The Malik Report
by George Malik on 07/03/11 at 09:37 AM ET
There was no way that the Red Wings would or could have been able to replace Brian Rafalski via the unrestricted free agent market, not in one of the available players, anyway, but Ken Holland managed to both plug the gaping hole on the Wings’ blueline and save a significant amount of cap space for the Wings’ future endeavors over the course of the past three days, first re-signing Jonathan Ericsson to an inflated contract to stave off another subtraction and then making amends for it by retaining Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller and adding bite to the Wings’ defense via depth defenseman Mike Commodore and would-be journeyman Ian White.
For a grant total of $1.25 million more than Rafalski earned last season, Holland’s investments signal a bit of a shift in terms of philosophy in the best sense of the term, and to put the theory bluntly: when you’re missing an element from your team, it is best to pursue the players that annoy you the most.
Back in the early 90’s, the Wings kept losing and losing regularly to a Toronto Maple Leafs team that had the kind of snarl on its blueline the Wings couldn’t quite match, so Bob Rouse was imported in 1994, and later on, when the team needed a little depth, another one of those players that defined my teenagehood’s worth of rooting for the Red Wings with, “That dirty sonofa…!” came to the team in the form of wily veteran Jamie Macoun, who won a Cup with the Wings in 1998 (as one of three former Leafs from the 1993 team that beat the Wings in the first round in Rouse, Macoun and Dmitri Mironov—Larry Murphy doesn’t quite count in that department).
This time around, the Wings have again imported the kind of snarl that, with few exceptions, teams that believe in drafting and developing puck-moving defensive corps tend to have to acquire via a trade, and in doing so, the team’s both addressed strategic and aesthetic needs.
Signing Mike Commodore to a 1-year, $1 million contract represents very little risk on the Wings’ part. He’s essentially replacing Ruslan Salei, who turned out to have a few thousand more miles on his odometer and a little less physical effectiveness than the Wings had hoped last season (perhaps it was the result of his back surgery?), and while Commodore’s not an upgrade on Salei in the offensive department, he both allows the Wings to play Jakub Kindl a little more regularly to allow him to grow and gives the team a right-handed shooting, stay-at-home defenseman who was, to put it politely, a terrible pain in the ass to play against.
Subjectively speaking, I’ve tended to dread the Wings’ meetings with the Columbus Blue Jackets not because of Rick Nash’s ability to score or the Wings’ hit-or-miss tendencies against a team that’s always ramped up to play its biggest rival (the sentiment isn’t exactly returned, thus a disparate amount of intensity and effort on the Wings’ parts), but instead because of old Ronald McDonald, that fuzzy-haired redhead who would, with few exceptions, either hurt someone with a thundering and/or sneaky check or simply get away with the kinds of obstruction and interference penalties that I could have sworn were deemed illegal after the lockout. Commodore is the anti-Todd Bertuzzi, the kind of big, lumbering player (at 6’5,” he is a bit plodding) that’s learned to disguise his hooks, holds, slashes and grabs and adapt pretty well to the NHL’s crackdown on obstruction without changing so much as a lick of how he actually plays, save the out-and-out football tackles and wrestling moves.
He’s big, gritty and is obviously motivated to be more than Jakub Kindl’s mentor ind the physical play, fitness or, “Staying ready to play” department. In that sense, while adding him to the equation removes Ruslan Salei from the mix and doesn’t account for Rafalski’s status as a 45-point-producing defenseman in the slightest, he certainly helps solidify the Wings’ bottom pairing while affording a little less wear and tear upon Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart and Ericsson, who will all be expected to post a few more points and step up in the rush a little more regularly, especially in Kronwall’s case as he’s been pegged as the team’s #2 defenseman.
So to some extent, Commodore is an indirect part of the Rafalski Replacement Committee, affording his teammates a little less penalty-killing time and a little less concern about exhausting their ability to grind down their opponents before becoming ground down themselves.
The fact that he can both shoot right-handed and is a willing and able combatant when it’s time to drop the gloves helps, too, and perhaps fills a void that the Wings haven’t been able to replace since Andreas Lilja suffered a concussion in a fight with Shea Weber almost three years ago.
