The Malik Report
by George Malik on 05/26/11 at 07:41 AM ET
Brian Rafalski chose to leave the Red Wings and the NHL behind with his back and faith intact on Wednesday, retiring in a press conference which revealed more about Rafalski’s character than we may have ever known during his career. His departure leaves the Wings crossing their fingers and toes regarding Nicklas Lidstrom’s return and at least certain that Ken Holland won’t fire off an offer sheet in an attempt to acquire Rafalski’s de-facto replacement via poaching a restricted free agent…
But there’s no denying that Rafalski can’t be replaced in terms of his experience, adaptability to any situation, consistent offensive production regardless of his partner or especially in terms of his intelligence, and while I know that some of Rafalski’s comments were divisive, the man was just sharing his beliefs while keeping himself composed—and as Fox Sports Detroit’s Art Regner suggests, that was the strangest part of his retirement:
Brian Rafalski was an athlete who labeled himself. He was unique from the standpoint that once the game was over, he left. If you could catch him before he bolted for the parking lot, he was more than willing to answer every question. It wasn’t a dislike or phobia towards the media, Rafalski was just his own man.
Perhaps it’s his Metro Detroit upbringing that made him develop the blue-collar attitude of, “This is my job. I did it to the best of my ability, and now I’m off. See you tomorrow.”
During his Wednesday press conference at Joe Louis Arena, where he announced his retirement from the game, Rafalski was extremely upbeat. There weren’t any tears or even a slight pause to collect his emotions. It was the happiest retirement press conference I’ve ever attended.
And maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We spend a majority of our lives working our tails off until the day we can call it quits. Retirement is our pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. A point in our lives where we spend our days doing whatever we want to do. Rafalski embraced his retirement. Unlike some athletes who appear lost, confused and unprepared when they step up to the podium to say farewell.
The Red Wings lost an elite-level defenseman on Wednesday. A player whose perseverance made him compete and succeed at the highest level. A player who chose privacy over the spotlight. A player who left it all on the ice.
My favorite athlete is the unsung hero. The lunch-pail guy who accomplishes much with little or no fanfare. Brian Rafalski was an unsung hero because he wanted to be, not because he wasn’t noticed.
I think that if Rafalski had told us he was taking off to become a roadie for AC/DC and do some serious partying and we would have been stunned. He was starkly blunt and admitted to everyone within earshot that he retired before his body betrayed him for good, as the Free Press’s Helene St. James noted…
“This was probably the most challenging season of my career, both physically, mentally and spiritually, but it was the also the most rewarding and most blessed,” Rafalski said. “The decision was made between myself and my wife approximately two months ago. We went through a long process of weighing different factors in our lives. At the end of the day it came down to priorities, with the top three priorities being serving God, serving my family and serving others.”
Rafalski, 37, walked away from $6 million, which the Wings will use to plug the hole left by one of the game’s best passers. After going undrafted by NHL teams and starting his career in Europe, Rafalski, from Dearborn, went on to win three Stanley Cups and two Olympic silver medals.
“I’m not sure we win the Cup in ‘08 without Brian Rafalski,” general manager Ken Holland said. “He’s been great for us. We were hoping to have him for at least another year, but he made a difficult decision for the right reasons.”
The right reasons included his family, his faith and, though he wasn’t willing to admit it outright, a right knee that has no ACL had worn down to the point that his knee was in a constant state of swelling, and his back…His back was a mess:
“There wasn’t a day this year that I wasn’t on the training table, and that gets tiring,” Rafalski said Wednesday. “I wasn’t able to skate the way I would have liked to. It really made me adjust how I played the game this year.”
Before his presser, I said that he had Slava Fetisov syndrome—that inability to turn out of the way of a hit that marks the end being neigh for offensively-minded defensemen, an affliction that hit Fetisov and Chris Chelios, among many others, on the Wings’ blueline over the past fifteen or so years, and Mike Babcock suggested as much:
“We played more in our zone this year when Rafi was on the ice than we ever did because he couldn’t get there to get it going like he normally did,” Babcock said. “Before, you couldn’t touch him. You’d kind of bump him but he had the low center of gravity, heavy on the bottom, he’d just spin in the corner and he’d be gone. When you’re used to playing like that and standing at their blue line, and suddenly when you’re playing D-zone coverage all the time, you’re probably not thrilled about it. He was an elite, elite player. When we were fortunate enough to sign him, it gave us new life, immediately.”
