The big retirement watch this summer was solely focused on sure-fire Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom, who is coming off one of his best seasons in recent memory. At 41, he's also considering calling it quits, but many in the organization are hopeful that he'll return.
Rafalski? He wasn't even on the radar.
Nick Kypreos of Sportsnet broke the news to the Twitterverse, suggesting that his knee and back issues the past few seasons have finally caught up with him. If you remember back in March, Rafalski took a particularly hard hit from Columbus' Antoine Vermette into the boards and injured his knee. He played the next game but those types of things add up.
Rafalski has one year left on his contract at $6 million, making him the Wings' second-highest paid defenseman behind Lidstrom ($6.2 million). Since Rafalski, 37, signed the deal before he turned 35, his cap hit would come off the books for the final two years to allow the Red Wings to throw some money at a high-end replacement.
Even still, the news is quite shocking.
If Lidstrom decides to stay, Rafalski's departure is softened a bit because it leaves Detroit with three quality defensemen along with Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall. But, if Lidstrom decides to leave as well, Detroit loses its top defensive pair of the last four seasons. It will likely force second-year player Jakub Kindl into full-time duty and possibly a call up of prospect Brendan Smith. It may also lead to a bigger contract demand from Jonathan Ericsson, whose role instantly increases.
The Red Wings are at least quasi-prepared for Lidstrom's departure this season, but they expected to still have Rafalski for next year.
Not only does Detroit lose two of their better defenders if Lidstrom also goes, but the power play takes a massive hit as well. Between the top four defensemen, only Rafalski is a right-handed shot, which made him extremely valuable playing opposite Lidstrom on the first unit. In fact, he was the only right-handed shot in the entire defensive corps; that includes Kindl and Smith.
Rafalski's decision may also affect what Lidstrom decides to do. Last year one of the reasons Lidstrom gave for coming back was he felt the team had a strong chance to win the Stanley Cup. While Detroit is still a very good team even without Rafalski, Lidstrom may feel that significantly damages the team's capability of winning it all (it does).
Lidstrom will go down as one of the game's all-time greats and when he does retire it will leave a massive hole in the defense. While Rafalski is not the player Lidstrom is, it hurts just as much, if not more, because the Wings weren't expecting it.
If Rafalski has indeed played his last game, there are some options out there defensively for the Wings to "convince" Lidstrom to stay. The great thing about being the Red Wings is, well, they're the Red Wings. Players take less money to play in Detroit; just ask Brad Stuart, Steve Yzerman, Lidstrom, Marian Hossa, etc.
Notably, Vancouver's Kevin Bieksa and Tampa Bay's Eric Brewer are both unrestricted free agents this summer. Bieksa made $3.75 million last season and Brewer made $4.25 million, so with Rafalski's cap hit coming off the books it would allow the Red Wings to give one (or both if Lidstrom goes as well) a pretty significant offer to come to Detroit. However, with Vancouver up 3-1 on the Sharks and headed for the Stanley Cup final, the Red Wings might be hard pressed to lure Bieksa if the Canucks come home with Lord Stanley.
Another option could be to take a run at a restricted free agent, such as Nashville behemoth Shea Weber or Los Angeles' Drew Doughty. Weber has a monstrous 100-plus mile per hour shot and is a solid defender; he's also incredibly young at age 25. Nashville could match any offer that Detroit throws, but Nashville's pockets are nowhere near as deep as Mike Ilitch's. It might be more of how much Detroit thinks he's worth than how much Nashville can spend.
Once again, nobody on the free agent market is going to come in and replace Rafalski and Lidstrom flawlessly. Lidstrom is perhaps the greatest defenseman that ever lived and Rafalski is one of the best U.S.-born players ever. You don't just throw money and fix something like that. The core of this team is still strong with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, but the Red Wings are in line for a significant hit in front of Jimmy Howard if this goes down.
Rafalski is one of the last true warriors of the game. This is a guy that had to fight his way into the National Hockey League, going undrafted and playing in Europe for four years before finally breaking through with the New Jersey Devils in 1999. He's battled just as hard for the Red Wings, if not harder with the injuries, as everyone else on the team over the last five years. If he's truly done, the only thing we can do is tip our hat and say thank you.