The Malik Report
by George Malik on 05/24/11 at 06:24 AM ET
At this point, the determination as to whether Red Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski is in fact retiring, as reported on Monday, comes down to a roll call:Sportsnet (Nick Kypreos broke the story), TSN, ESPN’s Scott Burnside, the Sporting News’s Craig Custance, USA Today’s Kevin Allen, and, this morning, MLive’s Ansar Khan Macomb Daily’s Chuck Pleiness all saying that Rafalski will retire, citing “a source” or “sources,” with a press conference expected on Wednesday at Joe Louis Arena.
The Detroit News’s Ted Kulfan and the Free Press’s Helene St. James are sticking by Red Wings GM Ken Holland’s statement that Rafalski himself had not told Holland that he was going to retire…
Holland spoke with Rafalski last week during season-ending meetings and Rafalski told Holland he “had decisions to make.”
“I don’t really have much comment after that,” Holland said. “I haven’t talked to him since then. I know there are a lot of rumors out there, but he hasn’t told me he’s retiring. I expect to hear from him this week.”
Ditto for St. James, who noted that Holland was willing to at least suggest that the team understood that Rafalski and Nicklas Lidstrom might not return:
“I’m waiting to hear from Rafi,” Holland said. “I expect to hear from Nick before the draft (next month). They have to make their decisions. But every off-season is the same. Some off-seasons, there are more decisions than others. No matter what decision Rafi makes, we’ve got all summer to put our team together. If he comes back, we still have to do some things to put our team together. If he doesn’t, we’ll have bigger decisions.”
And Fox Sports Detroit’s Dana Wakiji hedged her bets by confirming the team’s line...
The Red Wings told FOXSportDetroit.com they have not heard from Rafalski regarding any retirement announcement yet.
While noting that Rafalski may have let the press in on his decision-making process during the Red Wings’ locker room clean-out:
When the Wings cleaned out their lockers on May 14, Rafalski said he wouldn’t be shocked if captain Nick Lidstrom, who’s 41, retired. But he did not give any indication that he was considering it.
“Everyone makes their own choices, their own decisions,” Rafalski said. “I respect whatever choice he makes. It’s something that I think is an internal family decision. That’s the way it should be.”
The Windsor Star’s Bob Duff, via Twitter, also weighed both sides of the story:
#redwings management quietly suggested Brendan Smith would likely make club next season, so maybe they knew Rafalski was leaving.
Noticed during locker clean out day that Rafalski was only guy to pack up everything from his stall and empty it. Thought this was odd.
A Rafalski retirement would certainly heat up the Bogosian to #redwings rumours.
Ken Holland on Rafalski: “I haven’t talked to him in more than a week. I’m not confirming that he’s retiring.’’ #redwings
Rafalski leaves quite the legacy, and if he’s retiring, he’s leaving $6 million on the table. Kypreos suggested that he missed games with an ACL issue, but if he’s talking about Rafalski’s right knee, it’s ACL blew up when he was 17, leaving Rafalski battling MCL issues and persistent back problems that limited him to 63 games and 48 points (that point-per-game total equals Lidstrom’s 62 if Rafalski played in all 82 games).
Rafalski was a trailblazer for the “smaller” defensemen who used to be too small to play in the NHL, and he took an unusual route to the NHL, as the Wisconsin State Journal notes of the former University of Wisconsin Badger:
Rafalski played in five NHL Finals, winning the Stanley Cup twice with New Jersey (2000 and 2003) and again with Detroit in 2008.
Rafalski teamed with another former UW athlete, Ryan Suter, as a formidable defensive pair that keyed Team USA’s thrilling run to a silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The Dearborn, Mich., native—who played junior hockey with the Madison Capitols—competed in three Olympics, also winning silver in 2002 in Salt Lake City.
Rafalski was named the WCHA Defenseman of the Year at Wisconsin as a senior in 1994-95, when he tallied 45 points in 43 games, but he was considered undersized at 5-foot-10 and there were concerns about his defensive capabilities.
He honed his game for four seasons in European leagues, and in 1999 The Sporting News dubbed him the best player in the world not in the NHL.
The Devils signed him as a free agent that fall, and as a rookie at 26 he won his first Stanley Cup and was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team after finishing at plus-21 and with 32 points.
After a seven-season stint with New Jersey, Rafalski signed a five-year, $30 million free-agent deal with Detroit in July 2007. He was part of the Red Wings’ championship team in his first year with the franchise and helped Detroit to within a victory of another Cup in 2009.
Rafalski may be the smartest hockey player this side of Lidstrom, too—he may end up coaching after hockey, but he could very well run for political office, and I don’t think anyone would be surprised—and there simply is no way to replace his veteran savvy.
That is perhaps the most important thing to note. No matter what the Red Wings do (we’ll get to that in a minute) to help fill the void, you can’t replace Rafalski’s adaptability or calmness with anyone that’s out there. He could play the power play, penalty-kill, shut down big opposing forwards or pump out points galore regardless of whether he was playing alongside Nicklas Lidstrom, Derek Meech or anybody in between.