As the AP’s Larry Lage noted, via the IIHF’s website, Rafalski blazed a trail for small-but-skilled defensemen everywhere by managing to make the NHL by first heading over to Europe and playing in the Swedish and Finnish elite leagues for four seasons, and then latching on with the New Jersey Devils in 1999:
“He’s an incredible story, a five-foot-nine defenceman that was never drafted and spent four years in Europe,” Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “It was a great move by the New Jersey Devils to sign Brian Rafalski. In 11 years, he played five times in the Stanley Cup finals, was a three-time Stanley Cup champion and the best defenceman at the Olympics in 2010.”
Injuries and other issues, including family life, prompted the 37-year-old native of Dearborn, Michigan, to make the decision.
“The decision was made about two months ago, with my wife, weighing different factors in our lives,” Rafalski said at a Wednesday press conference. “With hockey not being at the top, it was time to move on. [My] son being a freshman in high school next year was a big factor.”
Rafalski helped Detroit to the 2008 Stanley Cup title after winning the championship with the Devils in 2000 and 2003.
“I was able to play for two world class organizations,” Rafalski added. “The staffs at both places were excellent.”
Over 833 career games with the Devils and Red Wings, Rafalski compiled 79 goals and 436 assists. He notched four goals and 44 assists for 48 points in a career-low 63 games this past season.
“There wasn’t a day this year I wasn’t on a training table,” Rafalski stated when asked about injuries. “It played a factor. It made me adjust how I played the game this year, but I’m still standing here and that’s a good thing.”
That last comment struck me in a personal manner. Before my dad passed away, his back pain was so terrible that he was worried he’d be using a wheelchair in five years, and while his fused lumbar column was a little different than Rafalski’s persistent and degenerative issues, when people start worrying about being able to walk, it’s time to go.
And as the Detroit News’s John Niyo notes, astonishingly, just about everyone around him knew that he was going to retire, and knew it by early April:
“They kept it very quiet,” he said, “which I appreciate.”
Rafalski, one of the more underappreciated U.S. stars of his Miracle on Ice-inspired generation, also thanked his coaches “throughout all the years.” Not just for their guidance, but also for “putting up with my I-know-what-I’m-doing attitude,” he said, adding a little levity to what was otherwise a very Rafalski-like farewell Wednesday. It was quick, efficient and remarkably impassive, considering the significance. But maybe that was to be expected, even if this announcement — news of a decision he’d made back in March first broke Monday night — came as a surprise to most.
It didn’t surprise me because of the comments he made about Lidstrom, saying that a player has to decide with his family whether one wishes to continue playing, and that made me think, “Hmm, he’s not talking about Nick…”
But it was the medical bottom line that really had me thinking:
Coming off back surgery last summer, he needed arthroscopic surgery to clean out his right knee in October. That’d be the same knee that’d been missing an ACL since high school, of course, and the “degenerative changes in it really affected what he was able to do” both on and off the ice, Wings trainer Piet Van Zant said. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Rafalski, who also battled back spasms late in the season, wasn’t on the ice much for practice between games, trying to limit the wear and tear.
Mike Babcock, the Red Wings’ coach, said his initial reaction when he heard Rafalski was mulling retirement earlier this spring was “momentary shock.” But when Holland sat down with Rafalski for what turned out to be his final season-ending exit interview a few days after the crushing Game 7 playoff loss in San Jose, there was no debate.
“After listening to him for 10 minutes, I knew I was wasting my time to try to sell him (on coming back),” Holland said. “I knew this was a decision there was no turning back from.”
So Rafalski’s Wings teammates scrambled back from vacations in some instances to come back to Detroit and bid their teammate farewell, as MLive’s Ansar Khan noted…
• Goaltender Jimmy Howard: “I was shocked. I was down in Miami on vacation when I heard Brian was retiring. … He was so effective moving the puck. He was always strong on the power play. He’s going to be sorely missed. He’s a great personality and a great guy in the room. He brought a lot of character to this team. … He’s such a great role model for young guys that are developing into defensemen. He’s just so good at making that first pass out of the zone. As a goalie, you’re going to miss that.”
Coach Mike Babcock: “His skill set of moving the puck and skating is what he hung his hat on. When the injuries take away your skating it makes it harder for you. … He was a wealth of knowledge. I asked him questions all the time. He was a real good teammate and an outstanding guy to coach.”
Forward Henrik Zetterberg: “When you play with someone that long they become a family member. I wanted to be here when he made this announcement and pay him that respect.”
Forward Kris Draper: “We just lost one heck of a hockey player. That’s the selfish part in us, we wanted to have Brian Rafalski back for one more year because he’s a good player and has been a major part of our success.”
Former teammate Chris Chelios: “He’s a quality guy and a quality teammate. If I could have talked him out of it I would but he kept it a secret pretty well.”
