It goes without saying, but this is one of the most important offseasons in quite some time for the Detroit Red Wings. After a first-round exit from the NHL playoffs and their third straight year of not even making it to the conference finals (oh, what high standards we have), there is a need to make some changes. The last few offseasons have been relatively uneventful, mainly because there wasn't a huge need to shake things up. Now, with another early exit and Nicklas Lidstrom retiring, the Red Wings need to be put together a strong offseason in order to once again contend for a Stanley Cup championship.
While the action won't heat up until the NHL Draft rolls around later this month, the Red Wings are starting to put together their plans for the offseason right now. One of the big questions -- the future of Lidstrom -- has already been answered, but there are several other questions the Red Wings face this offseason. Here are five of the biggest ones:
1. How do the Red Wings replace Nicklas Lidstrom?
Well, you can't. It's not possible to replace a guy like Lidstrom, who was the greatest defenseman of his generation and one of the greatest defensemen in the history of hockey. Oh, and he was the Red Wings' captain. Guys like Lidstrom don't come around very often.
No matter what the Red Wings do, they won't be able to fill the void created by Lidstrom's retirement, but there are plenty of options to lessen the impact of the loss of No. 5. This is where Ryan Suter, who is expected to be the Red Wings' top target when free agency opens, comes in. Assuming he doesn't get a new deal done with the Nashville Predators prior to July 1, Suter will hit the open market and command a lot of interest. Much of that interest was going to be from the Red Wings even if Lidstrom returned, but with him retiring, there's even more incentive for them to put the full-court press on Suter.
Why Suter? He is going to be the top defenseman available on the open market. Many have said Suter is the most similar defenseman in the NHL to Lidstrom, and he would be a big addition to the Red Wings, and not just because he helped the Predators eliminate Detroit in the playoffs. Suter is guy you could sign to a long-term deal and build your defense around for years to come. Again, it's not like he would replace Lidstrom, but adding Suter would certainly help the Red Wings deal with losing Lidstrom.
It's not a given that Suter will end up in Detroit, of course. If he signs elsewhere, what other options would exist for the Red Wings? One of the other notable defensemen expected to hit the open market and draw a lot of interest is former Wisconsin Badger Justin Schultz, who has never even played in the NHL. He is seen as an NHL-ready defenseman, though, and with his negotiations with the Anaheim Ducks, the team that drafted him, not moving anywhere, the expectation is for him to become an unrestricted free agent. The safe bet seems to be for Schultz to end up in Toronto or Edmonton, but the Red Wings are certainly an attractive option, and he would provide good depth in 2012-13 and a lot of upside down the road.
If both Suter and Schultz land elsewhere, the Red Wings will likely shift their focus to re-signing Kyle Quincey (he will be a restricted free agent) and taking a look at undrafted free agents like Dennis Wideman and Matt Carle, among others. The Red Wings probably would like to re-sign Brad Stuart as well, but he is expected to sign with a team closer to his family in California.
2. Just how big of a splash will the Red Wings make in free agency?
The first question goes along with this question. It's clear the Red Wings need to be aggressive in free agency and make some moves that actually register as a splash. For example, signing Suter would certainly be a big splash for the Red Wings, as they would have a new cornerstone defenseman and would take a talented player from a division rival in the process. He's not the only big name that Red Wings fans have had their eyes on for a while now, though.
The other big name expected to be a free agent on July 1 is Zach Parise, who is currently playing in the Stanley Cup Final for the New Jersey Devils. Although the Devils' run to the Stanley Cup Final might make it seem like Parise is more likely to re-sign with New Jersey, just like Suter, he will draw a lot of interest on the open market. The Red Wings should have the cap room for both Suter and Parise, and there has been talk that the two might want to sign with the same team. If both landed in Detroit, that would be the very definition of making a big splash given how talented they are.
The flip side of this is the scenario where Suter and Parise both end up somewhere else. If the Red Wings don't sign at least one of them, fans will be disappointed, and it will be tough to really make a big splash given who else will be out there. Although somebody like Alexander Semin would be an intriguing target, it's really going to come down to what the Red Wings are able to do with their top targets, Suter and Parise.
3. If Tomas Holmstrom wants to return, will the Red Wings re-sign him?
This question is now a lot easier to answer with Lidstrom hanging up his skates. When it was still unclear if Lidstrom was going to retire or come back, there was a belief that the Red Wings would re-sign Holmstrom if Lidstrom did decide to return given that they are very close. Even then, that was just speculation, and with many younger guys set to challenge for playing time and Holmstrom getting up there in age, it was no guarantee that they would offer him a deal to re-sign.
Now, with Lidstrom retiring, the most likely scenario is that Holmstrom joins him in retirement. Again, it's not a given one way or the other, as Holmstrom isn't expected to make a decision for another couple weeks. Even so, it's tough to see Holmstrom fitting into the Red Wings' plans going forward. He has said he won't play for another team, so much like Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby, this could be a situation where the Red Wings signal that they want to go in a different direction and Holmstrom simply retires.
4. How many of the Red Wings' other free agents will be re-signed?
Aside from Holmstrom, the other notable unrestricted free agents this offseason are Stuart and Jiri Hudler. Stuart's situation has already been covered, but just to reiterate, chances are he will opt to sign with a team out west to be closer to his family. If no teams closer to home show interest, I'm sure the Red Wings would welcome Stuart back, but at this point it's unlikely he will be in their future plans.
Hudler also doesn't seem like he is in the Red Wings' future plans, but for different reasons. After returning from Russia in 2010, Hudler had a rough season back in Detroit in 2010-11. This past season, he was much better, recording 25 goals and 25 assists. As a result, it's very likely he will receive a pretty good offer on the open market, but probably not from the Red Wings. Last offseason was a perfect example of teams overpaying for players because of who was available, and Hudler seems to fit the bill for someone who a team might overpay for this year. Don't expect the Red Wings to do the overpaying, though. Chances are they will let him walk rather than match the offers likely to come his way.
On the restricted free agent front, the Red Wings have Quincey, Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader. Helm and Abdelkader seem like locks to be re-signed. The big question mark surrounds whether or not the Red Wings will re-sign Quincey, who was acquired in a mid-season trade for a first-round pick. On the one hand, Quincey wasn't exactly overly impressive in his brief time with the Red Wings this past season, but on the other hand, would the Red Wings give up a first-rounder to acquire him only to let him walk? That seems unlikely, especially with Lidstrom retiring and Stuart likely on his way out as well. Quincey may not be a top-line defenseman, but bringing him back would be a good move for depth purposes.
5. Will the Red Wings shake things up with a trade?
Following the 2000-01 season, which included a first-round exit at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings, the Red Wings had a big offseason. In addition to signing Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull, the Red Wings also traded for Dominik Hasek in a move that came as quite a surprise. It was a deal that powered an outstanding offseason and ultimately helped the Red Wings win another Stanley Cup the following season.
This year, could there be a trade that comes out of nowhere and has a big impact on the make-up of the roster? There will be plenty of conversations about potential trades throughout the offseason, and perhaps this year the Red Wings will pull the trigger on another headline-grabbing move. While the focus right now is on signing guys like Suter and Parise, a trade might not be a bad backup plan. And even if the Red Wings do manage to sign one or both of them, the right trade might come along to further bolster the roster. Ken Holland hasn't done anything too wild the past few offseasons, but perhaps this is the year when he shakes things up.
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