He was, however, admittedly succumbing to a bit of a disease last season.
That disease? Take-a-hit-to-make-a-playism.
I saw it when Slava Fetisov was at the end of his career. It happened when Chris Chelios’s knees finally gave out on him. And despite the fact that Nicklas Lidstrom has never been particularly fast at getting up the ice, I’ve never seen him become particularly vulnerable to its occurrence.
Put simply, when you start seeing offensive defensemen take a hit every time they pass the puck, almost invariably, because they can’t turn out of the way of their opponent, and their opponents know it and begin to exploit that weakness by hitting them every single time that offensive defenseman turns to retrieve the puck from behind his net, well…The end is nigh.
Guys just get so banged-up over time that you see them starting to succumb to chronic injuries and either choose to walk away because they’re banged-up and tired or their effectiveness is reduced and their offense, leadership, veteran presence, etc. etc. can’t make up for their defensive gaffes. It becomes a risk-reward game, and eventually a team will choose to stick with younger and/or more mobile legs.
Rafalski remained incredibly offensively effective and pretty damn solid on a team where half the players, as Mike Babcock suggested, ended up as minus players, finishing at a +11, but he also got the snot beaten out of him by opposing forecheckers who knew that when you got Rafalski to turn, he wouldn’t be able to duck out of the hit or slink away like young players do, via speed, or savvy, like Lidstrom’s done since the big, sometimes plodding youngster started to man the Wings’ blueline 20 years ago. In the playoffs, the Coyotes’ and Sharks’ forecheckers obviously took their toll.
Rafalski looked a bit slow at times and that’s hard for a player who used a short stick and an almost soccer tackle style of closing in on opposing players and jabbing the puck from off their stick or out of their feet when they and Rafalski collided. He ended up taking hits to make plays and ended up starting to wear down and wear out. And then he let the cat out of the bag via reflecting on Nick’s situation.
If Rafalski retires—and it seems bloody likely at this point as the general rule in blogging life is to wait for three sources to confirm, and the score’s 7-2-and-2 (7 for, 2 officially against, and 2 wisely uncertain)—well, it leaves the Wings with several “Ifs.”
1. If the Red Wings choose to retain the services of Jonathan Ericsson, Patrick Eaves, Drew Miller, Chris Osgood (presumably at a reduced salary), possibly Kris Draper (ditto), Nicklas Lidstrom (no cut necessary) and don’t trade away Jiri Hudler, they’ve got a certain amount of cap space to play with, depending on whether they:
1a. Trade Jiri Hudler;
1b. Can keep Ericsson at an affordable rate;
1c. Get a boost from the NHL and NHLPA in terms of the salary cap rising from $59.4 million to somewhere between $60.5-63.5 million, depending on the league’s eventual revenue numbers (which are released in mid-June) and whether the NHLPA chooses to exercise its 5% inflator and/or gets a bigger cut of revenues if they exceed $3 billion (and the NHL is very very close to that number, according to deputy commissioner Bill Daly).
2. So, realistically, it’s not safe for Ken Holland to play with anything more than Rafalski’s $6 million, which remains on the table as he signed his contract extension prior to age 35. As many, many reporters reiterated on Monday evening, Ken Holland has never issued an offer sheet during his tenure as the Wings’ GM, making a play for a restricted free agent like Shea Weber, Keith Yandle or Drew Doughty particularly slim…
In no small part because of Holland’s record (he matched Carolina’s offer sheet for Sergei Fedorov), because of the cost in terms of draft picks (1st, 2nd and 3rd, and a second 1st if he goes over $6 million, and Holland simply does not give up those kinds of picks, period), and because we don’t know whether any of those players will reach restricted free agency to begin with.
3. Also, realistically speaking, if Holland chooses to spend that $6 million, his choices include, most realistically:
3a. James Wisniewski, 27, who posted 51 points but also finished a -14, and shoots right and is a local boy, but has bounced around like a ping pong ball of late, and earned $3.25 million (all figures from Capgeek.com) with the Montreal Canadiens, who may not want to let him leave;
3d. Kevin Bieksa, 29, who posted 22 points and finished at a +32, but is more of a Brad Stuart type (with fangs), and had a cap hit of $3.75 million with the Vancouver Canucks, who really, really, really don’t want him to leave;
3e. And a cast of alternate characters which include Tomas Kaberle, 33, his $4.25 million salary, status as a playoff bust with Boston and unwillingness to shoot, ever; Bryan McCabe, 35, and his $5.75 million cap hit and tendency to get hurt and tendency to bounce around; Ed Jovanovski, 34, who made $6 million in real world dollars and seems to have slowed considerably; Roman Hamrlik, 37, who doesn’t post the points he used to and made $5.5 million; and a wild card in Andrei Markov, 32, who was an elite offensive defenseman before two consecutive ACL reconstructions in two years derailed him and his $5.75 million salary into a player who’s incredibly high-risk and possibly equally high in the reward department, but just scary to drop major cap dollars upon when you’re losing Brian Rafalski.
