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The search is on for the Red Wings’ next offensive defenseman—but it won’t be Weber

Updated 4x at 10:27 with a slick Rosenberg article: So Brian Rafalski chose to retire today, and while several comments made during his press conference ruffled some feathers (guessing by the 100 comments in my email inbox from the past three hours alone), it’s hard to begrudge someone for saying a little too much when he’s emotionally stressed, and, perhaps moreover, I admire the man for choosing to simply say goodbye when his priorities had changed instead of playing out the string and collecting an extra $6 million.

Now the Red Wings are eagerly awaiting news from Nicklas Lidstrom regarding his future, and they hope to at least re-sign Jonathan Ericsson. After that, as DetroitRedWings.com’s Bill Roose notes, the Wings are more likely than not to attempt to fill Rafalski’s skates via free agency:

“Free agency is a wonderful thing. That’s how we got Rafi,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “Rafi said it himself, ‘That they’re going to have to fill the hole.’ And we plan on doing that. I don’t know how. But we’re going to do it.”

As of now, the Wings have Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart, Jakub Kindl and Doug Janik under contract for the 2011-12 season. They would also like to see how prospect Brendan Smith progresses in training camp.

“Certainly we need to overhaul our defense,” Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “Either through trade (or) at the draft when there’s going to be trades. Not a lot of teams are trading defense, most teams are looking for defense. We’ll probably really have to set our sights on July 1.”

There are 74 NHL defensemen eligible for free agency this summer, 26 of which played in 61 or more games last season. Of those players, only 10 logged more than 20-minutes of ice-time per game and even fewer corralled 40 or more points.

Even though he played much of the season with pain, Rafalski still managed to compile 48 points and averaged more than 20-minutes of ice-time in 63 games. Of the likely available free agents, only Montreal’s James Wisniewski, Vancouver’s Christian Ehrhoff, Boston’s Tomas Kaberle, and Carolina’s Joni Pitkanen managed to produce Rafalski-like statistics last season.

The question in July will be: Are the Wings willing to match or increase the salaries for players like the aforementioned, which range now between $3.2 and $4.5 million? Other options could be mid-range guys that are coming into their prime, like New Jersey’s Andy Greene. Then there are lesser-known younger players, like Columbus’s Grant Clitsome.

“There’s not many Brian Rafalski’s out there,” Holland said. “I think we’ll explore, money’s always an issue, in cap dollars. Do you sign one guy? Do you go out and sign two guys and try to have a little more depth? Obviously, over the next few months we have to make decisions in regards to Salei and Ericsson. I know those are two guys who do want to play hockey next year and we’ll wait for the decision on Nick Lidstrom. If we can get a great decision on Nick and maybe sign one of those two guys, then you can maybe sign one or two. Depends on who’s available.”

Thinking that the Wings will snag Shea Weber? Don’t. Predators coach Barry Trotz spelled out the Nashville Predators’ stance on Weber to the Sporting News’s Craig Custance...

The moment Brian Rafalski retired, optimistic fans in Detroit were quick to suggest a solution. Sign Nashville defenseman Shea Weber to an offer sheet. The Predators captain is slated to become a restricted free agent on July 1 if he can’t get a contract extension done before then.

Predators coach Barry Trotz has some advice to Detroit or anyone else thinking about an offer sheet for Weber. Don’t bother.

“We’ll just match it,” Trotz told Sporting News. “I can tell you, whatever they offer, it’ll just get matched.”

Ideally, Trotz hopes that it doesn’t take until July to get a long-term deal worked out between the Predators and Weber. Shortly after the Predators were eliminated from the playoffs, Weber said he expected to be back with Nashville. Nothing has changed.

“I know he’s going to get done. I can tell you that,” Trotz said. “They’ve had some good discussions.”

So what will the Wings do? Custance believes that they’ll shop smartly:

With this market, patience might be the best avenue. Especially considering the free agent Class of 2012 could include Predators defenseman Ryan Suter, Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp, Predators goalie Pekka Rinne and Wild defenseman Brent Burns — players who might be better options for teams currently sitting on salary cap space.

“We’re not going to just go throw out a bunch of money at people on July 1 and wake up the first of December ... trying to figure out how we can get rid of those people,” Holland said. “That doesn’t sound like a good plan to me. We’re going to methodically go through it.”

That means examining every option and determining how much a role young players like Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith can play on defense in Detroit. Holland also said he’ll be active at the draft in late June trying to swing a trade for a defenseman.

Problem is, he won’t be the only GM in St. Paul, Minnesota, trying to do that. Vancouver paid a steep price at the draft for Keith Ballard last June, Philadelphia an even higher price for Chris Pronger two years ago. This year, there might not be an impact defenseman available, which makes Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk’s decision to grab Alex Goligoski in a midseason trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins even more impressive.