Bringing Ian White to the team, however, addresses both snarl and Rafalski’s scoring void on a very direct basis. White’s signing to a 2-year, $2.875 million contract gives the Wings a smallish (5’10” but, as they say, “thick” at 190-195 lbs, depending on where you look) defenseman who was actually willing to take a pay cut to bring his right-handed shot, 30-35-point-producing ability as both a #3/4 defenseman and a power play specialist to the team while again, adding some snarl.
Again, put in partisan and blunt terms, White came to Detroit at a discount—and it would neither surprise me or offend me if I found out that he’d been brought here with some sort of Ericsson-style limited no-trade clause—because:
1. As the Wings’ official release on White revealed, Detroit is White’s fourth team over the past two years and his fifth address over the past three seasons (with Toronto, Calgary, Carolina and San Jose being his previous addresses), giving White a little stability;
2. Because he can obviously help step into the void and fill Rafalski’s spot on the point on the power play, albeit on the 2nd unit, perhaps with Stuart, Ericsson or Kindl (or maybe even Eaves) instead of with Lidstrom most of the time, and at even-strength, again, posting 30-35 points;
3. Because he’s right-handed, a swift skater and a solid puck-mover with a superb outlet pass and a very hard shot, and has more mobility than Rafalski did (though perhaps not as much straight-ahead speed) during his final, injury-marred two seasons with the Wings, at least providing a silhouette’s worth of replacement;
4. And because he’s a mean, sneaky little son-of-a-gun, the kind of player who seems forever deemed to be pissed off at the fact that he’s been called too small and been passed over or passed from team to team (if you count his junior days with Swift Current and time spent with the St. John’s Maple Leafs and Toronto Marlies as different addresses, he’s called nine organizations and eight cities home over the past decade).
White is both sneaky dirty and the kind of sneaky scorer that played into the Sharks’ ability to beat the Wings four times in the regular season and four our of seven times in the playoffs by both scoring on a regular basis as the Sharks’ PP seemingly offered its point men opportunities to jump into the rush and fire passes from the side boards or behind the goal line into the back of the net, and by grinding upon and hacking and whacking the Wings’ forwards, making it that much harder for Tomas Holmstrom, Danny Cleary, Bertuzzi and the hobbled Johan Franzen to do their jobs because White doesn’t give up his ground easily.
Don’t get me wrong, he’s no Rafalski, but he’s grittier and meaner, and in that sense, again, he gives the Wings an element…Not that they were missing, because Rafalski was fearless and would take no guff, but an element that they haven’t had in some time. White is no heavyweight, but he’s got an edge, and as I suggested, his remarkably low penalty-minute totals (around 30-55 minutes per season over the past three years, and they’ve gone down by each season) indicate that he’s pretty effective at hacking, whacking and occasionally flattening his opponents without taking too many of the goaded-into-it penalties that he tends to draw.
Between Commodore, White, the Wings’ projected up-ticks in the offensive and overall performances of Jonathan Ericsson, Jakub Kindl and Niklas Kronwall and the balance adding two right-handed shots with a little more snarl to bolster the depth department and at least patch up a gaping hole…
Well, it’s not a wash, but it’s enough for the Wings to cope with Rafalski’s sudden and at least on-the-fans’-part unexpected departure.
As Ken Holland told Fox Sports Detroit’s Art Regner, he’s suitably satisfied with his work in repairing the Wings’ blueline and believes that White’s addition allows him to move on now:
“He can play on the power play, he’s a competitor,” Wing GM Ken Holland said. “He’s a guy that thinks the game. He’s got the skills. We’ve got skilled defensemen in (Nicklas) Lidstrom, (Niklas) Kronwall, others, and he’s comfortable playing with them.”
White began last season with Calgary, was traded to Carolina and then dealt to San Jose, where he helped the Sharks reach the Western Conference finals. White played in a total of 78 games for the Flames, Hurricanes and Sharks, and had four goals, 22 assists, 26 penalty minutes and was a plus-3. In 17 playoff games, he had a goal, eight assists, eight penalty minutes and was plus-3.
