There’s a lot of hand-wringing in the Detroit media and national media over the Red Wings’ 4-1 exit in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals to the Boston Bruins. Moreso locally than nationally, though. Everyone’s got suggestions – lots of suggestions – with some even suggested that the future of the Streak is in doubt.
Let’s be clear. The future is more secure than it has been in maybe a decade. Did people think this team looked brighter three years ago, when none of the current Youth Corps were up? Sure, the farm team can always look promising, but you still don’t know until they play at the NHL level; besides which, the Wings’ farm always looks promising due to their system of giving kids more time in the minors than most teams do. But really, this team was a lot older and a lot slower three years ago.
Losing stings. The Red Wings lost a tough series to an even tougher opponent. Boston is the Team To Beat this year; the team smarting from their own tough loss in the Cup Final a year ago. They’re built specifically to overcome last year’s roster deficits and to win that Cup this year. I believe they will. There’s no shame to losing to a better team, though, and that’s something it’d be good to see Detroit fans realize this year. Maybe we’re used to being the better team, I don’t know. It’s a shame to lose on bad officiating, or bad bounces, or mental mistakes – but not when the other team simply happens to be better, to be nearer to championship form. Boston is. We aren’t. So it goes.
A large part of this year’s loss was inexperience. The Wings are suddenly a young team, and not in small areas, but in a lot of areas all at once. We got used to watching the Kid Line – Gus Nyquist, Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar – score every game in March. They’re speedy, shifty, and crafty kids. They have the most fun when they’re skating fast without much resistance. They get frustrated easily. Sure enough, they skated right into a wall when they met Boston. Boston knew coming in – shut down the kids, and the Wings’ engine might putter out. The kids will learn how to deal with a bigger, more physical team. It’s just a question of time.
Prior to last year, the Red Wings were a team scrambling for answers a lot of the time. Since the salary cap era started, they’ve hugged the cap most years, largely unable to make big moves. To be fair, big moves isn’t their style anyway, but even when it came to re-signing guys, it was problematic. A quick look at the Red Wings’ capgeek page is really quite stunning. There’s a lot of bad contracts coming off the books this season, and don’t forget – the cap goes up a few million this offseason, too. Let’s take a look.
Let’s list a few guys that I’m pretty sure won’t be back. The Red Wings have a serious glut of forwards, with yet a couple more remarkable youngsters still in the minors, and as a result, several veterans lost their jobs as the season went on.
David Legwand – $4.5M
Mikael Samulesson – $3M
Danny Cleary – $1.75M
These three? They’re not coming back. There’s just no room. Criticize the Wings all you want for giving up a promising prospect for Legwand, but with so many good young forwards now with the NHL club and more still in the minors, one prospect was an expendable price to acquire a veteran center to secure a playoff spot in an injury-riddled season. But he doesn’t fit the system and seemed to lose Babcock’s confidence at times. Samuelsson and Cleary, despite being injured, but lost their jobs to younger players, even if no one specifically said that.
Daniel Alfredsson – $3.5M
Todd Bertuzzi – $2.075M
I expect one of these two to be back. I’ve read that Alfie will want to play in Detroit if he plays next year; that said, I’ve also already read that the Wings might scratch him more often to give the veteran more days off to stay healthy next year. Bertuzzi, also, is worth bringing back if there’s room, in a diminished role. He looked excellent in Game 4 with the younger players, providing some size and veteran gamesmanship for them. He has a role on this team if he’s amenable to being a semi-frequent scratch.
Riley Sheahan – RFA
Tomas Tatar – RFA
Gustav Nyquist – RFA (after 2015)
Joakim Andersson – RFA (after 2015)
Tomas Jurco – RFA (after 2015)
Tatar and Sheahan are restricted free agents after this season, with Nyquist, Andersson, and Jurco the same after 2015. I’d expect all four to get rewarded with long-term contracts now. Sheahan, Tatar, Nyquist, and Jurco are building blocks for the future. In fact, I look at Nyquist and Sheahan in a similar light as I did Datsyuk and Zetterberg in the early ’00s – these guys are the future. Andersson is of lesser repute, but he’s a good grinder, and can be a solid contributor as a 3rd/4th-line wing or center. I can imagine a reliable 4th line of Miller-Glendening-Andersson for years to come; that’s a line with size, grit, and the ability to score every night.
On defense, a similar situation plays out.
Kyle Quincey – $3.775M
Danny DeKeyser – RFA
Brendan Smith – RFA (after 2015)
After these three, the defense is locked up long-term. I hate to make comparisons to legends, as I do above, but DeKeyser looks like a young Nick Lidstrom in lots of ways. The Wings have to recognize that he’s our second-best defenseman and needs to be locked up. DeKeyser’s conservative back-end play makes him the perfect companion for a pinch-happy partner like Smith or Jonathon Ericsson. Smith, similarly, looks like a good investment in the future. He’s developed very well since his call-up last year and benefits from playing with Kronwall or DeKeyser. He’s probably our third-best defenseman after those two, having displaced Ericsson in the top-3. Either way, a top four of Kronwall/DeKeyser/Smith/Ericsson isn’t bad at all. I don’t imagine Quincey will come back; if the Wings want to splurge on another defenseman, they can do better. The ideal situation is that Jakub Kindl continues to develop, as he’s locked up for several years at a $2.4M cap hit that makes him seem an unlikely trade asset. However, it’s no secret that the Wings are thin on defense – especially if Quincey is not re-signed, their only depth is in youth. If the Wings do make any free agent splashes, expect it on the back end.
As for the goalies…
Jonas Gustavsson – $1.5M
The Monster was good this year. Make no mistake. But he’s expensive for a back-up netminder, and the honest truth is that Petr Mrazek deserves to be a full-time NHL backup. I don’t see Gustavsson back unless he takes a discount, and quite frankly, it seems more fair to let Mrazek play his game at the next level rather than consign him to another year of AHL action (which he dominated this season).
So do some math. If we assume that Gustavsson, Quincey, Cleary, Samuelsson, Legwand, Alfredsson, and Bertuzzi are all gone after this season… that means the Wings shed $20.1M in cap space. Now, with all those guys gone, let’s see where the holes are in the lineup, line by line. I’ll be including the RFAs.
Zetterberg-Datsyuk-Abdelkader / D: Kronwall-Ericsson
Nyquist-Sheahan-Tatar / D: DeKeyser-Smith
Franzen-Weiss-Jurco / D: Lashoff-Kindl
Miller-Helm-Glendening / G: Howard-Mrazek
Uh. That’s a complete lineup. Let’s get that for a second. That’s a COMPLETE line-up, and not a bad-looking one, and the Wings will have $20M to throw around before the cap even goes up. Yes, there is a need for depth. Yes, an Alfredsson re-signing looks attractive. Yes, Weiss is a huge question mark. But let’s face it. The future is not bleak. The Wings will have the highest amount of cap space they’ve had since the cap era started, and they’ll have it in a year where they don’t have gaping holes to fill. The fact is, lots of the money will go toward re-signing the restricted free agents, and locking up the young players long-term to be our fixed building blocks. But even then, the assumption has to be that there will still be a princely sum left over.
I’ve got no worries, and for the first time since watching Lidstrom and Rafalski retire… I truly look forward to the future of the Red Wings. It was a tough season this year. Injuries and the fight to continue the Streak. But honestly? This was the rebuilding year. The young players will gain experience, and will improve. But that Streak? It’s good. It’s good for years to come. The record is 29 years, held by the dynastic Bruins of old. I look at the above, and I think about what the Wings went through this year… and I honestly have no doubt we’ll break that record.