And Holland and Draper probably put things best by pointing out that Rafalski could have battled his way through one more season and taken $6 million for his trouble:
“He could have come to training camp and went through the motions for eight months and gotten $6 million,” Holland said. “You’re talking about a person who’s making the decisions for all the right reasons—his family, for the team, for himself. He knows he can’t come to the rink every day and play at the level of determination and passion he had 3-4 years ago.”
“He could have easily come back, went to training camp, collect a paycheck and not have his heart in the sport,” Kris Draper said. “It takes a true leader and a great individual to say that he’s walking out on his terms. When your heart’s not in the game and you’re driving down to the rink as much as we do it’s hard to play and compete. For him to say that’s not where I’m at right now, you have to admire that.”
• As an undersized defenseman from Dearborn who was undrafted out of Wisconsin and spent four seasons overseas before finally getting his NHL break in 1999 with New Jersey, where he was part of two Stanley Cup teams.
• How the Red Wings signed him to replace Mathieu Schneider and got an upgrade.
• His big-time playoff goals, like the first score in the Wings’ 2008 Cup clincher against the Penguins.
• How he was an offensive force for the U.S. in the 2010 Olympics, including a preliminary-round win over Canada. And, unfortunately, how he was on the ice when Sidney Crosby scored the gold medal-winner in overtime for Canada.
• As a quiet guy who never was in the spotlight for anything but his play.
• For his tape-to-tape long-range passes and working the power play with Nicklas Lidstrom.
And the Free Press’s Michael Rosenberg argues that, to some extent, Rafalski’s priorities in order either put the Wings in a bind or give them a head start on a renovation of their blueline that was coming sooner or later:
Holland said, “We’re going to have to sign somebody,” but the Wings might not be able to sign a top-four defenseman they love out of this summer’s free-agent crop. Holland talked about giving young Jakub Kindl more ice time, and the Wings are high on prospect Brendan Smith.
But Holland also said this: “We obviously, over the next two to three years, have to figure out a way to rebuild our back end. Part of it is going to be through our young kids, part of it is going to be through free agency, and we’re also going to explore the trade option.”
The Rafalski news conference felt like a Wings game in at least one way: Nick Lidstrom managed to dominate the proceedings without seeming like he tried. Heck, he wasn’t even there. But if Lidstrom really does retire next month, the Wings will be in a really tough spot. Lidstrom is still an elite defenseman. He has said repeatedly that he feels younger than his age (41). He has not really hinted at retirement, and the mere possibility of it helps his negotiating leverage. So it seems likely that he will come back. But until he says so for sure, Holland and coach Mike Babcock have to be nervous.
Holland has done his job brilliantly over the years. Now he’ll need to use the same qualities that have served him so well—smarts, scouting and discipline—since the NHL instituted the salary cap six years ago.
“The cap world is about, for the player and for the club, finding people at a certain number that work for us, and they have to find a number that works for them,” Holland said. “So no, we’re not just going to throw a bunch of money at people on July 1, and then on the first of December, wake up trying to figure out: ‘How do we get rid of those people?’ That doesn’t sound like a great plan to me.”
Holland said he will wait until August, if necessary, to sign a lower-tier free agent. At some point, he will also have to sign defenseman Niklas Kronwall to a contract extension. Kronwall’s contract is up after next year, and the Wings can’t afford to lose Kronwall, Lidstrom and Rafalski in a 12-month period. So yes, Holland has a lot of work to do. But nobody in sports does that job better. Logic says the Wings will miss Rafalski’s production and professionalism. Holland’s history says they won’t.
Holland didn’t say that about his defense, however, as the Detroit News’s Ted Kulfan noted:
“Obviously, July 1 is a day we’re looking toward a little more than we were prior to today,” Holland said Wednesday after Rafalski’s news conference to announce his retirement. “We’ve got more cap money, but obviously a big hole on defense. We’d love to have Brian Rafalski. There’s not a lot of Brian Rafalskis out there.”
Holland indicated the Wings could patch up their holes on defense either through trades or free agents. Trades are usually completed at the NHL entry draft; this year that’s June 24-25 in St. Paul, Minn. But Holland acknowledged teams aren’t likely to trade defensemen, which makes the free-agent pool — which isn’t particularly deep — a priority. The Wings could have as much as $15-$20 million to spend — depending on what happens with Lidstrom, Ericsson, Salei, and unrestricted free-agent forwards Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller, along with Kris Draper and Chris Osgood, who are mulling retirement.