To become a Red Wing, White took a slight play cut. He earned $2,999,995 last season.
White was the 191st overall pick in the 2002 NHL draft by the Maple Leafs. In 401 NHL games, White has 36 goals, 107 assists and 228 penalty minutes.
On Friday, the Wings re-signed forwards Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller, and added defenseman Mike Commodore from the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Wings re-signed defenseman Jonathan Ericsson on Thursday.
“It’s July 2, we’re comfortable with our defense,” Holland said. “But if something came up between now and training camp, we’ll definitely explore and look at it. We got nine guys that can play in the NHL. We got depth.”
Holland readily admitted to the Free Press’s Helene St. James that he is essentially taking the replacement by committee approach…
“We think our defense is deeper,” general manager Ken Holland said. “White has good skills, good hockey sense, he competes hard. He plays the type of hockey we’ve built our team to play. He can play on the power play. He gives us more options. Ian is a different type of player than Mike Commodore. Commodore is bigger and more defensive. White isn’t as big, but he’s skilled and he competes hard.”
White should push Jonathan Ericsson for a top-four spot next to Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart.
“I just want to help out as best I can,” White said. “They’ve got some great players already, and I want to do what I can to add to their success and give us a good shot at going far next year. I’m so excited about this.”
“I thought he played good in the playoffs,” Holland said. “ We think he’ll be a good fit for our team.”
The Wings have seven defensemen under contract for 2011-12: Lidstrom, Kronwall, Stuart, White, Ericsson, Commodore, and Jakub Kindl. Doug Janik is also on a one-way contract, but he’s likely to be in the minors. The team does have high expectations of Brendan Smith, their 2007 first-round draft pick. The Wings are most likely to carry seven defensemen on the 23-man roster, but they could opt for eight.
Therein lies the x-factor—the Wings have also bought time for both Jakub Kindl to not be pressed into action as a top-four defenseman at the first sign of injury trouble, they have, as MLive’s Ansar Khan revealed, allowed Janik to shuttle up and down from Grand Rapids because he’s played too few games to be subject to re-entry waivers, and the team’s all but assured that Brendan Smith, who *might* be NHL-ready, will play 25-30 minutes a night as the Grand Rapids Griffins’ #1 defenseman and will be #1 on the list of injury replacement call-ups instead of being slightly rushed, at least by Red Wings standards, into the NHL after an injury-marred rookie season as a professional player.
Smith has some filling-in and rounding-out to do both in terms of his pro experience and his still-growing body, so it’s not good short-term news for Smith and his fans that he’ll probably spend most of next season in Grand Rapids, but it’s very, very good news for his future and the Wings’ blueline going forward.
That future includes an Ian White who will be around in two years, and, as the Mercury News’s David Pollak noted, a team that the Sharks didn’t have the cap space to retain but has some reason to want to stay in one place for more than a couple of months:
A quick Ian White anecdote: On the day the Sharks cleaned out their lockers and everybody was taking that first step toward dispersal, White stopped by the media room at Sharks Ice just to say good-bye to both the Sharks PR guys and the rest of us still around. The rest of us decided that was the first time we could remember a player doing that. Nice gesture on his part.
White, whose second child was born the same night the Sharks beat Detroit in Game 7, was going home and getting ready to pack things up before heading to the family’s summer cottage in some remote spot on the Ontario-Manitoba border.
He definitely wanted to come back to San Jose, but my guess is he’s not too upset about landing with the Red Wings once Plan A didn’t come to pass.