As for restricted free agents, snagging a high-end one is not realistic. Los Angeles will match any offer sheet for Drew Doughty if it comes to that. Same thing goes for Nashville and Shea Weber.

Holland categorically ruled out pursuing a restricted free agent while speaking to MLive’s Ansar Khan...

“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 after the press conference announcing Brian Rafalski’s retirement. “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.’‘

Holland said making a trade is an option—it’s always an option—and talks typically heat up at the entry draft. But he indicated unrestricted free agency is the preferred route, since it won’t cost any assets in return.

“Not a lot of teams are trading defensemen, most teams are looking for defensemen,’’ Holland said.

The Wings have no illusions about the fact that Rafalski will be hard to replace, as Danny Cleary told Helene St. James:

“Raffy was a huge part of our blue line, our PP, and the ability to move the puck to the forwards,” Danny Cleary said. “He was a tremendous player for us, had a great career and obviously we won a Cup together in 2008. He will be missed a lot, but his injury problems were hard on him. I wish him well. He was a great teammate.”

If you want to know how stunning the news that Rafalski was actually going to retire was to those closest to him, never mind his teammates, here’s what his agent and freshman study hall buddy from the University of Wisconsin, Bill Zito, said to NHL.com’s Brian Hedger:

“When he told me, I was like, ‘What?’” Zito told NHL.com on Wednesday by phone. “It’s ingrained. The NHL is a privilege. You play as long as you can play. It’s just a wonderful experience and you get all of it that you can get. You look at his points-per-game this season and he was still among the best in the game. So in that regard, it was a big surprise. Then you talk to him for even a few minutes and it all just makes sense.”

As he did at the podium on Wednesday, Rafalski explained to Zito and Holland his rationale earlier this week.

“He just said, ‘I’ve accomplished a lot in my career, I’m getting banged up but I’m still healthy, and I talked to my wife and I’m thinking about making a commitment to my family and my kids,’” Zito said. “When you think about it, there’s not much that he hasn’t accomplished.”
...
“For him, I don’t think it was tough,” Zito said walking away from $6 million. “He’s fortunate that he’s able to do that. I honestly believe that he’s tickled pink to be a full-time dad and hang out with his boys. I’m really excited for him.”

That’s Rafalski’s plan…

“The injuries took a toll,” he said. “There wasn’t a day this year that I wasn’t on the training table. That gets tiring. I wasn’t able to skate the way I would like to. I started looking at different scenarios after this year and throughout the year just being on the training table every day was getting tiresome. It wasn’t as much fun coming to the rink.”

Combined with renewed religious beliefs and a strong desire to be with his wife and three kids more, the decision to retire became clear during the regular season. It felt the same after the playoffs ended with Detroit’s loss in seven games to the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Semifinals, so he decided to act on it—despite leaving a lot of money on the table.

“What I’ll be doing, first and foremost, will be serving my family and I’ll definitely be looking to help others,” Rafalski said. “I don’t know what that will entail yet, but those will be my focuses. As far as the money goes, there are more important things now. That was very low on the list (of priorities).”

Wings coach Mike Babcock told the Associated Press‘s Larry Lage that Rafalski’s back had gotten so bad that he’s not surprised Rafalski said goodbye…

“How much fun is it to come to the rink when you can hardly walk?” Detroit coach Mike Babcock asked, adding he’s thrilled Rafalski is leaving on his terms.

So after tributes were delivered from his first GM, Holland and Rafalski’s teammates…

“He’s an incredible story, a 5-9 defenseman 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 defenseman at the Olympics in 2010.”
...
“He did a lot of good things for U.S. hockey, winning the silver medal with very different teams,” former teammate Chris Chelios said.
...
Rafalski’s decision clears $6 million in salary-cap space for the Red Wings, who are hoping defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom announces soon that he’ll play a 20th season in Detroit.

“I’m crossing my fingers and toes every night when I go to bed, hoping that we get good news on Nick,” Holland said.

And as Holland and Babcock told the press, and the Detroit News’s Ted Kulfan reiterates, Lidstrom isn’t in town, but the Wings have a spy on the job (Kulfan adds one more story to the Rafalski retirement narrative, too):

Will Nicklas Lidstrom return to play a 20th season with the Red Wings?  Coach Mike Babcock hopes this little piece of information, via Babcock’s wife, Maureen, is a clue.  It seems Maureen was at a health club earlier this week and spotted Lidstrom, also working out.

“She said he was working out like crazy. His shirt was soaked,” Babcock said.

So what was Babcock’s view of that news?

“I was so excited to hear that you have no idea,” Babcock said.