“We’ll have to set our sights on July 1,” said Holland, who is targeting defense more than forwards. “There are some good players, but you expect some people to be signed (by their respective teams) between now and July 1.”
Holland will sit down with his pro scouts during organizational meetings June 14-16 and determine a list of players they’d like to pursue.
Holland told MLive’s Ansar Khan that the Wings aren’t necessarily sure whether they’ll try to find a $6 million man, or whether they might go after a pair of defensemen instead, using the Wings’ status as an A+ market for players to come to in an attempt to leverage some sort of salary break:
“We’ll explore,” he said. “Money’s always an issue. Do you sign one guy? Do you sign two guys and try to have a little more depth?”
Detroit remains a prime destination for free agents.
“We’re an attractive place to come to because of the history and tradition and some of the pieces we’ve got in place, because of the commitment of our ownership, because of the fan base,” Holland said. “As an athlete you want to go to where you have a chance to win, where the game is important.”
Holland categorically tossed out the concept of using the RFA offer sheet method…
“I think it’s a bit of an effort in futility because if you sign an offer sheet to a restricted (free agent) at the going rate, the team’s going to match,” Holland said. “The only way you get these players is if you pay them way beyond what they’re worth. That’s really not what the cap world is all about. The cap world is about finding players that play beyond what you pay them.”
But he also made a slightly worrisome comment about the Wings’ forward lines:
“We’re kind of done up front,” he said. “Up front we’re just looking for support people. Our top three lines for the most part are in place.”
Whether those three lines include Valtteri Filppula (probably) or Jiri Hudler (???), we don’t know, but it sounds like whatever happens, the Wings will still shop from the bargain bin if they do end up moving salary and bringing in a third-liner.
“If [Lidstrom]‘s not coming back, and with the news on Rafi, I don’t know if we’re going to make a trade, but we’re going to see what’s going on out there,” Holland said. “We’re going to explore the market. We’re not going to blow our brains out.”
The Wings only have four guys signed on defense: Brad Stuart, Niklas Kronwall, Jakub Kindl and minor-leaguer Doug Janik. Jonathan Ericsson and Ruslan Salei are both headed for unrestricted free agency, which starts July 1.
“We need to overhaul our defense, either through trade, but probably really we set our sights on July 1,” Holland said. “There are some good names out there, but you expect some of them are going to be signed between now and July 1. We’re going to go through all the names, and when July 1 comes, we’ll be ready to move.”
While the defense could be considerably changed, the forward group is pretty well set, save a few supporting players. The Wings are interested in retaining both Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller, and with that in mind have told Kris Draper to sit tight for a few weeks as they assess that situation. Once Holland hears whether veteran Chris Osgood wants to return or retire, the backup goaltender situation will be addressed.
Draper joked Wednesday he hoped there’d only be one retirement news conference this summer. The Wings are hoping he’s right. Meanwhile, coach Mike Babcock had a good time relaying a story that he said he believes indicates Lidstrom will be returning.
“This is a good report,” Babcock said. “I’ll give it to you right from my wife. She was at the gym (Tuesday), and Nick was working out like crazy. She said his shirt was soaked. I was so excited to hear that, you have no idea. That’s insider reporting right there. That’s the scoop.”
It’s the Draper bit that becomes the most intriguing subplot, St. James’ report that Todd Bertuzzi’s at least a week away from being declared concussion-free aside. As the Detroit News’s Kulfan notes, Draper would prefer to return (and Kulfan reports that the Wings aren’t going to start searching for Brad McCrimmon’s replacement until after the Stanley Cup Finals are over)...
Draper has told Holland he’d like to continue playing, and Osgood is deciding what he wants to do. Osgood, 38, said he’ll continue to talk with his family in the next couple of weeks and give Holland an answer after that.
Draper, 40, would like to play one more season.
“One retirement (Rafalski’s) is enough for the Wings organization,” Draper said.
But Holland offered a very different take on the situation to MLive’s Khan, suggesting that re-signing Draper is a “maybe” unless the Wings can’t retain both Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller:
“It’s a difficult decision, (Draper) has played here since 1993, he’s been a great warrior, he’s a role model,” Holland said. “But I got to weigh some of the younger people coming along. If we lose some people through unrestricted free agency then there’s probably more of an opportunity. If we (re-sign) some of the people we want then it’s going to be a bigger challenge to have a spot for Drapes. I told Drapes to sit tight for a couple of weeks. If he doesn’t have a job on the ice we’ll find a job for him off the ice.”
Goaltender Chris Osgood isn’t sure he wants to continue playing.
“Chris Osgood, who I’ve known since he was 18, he’s like my fifth child, to a degree,” Holland said. “He’s going through an internal process to decide if he’s got the energy and desire and determination to play hockey again.”
