It's July 1 and the NHL free agent market has just opened. Everyone knows that the Detroit Red Wings need a defenseman, and three of the top players at the position have already signed deals to prevent them from hitting the open market.
Red Wings general manager Ken Holland makes some internal moves, locking up forwards Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller to multi-year deals. He also re-signs defenseman Jonathan Ericsson to a deal that pays him more than $3 million a season, a move many consider an overpayment.
But still, the Red Wings boss hasn't made a splash into the free agent pool. Then we get the news: Detroit has finally signed a defenseman ... Mike Commodore?
It's certainly not the move people expected. Commodore spent most of his time last year in the American Hockey League and has a not-so-pleasant history with Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. But at just $1 million for one season, the move itself is actually not a bad bargain. It's a potentially low-risk, high-reward deal for the Red Wings if Commodore can supply the 20-30 points he's capable of while playing with that gritty edge he's known for.
Red Wings fans are still left a bit puzzled that Holland didn't make a play for a bigger name. But with a razor-thin market, Holland actually played things just right. Brad Richards, formerly of the Dallas Stars, was the big name in this year's free agent pool, and there wasn't much after that. Though Detroit had the cap room to get him, the Red Wings were never serious bidders.
Holland eventually did sign a bigger name, snagging defenseman Ian White from San Jose for two years. White, now on his fourth team in two years, took less money than he made last year to find some stability, a staple of the Holland era.
Though White and Commodore appear a bit underwhelming, there wasn't much to go on this year. Most of the defensemen Detroit coveted, such as James Wisniewski, Christian Ehrhoff and Kevin Bieksa, were all signed to new deals before the Red Wings could even make a phone call to them. Wisniewski, a Canton native, earned a big pay day from Columbus and took the opportunity to take a shot at the Wings in the process:
"For me, knowing Detroit's history they don't really pay the market value for a defenseman or any player,'' Wisniewski said on NHL Live. "So I didn't think that was going to be a fit for myself.
Translation: "Detroit wasn't going to pay me a ridiculous amount of money like Columbus did." Wisniewski's new contract will pay him roughly $5.5 million per season over six years; that's nearly $2 million more than Brad Stuart, $2.5 million more than Niklas Kronwall and just $700,000 less than Nicklas Lidstrom. That's just simply too much for a likely fourth defenseman. After hearing those comments, he can have all the fun he wants in Columbus.
The same goes for Ehrhoff, who earned a $40 million deal from Buffalo for the next ten seasons. While it's a relatively low cap hit of $4 million, Detroit may have been hesitant to give him 10 years (had they been in the running; Ehrhoff signed before free agency opened) as they have already committed similar long-term deals to Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen.
Holland was right to play this market relatively safe. The big signing happened well before free agency began, and that was the deal that kept Lidstrom in Detroit for next year. Presumably this will be his last season (although if he puts up Norris Trophy numbers again that could change), meaning his $6.2 million cap hit will come off Detroit's books. That will leave plenty of room to re-sign Kronwall and Stuart, both of whom will be free agents after this season.
Next year's free agent class isn't much better than 2011. There won't be any wannabe Lidstrom's available, so re-signing Stuart and Kronwall might be the next best moves. The big free agent rush will be 2013: Sidney Crosby, Jarome Iginla, league MVP Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf will all headline that class.
Did Holland improve the team? It's hard to say at this point. If Brian Rafalski had returned there's no guarantee that his battered knees hold up over an 82-plus game season. Ian White and Mike Commodore are not Rafalski by any means, but the defense looks a lot better than it did a few weeks ago. With Kris Draper also presumably not coming back, the forward unit got a little bit younger, something fans have been advocating for years. Todd Bertuzzi and Tomas Holmstrom are also two relics in contract years, so a youth movement might be on the way in Hockeytown.
Holland's last test will be who he decides is suited best to back up Jimmy Howard next year. It's basically a two-man race between long-time Wing Chris Osgood, who the club has injury concerns with, and former Wing Ty Conklin. The general thinking is that Conklin is the better deal with Osgood's persisting groin issues, but if Holland decides to bring back the Wizard of Oz it won't ruin all the work he's already done. Detroit missed out on Tomas Vokoun because they couldn't give him the starter's job; Conklin or Osgood both will know their role regardless of who Holland signs.
Though the team may not be leaps and bounds better, it's still a solid playoff team. San Jose didn't do anything special in the offseason, especially after they gave away Dany Heatley for Martin Havlat. They got Brent Burns from Minnesota, but gave up Wing killer Devin Setoguchi to get him.
Same goes for the Chicago Blackhawks, unless you count Dan Carcillo as special (he's special, but not that kind of special). Though they did add Andrew Brunette for depth, they are still a shell of their 2010 Cup-winning team.
Nashville still must spend another $7 million on the shoddy crop of players left just to hit the new cap floor of $48 million, though they could use nearly all of that if they wanted on restricted free agent Shea Weber (he's worth it, by the way). Maybe they can give Brett Lebda that big extension we all know he's deserving of (end sarcasm). Columbus got Wisniewski and traded for Jeff Carter, but it will take a lot more than that to make it out of a Central Division that will also include a retooled St. Louis squad.
I've seen a lot of Internet critics lately that have scrutinized Holland from behind their keyboards, claiming that he's lost his touch. But with such a razor-thin market of free agents, there wasn't much for Holland to work with this offseason. People have fantasies about Weber wearing a Winged Wheel, but Holland isn't a magician that can just swing a deal for that kind of player at his will; not to mention he's also a restricted free agent.
I'm not about to throw Holland, who's won Detroit three Stanley Cups and kept the record 20-year playoff streak intact, under the bus because of a couple early playoff exits. You can't win titles every season; it's impossible. The New York Yankees throw money at players every season and they don't even win their division half the time. Considering the down market this year, Holland and the Red Wings came out about as good as you could hope for.