4. So we don’t know who’s going to be restricted and reach the market, we don’t know who’s going to be unrestricted and reach the market, we don’t know what the cap’s going to be, and oh yeah…
4a. It’s a lockout year, so it’s dangerous to make a long-term, big-dollar commitment to someone like Wisniewski or Ehrhoff if you’ve got a lockout and a salary rollback and/or a Lidstrom retirement coming;
4b. Because 2012 is a way better and way more populated free agent market than this one, which may mean that other teams will overpay to the extreme to out-bid each other for a very limited supply-and-demand scenario’s worth of players;
4c. And we don’t know whether the Wings want to spend $5-6 million on a top-flight defenseman or whether they’re planning on using some of that money to accommodate Jonathan Ericsson’s re-signing (which seems likely), or whether they want to spend $3-4 million on a second-tier guy, older guy or someone who comes with warning stickers (like Kaberle or Markov) so they can take the other $2 million and use that on a forward, especially if the team really does plan on bringing Brendan Smith onto the club as a #7 defenseman.
Which leaves us at…
5. The reality of the situation. Brian Rafalski’s unique combination of skill and smarts cannot possibly be “replaced” pound for pound, no pun intended, and at best, the Wings will find themselves either making trade-offs or making a lateral move. At worst, they end up having spent all their money on an under-performing player they’re married to for an extended period of time at a unwieldy salary, handcuffing the team’s ability to replace Lidstrom if he comes back…
6. And Lidstrom’s status, despite his, his teammates, coaches and GM’s suggestions to the positive included, remains biggest “if” of all. If Lidstrom retires, too, then yes, everything is on the table, offer sheets and trades (young offensively-minded defensemen are even more expensive to acquire via trade than they are to overpay) included.
Is all of this Rafalski-like in its over-thoroughness and cautiousness? Yes. I figured he merits that much attention to detail. He’s a special player and person and while he’s not exactly Lidstrom, he’s close, and that’s pretty special for a short kid from Allen Park who went to Finland to play pro hockey and will probably wind up with three Stanley Cup rings to his credit and an enormous number of small but skilled defensemen and prospects, from Ryan Ellis to the Wings’ latest undersized defenseman signing in Adam Almqvist, all owing Rafalski a thank-you note for blazing a trail for them.
Now what? Where does that leave us?
With an exciting July 1st ahead of us for the first time in three summers, praying like mad to the Hockey Gods that Nicklas Lidstrom will return, bickering about whether the Wings should keep Jonathan Ericsson and which defenseman and/or defensemen and/or forwards and/or assistant coach the team should target depending on Lidstrom, Ericsson, Drew Miller, Patrick Eaves, Kris Draper, Chris Osgood and maybe Jiri Hudler’s respective futures as Red Wings.
We don’t know which of those Wings will be re-signed, nor do we know who the Wings will be able to shop for on July 1st, nor do we really know what the salary cap’s going to be. Brad McCrimmon and Brian Rafalski’s recent decisions to make a change and leave the team, respectively—and even saying that is hedging my bets this morning—have turned what was supposed to be the usual summer’s worth of “minor tweaks” into a wholesale renovation of the Big Red Machine’s bench and blueline.
As Mike Babcock would say, in the negative sense of the term, that’s “Un-Red Wing-like.” Which, for most of you, means a little off-season excitement.*
All of that also leaves us glad that we’re not Ken Holland. We can encourage him, hope that he does the right thing and maybe have a little faith, even if it’s in expecting him to make a bang after having to shop in the bargain bin and not being surprised if he goes the, “I’ll put some money toward a player who’ll come to town on a hometown and/or Red Wings discount, some money on a forward and will make sure to not tie myself to a player or his contract for an undue period of time and undue salary to be safe” route, which he usually does….
And thankful for the fact that Raffy brought the Wings a Cup, a Cup final appearance, a Conference Finals appearance and the kind of leadership and example-setting, both on and off the ice, that will make Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart, maybe Ericsson, Jakub Kindl, Brendan Smith and other Wings defensemen to come better because he was here to keep the standard set sky-high.
Also of Red Wings-related note: Dominik Hasek tells Dennik Sport that he’s taking a year off from hockey at 46, but will try to make a comeback for the 2012-2013 season.
No surprise there, and I’ve found that when you look at 30+ foreign-language newspapers in the summer, you’re bound to find something Wings-related most days;
• I really like Jake Duhaime’s pick as the seventh-best Wings game of the 2010-2011 season:
• And the Madison Capital-Times’ Andy Baggot says that the University of Wisconsin shouldn’t induct Chris Chelios into its Athletics Hall of Fame because he’s not as deserving as several other outstanding candidates.
*For the nervous persons like me, it means a summer’s worth of worrying about every time I take a nap or decide to have an “off-day” (I have friends. They haven’t seen me in months) or drive the mom to an appointment and am out of reach of my laptop for three hours and big news breaks. Which is your version of exciting and my version of, “I swear, I don’t get an off-season till August.” Especially if it’s just May and I’m transcribing the interviews given by Rafalski, who speaks as fast as he thinks—at a mile a minute.
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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.