After the second disappointing playoff elimination by the San Jose Sharks in as many seasons, the Detroit Red Wings entered the off-season needing to make changes. Thanks to the departure or retirement of several veterans, GM Ken Holland had plenty of room in which to maneuver.
Defenseman Brian Rafalski retired due to health concerns. Defenseman Ruslan Salei didn’t figure in the team’s plans and signed with a Russian club. Center Mike Modano will certainly retire officially after a disappointing season marred by a long term injury. Long time Red Wing Kris Draper, the best bargain ever when acquired for $1, should be retiring as well. Fringe defenseman Derek Meech signed with his home town team in Winnipeg. Veteran goaltender Chris Osgood remains in limbo, but could still return if he can prove his fitness won’t be an issue.
With plenty of cap space Ken Holland has filled the holes in defense first. He signed giant Mike Commodore (6’5″) to a one year deal and former San Jose Sharks defenseman Ian White to a two year contract. Both are right-handed shots, something the Red Wings desperately lacked last year. As additional insurance, minor leaguer Garnet Exelby signed to play at Grand Rapids, but could fill in if there is a major crisis. Jonathan Ericsson signed a three year contract after a season full of inconsistency.
Defense and goaltending win championships, but that might not have been the Red Wings’ biggest weakness last year. For a team with Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Johan Franzen, the Red Wings simply didn’t score enough when it mattered. Nobody had more than four goals in the eleven games the Wings played during the post-season and the powerplay was only 8 for 43, going a dismal 2 for 21 on the road.
The signs of weakness stood out during the regular season. No Red Wing reached 30 goals. Franzen had 28, but 5 were in one game and he went largely goalless after December. That put way too much pressure on Datsyuk, who missed 24 games through injury, and Zetterberg. Danny Cleary did contribute 26 goals, but other than these four players, nobody reached 20. That’s simply not enough.
Jiri Hudler (37 points, -7) and Valtteri Filppula (39 points, -1) had disappointing seasons. Hudler came with a lot of expectations when he returned from a season in the Russian KHL, but failed to deliver during the season and disappeared during the playoffs. Coach Mike Babcock resorted to making him a healthy scratch on several occasions, but his output never increased. Filppula is simply a third line center. If he would only shoot more with greater accuracy, he could be brilliant.
Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader are great energy players. They should anchor the checking line for the next decade, but the Red Wings should not expect a lot of offensive punch from them. If Helm could finish more of the chances his incredible speed creates, he could be a 25 goal scorer. They will be joined by a low budget player like Mike Eaves or Drew Miller, depending on what Holland can scrounge up in free agency.
What should the Wings do? To fill the last two holes on the team, a backup goaltender and somebody on the wing who can add 30+ goals, he might have to make a big trade. Ericsson could be marketable with his contract locked up for three years and his relative youth at twenty-seven. Hudler, Filpula, and prospects like Jan Mursak or Corey Emmerton could be part of any deal. There is plenty of depth to cover Ericsson if he goes. Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith are ready for NHL minutes now. Kindl is the seventh defenseman at the moment, while Smith is the top guy for Grand Rapids. Even Doug Janik has NHL experience and filled in during 2010-2011.
The Red Wings cannot continue to rely on aging Tomas Holmstrom and Todd Bertuzzi to be top wing players. Holmstrom has taken a beating for years in front of the opposition goal and offers little speed or defensive cover. Bertuzzi has a good set of hands, but he’s just not a top notch power forward in the league anymore. With the addition of a top six forward, the pressure would be off these two veterans and they would probably find a little more room in which to play.
The Red Wings are good enough now to make the playoffs, but the rest of the division and the Western Conference has made improvements in the chase to unseat Vancouver as the number one seed going into the playoffs. To be more competitive over the short and long term, the time for Holland to make a big move is rapidly approaching. He has proven to be a very shrewd GM over the years, so it may just be a matter of time and working through contract numbers for him to pull the trigger.