So White told MLive’s Ansar Khan that he’s both happy to join the Wings and happy to join a team that needs him over the long haul, especially if what must not be referred to happens after this upcoming season:
“It’s definitely an exciting day, getting an opportunity to play with such a great team and great organization,’’ White said from his cottage in Kenora, Ontario. “I’ve played against them for six years. It’s just a real special team to play against. It’s great to get an opportunity to play with those guys – their puck movement, their puck possession, so many talented players. Hopefully I’m a perfect fit for that spot. It really fits my style of game.’‘
He’s looking forward to playing with the likes of Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
“You stare at those guys, study how good they are,’’ White said. “I’m going to learn so much that’s sure to make me a better player.’‘
Last year was difficult for his family, having to move twice while his wife, Tess, was expecting. She was in labor during Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Red Wings. After the Sharks won 3-2, White went to the hospital, where his wife delivered a girl, Gracelyn.
“It was a quite stressful time of year,’’ said White, whose son, Paxton, turns 2 later this month.
And that cap space the Sharks had? Bye bye when Brent Burns came to town, as Khan points out…
“Things change in a hurry,’’ White said.
As WestWing so astutely noted in the comments section of the back-up goaltender’s talk post, and I quote, because this is one of those frameable moments:
Oh, and for those who thought the sky was falling and wanted to throw Holland to the wolves after Doug Wilson traded to get Brent Burns last week, consider this…
Back in February, Wilson traded one of the Sharks’ top prospects, defenseman Derek Joslin, along with the team’s 2nd round pick in this year’s draft to Carolina for Ian White. Now, after obtaining Burns in exchange for Devin Setogouchi, along with another top prospect from the Sharks organization, forward Charlie Coyle as well as the Sharks’ first round pick in this year’s draft, Wilson deems White expendable and makes no attempt to resign him.
For those of you keeping score at home, Wilson gave up his top two picks in the draft, two promising young prospects and a top-six forward, and essentially has only Brent Burns to show for it.
Ken Holland on the other hand has just acquired the same Ian White that Wilson essentially rented for three months without sacrificing so much as a single one of his organization’s assets in the process.
So now the Wings’ blueline is set, and the team still has, per Capgeek.com, about $7 million in cap space to play with, leaving the Wings in the driver’s seat should they still want to move the dangled Jiri Hudler in a trade to improve their forward lines—although Holland wouldn’t suggest as much to the Macomb Daily’s Chuck Pleiness...
“I would say yes for the most part,” Holland said when asked if they were done searching for free agent defensemen. “With the defensemen we’ve signed we’re going to camp with nine guys. We think we have pretty good depth and different dimensions.
“We’ll continue to explore over the summer,” Holland added. “Teams are calling with trade ideas. But if we go to camp with the defensemen we’ve got we’re very comfortable.”
And now, well, it’s onto finding out whether Chris Osgood and his wonky groin can be bettered via a free agent signing, with Ty Conklin, Marty Turco, Ray Emery and Curtis McElhinney as the most attractive remaining options:
“Obviously that’s our top priority over the next few days,” Holland said. “We’re not close on anything.”
Holland said that he had been in talks with a possible backup, but he felt that [that] goalie was going in a different direction. A source told The Macomb Daily the Wings have been talking with Ty Conklin, one of the few remaining viable options.
“You’re always looking to upgrade,” Holland said. “Are we comfortable once we get a goalie signed going into training camp? Yes. But we’d also like to upgrade if we could.”
Conklin played one season with Detroit, 2008-09, and went 25-11-2 with a 2.51 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage. He played the last two seasons with the St. Louis Blues in a backup role, struggling last year with a record of 8-8-4 and a 3.22 goals-against average GAA and .881 save percentage.
There was, again, a lot of conversation in the comments section as to whether, "He felt that [for some reason, a blank space, which I interpreted as "that'] goalie was going in a different direction" meant that Conklin didn't want to sign or that the team was spurned by somebody else and that Conklin is now the main target.
very wary about bringing back Osgood given his five months’ worth of setbacks after recovering from what turned out to be extensive surgery to repair his groin:
Holland is likely to keep seven defensemen. Smith and Janik probably will start in Grand Rapids unless there is an injury in the preseason.
Holland said he’s probably done adding skaters, but goaltending remains an issue. The Wings are debating whether to re-sign veteran Chris Osgood, or go in another direction to back up Jimmy Howard. Former Red Wing Ty Conklin remains unsigned on the free-agent market.