Lidstrom is out of town on a mini-vacation with Tomas Holmstrom this weekend, according to Babcock.  The Wings expect Lidstrom to give them a decision on whether he’ll retire by the NHL entry draft June 24.

General manager Ken Holland said Lidstrom hasn’t given an indication which way he’s leaning.  Most of Lidstrom’s teammates believe he will be back in 2011-12.

Again, that leaves us in the same spot—asking questions—as NHL.com’s Hedger suggests:

“We need great news on Nick Lidstrom,” Holland said. “If we get great news on Nick Lidstrom, we need a defenseman or two (in free agency), depending on where their salary is at. We’re kind of done up front. Our top three lines, for the most part, are in place. Our No.1 goal is defense and we’ve got to rebuild a little bit now. We’re hoping on Nick Lidstrom (returning).”

If he does, then Detroit can go forward with the plan of slowly working some younger defensemen into the mix. Detroit has 31-year old Doug Janik under contract and hopes youngsters Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith are ready for increased roles.
...
“Is Jakub Kindl ready for a bigger role? Is Brendan Smith ready to play in the NHL?” Holland said. “These are things we’re going to have to find out. Certainly we need one or two more veterans signed this summer. We’re going to sign somebody. It’s a matter of how much and who and how big of a role. Obviously, Nick’s decision is going to factor into how active we are on July 1 (the first day of NHL free agency).”

The decisions of Chris Osgood and Kris Draper as to their playing futures play into the equation as well, as do the Wings’ attempts to re-sign Ericsson, Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller.

Ideally, as Holland told Hedger, the Wings reload instead of rebuild…

“We’re trying to figure out a way to not have to go through a rebuild,” Holland said. “Maybe you’re going to dip for a year or two, but a rebuild to me is where you’re bad for four or five years and you empty out the building. We don’t want to go through that. So, we have to make decisions in the short term and long term that we think are going to give us the best chance to win.”

And that means shopping and shopping smart come July 1st:

“We’re not going to just throw a bunch of money at people on July 1 and wake up (Dec. 1) and now spend four months trying to figure out how we can get rid of those people,” Holland said. “That doesn’t sound like a great plan to me. We’re going to methodically go through it. Otherwise, we’re inevitably going towards a major rebuild.”

Ditto if the Wings surrender too many assets, draft picks included, to plug a hole on defense via a trade:

“Do you go a touch higher (in contract negotiations) than you want to?” Holland said. “Yeah, but we’re not going to go drastically higher than what we think makes sense. Ultimately, if you go that path—given that we pick in the 20s and given that we traded eight first-round picks from 1995 to 2005—then a rebuild is in inevitable if you look at the age of some of our players.”

It’s Rafalski who, in the end, believes that Holland will get the job done:

“This organization has never had a problem filling holes and to find the players that fit what they want to do,” said Rafalski, who was one of those fillers when he signed as a free agent in 2007 to replace Mathieu Schneider on the Detroit blue line. “That won’t change, because they’re so deep in the front office and coaching. Everything will work itself out. I don’t have any doubt about that. I don’t have any worries about the future for this organization.”

Holland told MLive’s Ansar Khan that he’s at least confident in his team’s ability to bring the best to Detroit…

“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?”
...
“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 has never signed a restricted free agent to an offer sheet. It’s not because he’s philosophically opposed to it, he just thinks it’s a waste of time or would be cost prohibitive, since the player’s team can match any offer or receive compensatory draft picks. That makes it highly unlikely that he will make a pitch for Nashville’s Shea Weber, Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty, Atlanta’s Zach Bogosian or Phoenix’s Keith Yandle, the premier restricted free-agent defensemen.

“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.”

Multimedia Update: The Detroit Free Press posted an 8-image gallery from Rafalski’s presser, and the Detroit News posted a 12-image gallery;

• The Detroit News posted a video clip of Rafalski’s presser, as did Fox Sports Detroit;

• ESPN’s Barry Melrose weighed in:

• The Red Wings’ website posted clips of Rafalski’s presser…

 

His Q and A with the media…

 

And the takes of Henrik Zetterberg, Kris Draper and Jimmy Howard…

 

Ken Holland…

 

And Mike Babcock:

 

• WXYZ’s Tom Leyden did yeoman’s work in posting Rafalski’s presser…

 

Comments from Rafalski’s teammates…

 

And Holland:

 

• In the audio department, USA Today’s Kevin Allen spoke to WDFN’s Sean, Terp and Killer about Rafalski…

 


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And this was inevitable—Baligian questioned whether Rafalski’s heart was in the playoffs:

 


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Update #2: Here’s Khan with news about Draper and Osgood...

A decision on whether to offer veteran forward Kris Draper a contract won’t happen for at least a few weeks. It might hinge on whether unrestricted free agents Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller return.