In that sense, we end on questions instead of answers, and that’s really the way it is this time of year.
Will Lidstrom return? Will the Wings be able to re-sign their unrestricted free agents in Eaves, Miller and Jonathan Ericsson? Will they bring Osgood or Draper back? will Jan Mursak and Cory Emmerton bump Draper off the roster, or will the Wings go with Joey MacDonald, or an unrestricted free agent, as Jimmy Howard’s back-up if Osgood chooses not to return? Who will the Wings sign on the blueline? Who are they going to target up front, and are they going to clear a roster spot to make room for that player? And who will replace Brad McCrimmon?
We don’t know the answers to any of those questions, and as we don’t know which of the Wings’ defensive targets will be re-signed by their teams before July 1st, or whether the salary cap will rise from $59.4 million to $62 or $63 million as advertised, so…
About all I can tell you is the obvious: the Wings will have at least one new top-six defenseman, a new assistant coach and a few surprises’ worth of players on the team this fall. In the interim, we can make our pitches for certain players to come or go, but we’re really not going to find out what unfolds…
Until it does. It’s fun to dream, but I’m with the Wings—I wish Rafalski was healthy enough to come back and that there were more certainties in the player personnel department. Right now, by Red Wings standards, anyway, there’s more than enough uncertainty to make this nervous person downright jittery, and I don’t think the jitters are going to go away until the Wings finish bargain-shopping in August.
Also of Red Wings-related note: If you missed any Rafalski-related multimedia, the videos and photo galleries are available here;
• Also if you missed it, the AP’s Larry Lage snuck this in:
Chris Ilitch says his family still has a goal of building a downtown arena for the Detroit Red Wings.
The president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings said Wednesday the team will play in Joe Louis Arena next season.
The Ilitches made a run at buying the Detroit Pistons in part to bolster its chances of getting financial help for a new arena to be the home for both teams in the Motor City. But Beverly Hills, Calif., billionaire Tom Gores reached a deal last month to buy the NBA franchise, its arena and Palace Sports & Entertainment.
Joe Louis Arena opened in 1979 and is among the NHL’s oldest facilities.
• No news is no news, however, in the Tennessean’s Josh Cooper’s attempt to spurn Predators-to-the-East talk based on this comment from Predators GM David Poile:
When asked last week about looking into a move into the Eastern Conference, Poile sounded slightly open to the idea.
“I think we should at least explore it,” he said. “I think, now we’ve built up 13 years of strong division rivalry. I think our fans identify strongly with teams in our division, but tell me Detroit is going to the East, then that changes things.”
It sounds kind of strange, but the Blue Jackets are the team that might get its Eastern Conference wish granted ahead of both the Predators, who are happy with their Central Division status, and the Wings. Go figure.
• Things you learn on the internet: According to the Los Angeles Times’ Lauren Beale, Brad Stuart finally sold his Manhattan Beach, CA home for $2.1 million, which is about $450,000 less than he bought it for when he was playing for the Los Angeles Kings.
I’m not sure whether this has anything to do with his status as spending his off-seasons in San Jose, however. His contract’s up after this upcoming season, but I’m kinda crossing my fingers that he’ll move the family to Detroit and remain a Wing over the long haul;
• I’m sorry about laying down on the job, so to speak, but I had to let Alanah take the Barry Potomski story. As you now know, this last weekend was pretty scary in the health-and-grief department;
• Sports.ru’s Vadim Kuznetsov interviewed me a few days ago, and if you’re interested in reading a rough translation of the interview, enjoy. I’m grateful to Vadim for the interview but as you all know, I’m not much of a self-horn-tooter;
• And as the usual perusal of Russian, Swedish, Czech, Slovak and Finnish media didn’t turn up much this morning (the Russian national team did fire Slava Bykov), we’ll let Detroit Red Wings social media coordinator Jake Duhaime take us out with a fantastic pick as the fifth-best Wings game of the 2010-2011 season:
GAME FIVE – THE CAPTAIN PULLS A HATTY!
December 15, 2010
Red Wings 5, Blues 2
Nick Lidstrom had pretty much done it all: Stanley Cups, All-Star Games, Norris Trophies and the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Add a hat-trick to the list.
Lidstrom became just the second Wings defenseman to record a hatty since the 1985-86, adding an empty netter late in the third period to seal a Red Wings victory and yet another accomplishment in his soon to be Hall of Fame career.
“It’s a great feeling to finally get one, after 19 years and having a lot of opportunities,” Lidstrom said.
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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.