Osgood, 38, missed most of last season after groin surgery.
Both Osgood and Kris Draper’s futures with the Wings are tenuous at best (Draper would have had a better chance of returning had Miller or Eaves left, but with Jan Mursak and/or Cory Emmerton making the team as both have to clear waivers to be sent down to the AHL, there’s just no spot unless the team moves a forward and doesn’t take anything back but cap space), so therein lies the “unpleasant truth” part of these moves.
In that sense, Ken Holland’s job is not yet done, but the Detroit News’s John Niyo argues that Holland has, signing Ericsson to a 3-year deal at $3.25 million and with a limited no-trade clause included (again, per Capgeek.com), done a fine job of re-stocking the Wings’ cupboard—and stopping a tide of players from leaving and joining the kinds of big, empty spaces around Mike Babcock’s shoulders in the assistant coaching department, yielding disturbingly large holes in the team’s roster:
Holland talked earlier in the week about maintaining his team’s salary structure. Holland talked about shopping with one eye on next summer and beyond, when there’ll likely be a new collective bargaining agreement in place and more of the elite free agents figure to be available. (This year, it was Brad Richards and, um, well …) And in a bit of foreshadowing, Holland said, “We don’t want to get ourselves into a position where we overpay.”
As such, as Niyo suggests, Holland passed on the July 1st fireworks and really wasn’t a player in terms of signing any higher-profile name, never mind some of the lower-profile ones that the Wings wanted…
The Wings took a pass on most of the Day 1 buffet, though they did bid for a few players they liked, including Jovanovski and forward Scottie Upshall. But those two both signed inflated deals with the Florida Panthers, whose GM, Dale Tallon, was among the most active Friday, handing out more than $70 million in crazy contracts.
Instead of over-spending to fill needs, Holland did largely what I expected him to do, re-signing Jonathan Ericsson with a hope that’ll he’ll continue to grow into a top-four role on the blueline. Up front, the Wings’ GM re-signed two of his own pending free agents, Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller. And the only other NHL roster addition the Wings made July 1 was signing veteran Mike Commodore, a stay-at-home defenseman who’ll add depth and a physical presence.
What about Brian Rafalski’s replacement? Well, in some respects, that’ll be Ericsson. But the Wings made another smart, solid addition Saturday, landing defenseman Ian White, who looked pretty good in a top-four role with San Jose in the playoffs. He’s 27, skates and moves the puck well and boasts a big right-handed shot that’ll help the power play. And if you’re keeping score, Ericsson and White (two years, $5.75 million) combined will make about the same $6 million a now-retired Rafalski would’ve made this season. (White even took a slight paycut from his 2010-11 salary, which makes him an unusual bargain in this marketplace.)
So it’s roster stability and filling small skates that cast a huge shadow by committee and internal growth. Which is, as Niyo suggests, perhaps the new normal around here:
Now then, the fans in Detroit are accustomed to thinking much bigger when it comes to the Wings and their payroll and the Fourth of July weekend. For years, they were able to solve the few problems they had in free agency, spending freely and, at times, recklessly. But that was before the 2004-05 lockout ushered in the salary-cap era. Now, a problem solved in free agency one year often creates a bigger problem — or two or three — elsewhere the next. And that’ll certainly be the case for some of the teams that spent wildly Friday.
Holland may not have solved all the Wings’ problems this weekend. I think he would’ve liked to unload Jiri Hudler and found another top-six forward with better wheels and more consistent motor. But there’s still most of a full season to see how it all shakes out before making an aggressive move, if needed, at the trade deadline.
In the meantime, say this about Holland: He kept his word. And his sanity.
I’m not yet willing to give Holland an “A” and suggest that, after the Traverse City prospect camp that starts on Thursday, he should kick up his heels and, as Mike Babcock would say, “Go to the lake,” but all things considered, I don’t think he’ll have to fear any Wings fans angry over the Ericsson deal egging his car or TP’ing his house as Southeastern Michigan swelters in the high 80’s over the rest of the holiday weekend, and he did a pretty damn good job of at least ensuring that, for the amount of intangibles the Wings lost in terms of Rafalski’s veteran leadership, savvy and adaptability, they got some right-handedness and snarl—the kind of snarl that drives you nuts when pain-in-the-ass defensemen are the ones grinding on your team, and gives you relief as much as joy when you find out that those pains-in-the-ass are now your friends instead of your foes.
