May 23, 2011, 7:29 PM EDT
When the Detroit Red Wings season came to an end in Game 7 against San Jose, many began wondering about whether or not they may have seen the last of Nicklas Lidstrom in a Red Wings sweater. As it turns out, there was another Red Wings defenseman who had retirement on the mind. 37 year-old Brian Rafalski is reportedly set to call it a career after 11 NHL seasons with the Red Wings and New Jersey Devils.
Rafalski will finish his career as a three-time Stanley Cup champion, two with New Jersey and one with Detroit, with 515 points working as an offensive threat from the blue line in both New Jersey and Detroit. Rafalski also ends his career with two Olympic silver medals with Team USA in 2002 and 2010 and ending up as one of the top American-born defensemen of all time. Rafalski dealt with a back injury through this season and has spent the better part of his career playing without an ACL in one of his knees. That kind of wear and tear takes a toll after time and for Rafalski it’s likely forcing him to hang it up.
By retiring, Rafalski will leave the game and the Red Wings with one year left on his contract worth $6 million and some serious questions for Red Wings GM Ken Holland to answer as to how to prepare Detroit for the future along the blue line. Many of Detroit’s immediate questions will be answered if Lidstrom commits to one more year, but their future is of more concern. With an added $6 million to spend, however, the possibilities are nearly endless for rebuild.
Detroit has three unrestricted free agents on defense this offseason in Lidstrom, Ruslan Salei, and Jonathan Ericsson. Ericsson is the youngest of the bunch but could be in line for a raise. If Lidstrom comes back, he’d likely command a similar salary as he had this past season at $6.2 million. It’s possible he could take less money to help give Holland more freedom to spend and load up for the future, but let’s not get carried away there.
Detroit will likely start refilling their defensive unit from within as top prospect Brendan Smith is poised to join the big club next year after a dominant season in the AHL this past season. Detroit may consider that Niklas Kronwall is set to be their next Rafalski-like defenseman as he found his offensive touch late in the season and the playoffs. With the added physical edge he brings to the game, Kronwall’s future in Detroit seems virtually set.
From there, taking a look at the unrestricted and restricted free agent markets provides a lot of fodder for thought. Amongst the unrestricted possibilities are Vancouver’s Kevin Bieksa, Montreal’s James Wisniewski, Carolina’s Joni Pitkanen if you’re looking at guys under age 30. If you want someone a bit older, guys like Bryan McCabe, Ed Jovanovski, and Tomas Kaberle could be had.
The three younger guys provide a bit more intrigue and with how Bieksa has played this postseason, he’s going to demand a lot of attention elsewhere. Wisniewski emerged as a major contributor for both the Islanders and Canadiens this season with his offensive touch and physical game. He was successful in Anaheim and knows the Western Conference well. Pitkanen could provide skill and more of the Nordic flavor the Red Wings seem to gravitate toward.
If Holland wants to get really adventurous and delve into the offer sheet season with restricted players, there are more than a few highly intriguing young names out there. Nashville’s Shea Weber, L.A.’s Drew Doughty, Toronto’s Luke Schenn, Atlanta’s Zach Bogosian, Phoenix’s Keith Yandle, Washington’s Karl Alzner, St. Louis’ Roman Polak, Buffalo’s Andrej Sekera, and Montreal’s Josh Gorges are all out there.
Nicklas Lidstrom is a huge fan of Shea Weber’s, even asking that he be paired up with Weber at the All-Star Game in Raleigh, but the chances of him leaving Nashville to play for a division rival seem virtually nil. Doughty and Los Angeles will likely come to a deal atsome point as the Kings have plenty of money to spend. Same goes for Schenn in Toronto and Alzner in Washington.
Detroit was rumored to be trying to acquire Bogosian from Atlanta at the trade deadline but the Thrashers weren’t about to let go of yet another young cornerstone piece before they’ve had a chance to fully develop. Keith Yandle is a fascinating choice because it would give Holland and Wings owner Mike Ilitch the chance to take advantage of the NHL owning the Coyotes and thus having tighter purse strings. Yandle emerged as one of the best point producing defensemen in the NHL this season and at 24 years-old could be just starting to get better. If the Wings wanted to get more defensive, Gorges would be a nice fit although he’s coming off an injury-hampered season.
The catch to pursuing any restricted free agent is that you have to sign them to an offer sheet which the team owning their rights can then either match or allow them to sign and receive compensation for the signing. The kind of deals it would take to get any of those guys would likely see the Wings giving up multiple first round draft picks. On the upside for Detroit, they generally pick in the 20’s of the first round thanks to their regular season and playoff success. It’d be a gamble but if they had a shot at any of that talent there, it could be a very worthy sacrifice to get a young defenseman locked up for years to come.
One way or the other, Detroit’s offseason just a got a lot more interesting and rival general managers who have potential free agents this summer have a real reason to be concerned. The Wings are officially on the prowl to reload.
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