“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.”

There’s not good news for those of us who believe that the Wings should trade Jiri Hudler, however:

“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.”

Update #3: DetroitRedWings.com’s Michael Caples talked about Rafalski’s supremely unconventional path to the NHL...

Rafalski was denied the typical path to the NHL, going undrafted. So the Dearborn, MIch., native did the next best thing: He played in Europe. He played professionally for Brynas IF Gavle. After a season in the Swedish Elite League, Rafalski moved east where he played three seasons in the Finnish Elite League. Playing in the country’s capital city, Rafalski flourished, recording 53 points in as many games with HIFK Helsinki in 1998-99. The Hockey News even proclaimed that Rafalski was, “The best defenseman not playing in the NHL”.

“Over there, it was year to year,” Rafalski said. “You had only yourself to look at and improve upon, because you’re basically playing for yourself and your family. You try to get as good as you can, so it was good for me to go over there. Without a multi-year contract, it was you better get better if you want to make more money.”

His strong performance in Finland garnered the attention of the New Jersey Devils, who signed Rafalski to a contract in the summer of 1999. From that point, Rafalski established himself as one of the league’s top defensemen. As a member of the Devils and Red Wings, he recorded 515 points over 11 seasons, along with three Stanley Cup rings, and two Olympic silver medals with Team USA. He was even named the Most Outstanding Defenseman in the Vancouver Games in 2010.

“You think about a 5’8”, 5’9” defenseman who was never drafted and went to spend four years in Europe,” Holland said. “It was a great move by the New Jersey Devils in signing Brian Rafalski. That’s what the league is about, it’s about figuring out a way to develop players through drafting, developing, finding players, and free agency.”
...
“There’s tons of guys who have gone and done it,” Babcock said, “and yet, what I would say to you is that it allowed his skill set to improve, and his confidence to grow, so that when he came back, he was an impact player right away. There are a lot of guys; maybe Derek Meech will do it. There’s lots of guys people would consider undersized guys that have to be more skilled than your regular guy that might need more time.”

And let’s all be surprised that the AP’s Larry Lage let this one drop:

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.

Update: Impressive, via the Free Press’s Michael Rosenberg;

The timing is not so great now. 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.

Filed in: | The Malik Report | Permalink
 

Comments

HockeytownOverhaul's avatar

Dude, seriously.. talk about finding people to play beyond wha tyou pay them.. how about players robbing the team’s cap space for a futile effort to produce.  Huds was disastrous unless he was playing with Pav.  He was completely nullified against the sharks.. The Wings could greatly use that 2mil for someone with a bit more size and grit.. with the points he put up this season, any guy could come in and produce the same.

Posted by HockeytownOverhaul on 05/25/11 at 10:41 PM ET

sjketcheson's avatar

I think my favourite part is the 5 finals appearances in 11 seasons. Damn! That’s a lot of finals!

Posted by sjketcheson from the floor of the Hasek on 05/26/11 at 12:22 AM ET

perfection's avatar

“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 after the press conference announcing Brian Rafalski’s retirement. “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.’‘

this is exactly what i’ve been saying. offer sheet aren’t even an option for a team like ours.

Posted by perfection from LaLaLand on 05/26/11 at 02:07 AM ET

Lucce's avatar

I believe Weber will sign a 2 year deal max, if he wants to win somethin,  he is not doing that in Nashville….. More than a couple of games… Look at Nash, missing playofff after playoff…. Weber will do the smart thing.

Posted by Lucce from Kingdom of Zweden on 05/26/11 at 04:32 AM ET

Hank1974's avatar

Trade Filpulla.
Helm has emerged. He has 3rd line offensive skills. Time to let Flip go and bring in a capable Dman.

Posted by Hank1974 on 05/26/11 at 10:28 AM ET

Avatar

Time to let Flip go and bring in a capable Dman.

I’m not super-high on Flip, but why trade him for a “capable” d-man when we’ve jsut had $6M freed up with which we can pick up more than simply a “capable” d-man?

I’d trade Hudler for a bag of pucks, or even an empty bag which had previously contained pucks, but if we were to insist that Helm centre the third line, we could easily put Flip on the 2nd or 3rd line as a winger.

Posted by Garth on 05/26/11 at 01:21 PM ET

RedMenace's avatar

I still don’t get the Hudler hate.  Did he under-perform this season?  Yes.  Is there a chance he rounds back into form next season?  Of course.  Why you people have such a hard-on for ditching a guy who improved every season before his trip to Russia is way beyond me.  Give the guy a chance to get back into the system.  Damn.

Posted by RedMenace from the Church of Jesus Lashoff on 05/26/11 at 02:30 PM ET

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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.