It is being reported by Rogers SportsNet, and subsequently everyone else, that defenseman Brian Rafalski will announce his retirement from the Detroit Red Wings at a press conference on Wednesday. Rafalski has one year left on his contract, and is scheduled to earn $6 million to play next year.
Perhaps tomorrow we will know if Rafalski’s knee injuries have anything to do with walking away from $6 million and a division winning team near his hometown, or if Rafalski felt the team was sliding. Rafalski is a native of Dearborn, Michigan, and is 37 years old.
In my opinion, this cannot be good news for the Red Wings as far as next season goes. The thought was that the Wings had a very good team that showed improvement from last season, and that showed a renewed love of the pursuit during that three-game run against the Sharks. If Nick Lidstrom was to decide to return for one final go at it, I think the Red Wings would have been on the shortlist to win the Cup next year.
But with Rafalski’s retirement, short-term expectations must be adjusted. One would have to think that Rafalski’s retirement could only nudge Lidstrom in the direction of doing the same, if it has any impact at all. If Detroit loses both Lidstrom and Rafalski, it will suddenly have over $12 million to replace them, but no free agents to use to fill those spots.
Here is a link to a list of defensemen that are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on July 1 of this summer, courtesy CapGeek.com.
The only players on that list that intrigue me at all are Eric Brewer and James Wisniewski, but I doubt either will leave the team they currently play for. I have not researched the cap situations in either Tampa Bay or Montreal, but suffice it to say both players made a positive impact after being acquired in midseason. And it should go without saying that if the Detroit Red Wings spend so much as $500,000 on guys like Andrei Markov or Tomas Kaberle, I’ll have to reevaluate my unadulterated admiration for general manager Ken Holland. But I doubt there’s any chance the Wings would do something that stupid, especially since those guys can’t be had for less than $3 or $4 million a year (you know, because that correlates to the wins they bring their teams…).
As far as a youth movement goes, Detroit will probably now bring back Jonathan Ericsson and possibly Ruslan Salei, while trying to get Jakob Kindl to become an everyday player, and also seeing what they have in the franchise’s top prospect, Brendan Smith. If Smith is NHL-ready, that would alleviate some of the defensive pain that Detroit will endure in 2011-12. It’s more likely that the youngster still needs time, which at this point the Red Wings might be alright with accepting. Again, expectations must be adjusted. Both Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall are entering the final year of their contracts, assuming neither ups and retires.
The situation up front, however, is in far less flux. Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen are signed for as long as they will be effective, and Pavel Datsyuk is under contract until 2013-14 — meaning he has three more seasons at least. Additionally, only Hudler, Bertuzzi and Holmstrom are due to become UFA’s after next season, so Detroit’s forward situation appears to be pretty solid for the next few years. Obviously, the Red Wings should not go into full rebuilding mode, because 1) there is no need to do so, 2) they have some money to spend and a solid core of players coming back, and 3) a full rebuild would involve trading Datsyuk and/or Zetterberg, which should be nothing other than a last resort.
What the Wings need now is to retool on the back end, with an eye toward being in position to win the Stanley Cup in either 2012-13, 2013-14, or both. The reason I think these years will yield the real opportunity is because by then Smith, Kindl and Ericsson might be good enough to get through four playoff series and just support goalie Jimmy Howard and the star forwards enough to prevail. I don’t feel that any of those three players will be good enough next year for the Wings to win the Cup. One quick fix would of course be to splash $12 million on two defensemen this summer, but I feel that would be the wrong move because looking at the list of available players, almost nobody is worth a Rafalski, and certainly not a Lidstrom. If no available replacements are as good as the guys we’re losing, then why should we pay the exact same money to these downgrades? We shouldn’t, and that’s why I’d rather play a season considerably under the cap or sign a bunch of one-year contracts than go back to the well with aging defensemen who either don’t play defense or can’t skate. To blow this money on long-term (more than 1 year) deals on defensemen who cannot help us win the Stanley Cup would show a terrible lack of foresight and would tie up the funds that could otherwise go toward a much richer defensive free agent class in the summer of 2012 — one that includes Ryan Suter, Willie Mitchell, Milan Jurcina and other D men who actually play defense and help hockey teams win games. One or more of these players could be added to a squad that may have some solid youths, if Smith, Kindl and/or Ericsson can pan out. On top of that, the money would be there to resign Kronwall and/or Stuart, since it wouldn’t be tied up with Bryan McCabe or some other overpriced signing this summer that carries a very poor wins-to-dollars ratio.
In short, Brian Rafalski’s retirement is a game changer for the Red Wings, and as a fan I sincerely hope that they swallow their pride and plan for the near future, and not the immediate future. The big three up front will still be in the prime of their careers three seasons from now, albeit the end of their primes, and that’s why Detroit needs to think this one through and give itself the best chance of winning the 2013 or 2014 Stanley Cup, because after that, everything truly changes.