That’s a good thing, because in professional sports, if you’ve met the enemy and he’s particularly effective against you, you want to ensure that you do your best to make at least a couple of them work with you and drive other teams and other teams’ fans nuts instead.
So thank you, Ken Holland, for signing two players that drove me frickin’ nuts when your Wings played against them. They’ll make fine examples to Ericsson, Kindl and Smith and will tick off your team’s opponents. Please spend that cap space you’re saving up at the trade deadline next March, too. Thanks.
Also of Red Wings-related note: If you missed it, Jaromir Jagr’s conference call with the media on Saturday, introducing himself as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers, was one of the larger indulgences in BS that I’ve witnessed in quite some time.
Amongst the highlights, per the Delaware County Times’ Anthony J. Sanfilippo:
Q: What are your impression of the Flyers centers and playing alongside them?
“I didn’t look at a roster… I wasn’t here for three seasons, and during those three years, when I looked at [all the NHL] lineups, all the new guys, there’s probably half of the young guys I don’t know. There are a lot of young guys in the league. When I looked, for me, [I looked for] a centerman, a good player like Briere or Giroux, who are right handed, have a right-handed shot. I like to play power play on the right side, and I think because they’re right-handed, they like to play on the other side. I think it would be a problem if I would play in Pittsburgh with Crosby or Malkin, left handed, and have to play on the other side, when I’ve played all my life on the right side, I don’t think I would be able to play there. Or if I go to Detroit, with Datsyuk and Zetterberg, they’re left-handed and they play on the boards where I used to play at. I don’t think I would have a chance to play at all. If I’m going to play good, at least I have a chance to play. That was the other thing I was thinking.
Yeah, Briere and Giroux > Crosby/Malkin and/or Zetterberg/Datsyuk because of their handedness.
Thankfully, the Free Press’s Steve Schrader provides something of a counterweight via his “News Quiz”:
Where was Jaromir Jagr while he kept the Red Wings and Penguins waiting?
A) Deciding on the whole he’d rather be in Philadelphia.
B) Trying to cut a deal with Versus to air “The Decision.”
C) The Czech’s in the mail.
D) Throwing passes to high school kids in Hattiesburg.
Probably more like calculating the distance between South Philly and the casinos in Atlantic City, but that’s just me guessing.
• If you missed it, the Grand Rapids Griffins are holding a jersey design contest via Puckdrawn.com, with the winner getting the honor of designing the team’s outfit for their New Year’s Eve game, and the first gallery thereof is up.
As my banner was designed by a TMR reader and we had a very spirited competition in terms of the banner design contest (the winner received compensation in the form requested, and that’s all I’ll say), I’d encourage those of you who know your way around Photoshop to enter.
I’ll stick to MS-Paint, thank you very much.
• Also in the multimedia department, part 1: The Free Press posted a 9-image gallery of Ian White, and I’m quite happy that he’s bringing his moustache to Detroit, where we’re facial hair-friendly, but I do hope that those razor-thin sideburns he grew with Toronto a few years ago won’t be coming to town;
• In charitable news, the Dallas News’s Chris Coats reminds us that Mike Modano will be holding a charity softball game at the Dr Pepper Ballpark in Frisco, TX on July 9th;
• While we don’t know “when,” AnnArbor.com’s Frank Benson reports that the Stanley Cup will be brought to Ann Arbor’s Yost Arena sometime this summer by Boston Bruins defenseman Steven Kampfer;
• And I know I’m delaying on the Kindl interview. It’s been a long week, or at least the last five days’ worth of 14-to-18-hour-days have been. It’s not worth getting excited about in any case as he talks about working out with Modano and learning that it’s tough to play in the NHL;
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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.