting into the messy technical side of restricted free agency, basically the team who the player last played for has the right to match any offers the player receives. So it is difficult to pry away talented RFA’s, because their team will almost certainly match any offer for them, provided they have the cap space. With that said, here are a couple of the players sure to generate considerable interest and discussion this summer.
Shea Weber – A nominee for the Norris trophy this year, and likely for year’s to come. His brash game comes with a slap shot that has the ability to go through a net and out the other side. Second hardest slap shot in the NHL.
Drew Doughty – The young, mobile defender was a Norris nominee last year, and like Weber will be challenging for the trophy for a long, long time. Also like Weber, his team will never, ever let him leave. But a guy can dream…
Zack Bogosian: Drafted third overall a few years back, he has not quite lived up to the potential yet. The good thing is that he is still very young (he was born in the 90’s for crying out loud), and looks ready to blossom. Atlanta also already has 6 other defensemen signed for next year, so he could be expendable. New ownership, should the sale to True North go through, may take the draft picks they’d get back in compensation and use them towards building the team with their own blocks.
Karl Alzner: The 22 year old played parts of two seasons with the Washington Capitals in 2009 and 2010 before making the team full-time this past year. He has a ton of offensive upside, but it only amounted to 12 points this year. Still, he has the tools to be a very good offensive playmaker.
Keith Yandle: Yandle was one of the big surprises of the NHL this season, coming virtually out of nowhere to finish 3rd in defense scoring with 59 points. At 24, expect at least one team to throw an offer sheet his way, likely for upwards of $4M.
Josh Gorges: Gorges was really a star in the making for Montreal before blowing out his knee this year, robbing him of a promising season. I’d be ecstatic if the Wings scooped him up.
Is there anyone out there you’d like to see the Wings go after who I didn’t include on my list? Or is there anyone on the list you’d be willing to give up an arm and a leg to see in red and white? That’s what the comments are for! Let me hear it, Wings fans!