The last couple of days have been pretty eventful in the hockey world, and for a Red Wings fan, there’s some thought-provoking conversation fodder out there.
So Brian Rafalski has announced his retirement with one year remaining on his contract, and the San Jose Sharks were defeated in 5 games by the Vancouver Canucks on a loopy, lucky, double-OT goal by Kevin Bieksa. What’s it all mean from a Hockeytown Perspective?
Let’s start with Rafalski. For the last couple of years, the media has been groaning about the “aging defense corps” of the Detroit Red Wings. We all knew this going in. These guys were in their mid- to late-30s but they were still the best in the league…the world even! So it was ok, and we sort of covered our eyes to the impending day when these guys would retire. That day is upon us…a little sooner than anticipated. We knew Niklas Lidstrom’s year-by-year contracts were going to wind down, but we also “knew” that Brian Rafalski was with us through 2012 season. So it was a staggered approach to passing the Blueliners’ Torch.
So now it happens all at once. Many have turned to Lidstrom and speculate that the added “pressure” of not having Rafalski to rely on at the point would further cement his decision towards just one more year with the Winged Wheel. Granted, a player like Lidstrom does feel the added pressure because he loves his team so much. It’s his “baby,” and he won’t rest until he’s sure it’s taken care of, and on a good footing. However, if he was seriously leaning towards retiring, he may relunctantly sign on to another year mostly out of this dedication…which might lead to a sub-par season, and a lousy career swan song. That’s not what Hockeytown needs…
The Rafalski hole does leave an unexpected $6 million in Kenny Holland’s wallet to search for a replacement, or an additional power forward. Mark Spizzirri posted a fantastic, very comprehensive column yesterday regarding all the top defensive free agents coming up this summer, and I don’t think I can add much more to his analysis. I do believe that the Red Wings will try to invest in a younger, grittier player, than go for the wily veteran, which is why I highly doubt they’ll put much interest in the likes of Ed Jovanovski, and likely turn to Vancouver for either Kevin Bieksa of Christian Ehrhoff. On that note, I think that Bieksa will stay with Vancouver, as he has become so entwined in the fabric of that team (even before his series winner two nights ago). I don’t think Holland and Co., want to throw a high enough salary at him to lure him away from the Canucks. Ehrhoff on the other hand….a much more distinct possibility.
Despite whoever Detroit picks up over the summer, they will likely turn to Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart to head up the Blueline. I think they’re both ready, especially Kronwall. He just came off his best season, and is still growing stronger. He’s certainly no Lidstrom and he isn’t Rafalski, but he’s getting there. As long as Kronwall wants to stay with Detroit, Holland will make him quite comfortable. The Red Wings will need to find someone who has youth and speed, as well as the craftiness to outsmart opposing forwards. I think this coming season will definitely see a bit of a hole where #28 used to be, but a Class A replacement doing his best to fill it. Not to worry.
The other item on today’s discussion is the Sharks’ five-game loss to the Canucks. As a Red Wing fan you have to think about what that means to you and your team. The Wings went down 0-3 to the Sharks before clawing back to force a Game 7, then lost by 1 goal. Now that same Sharks team has been entirely overpowered by the Canucks, being outscored 21-12. So you wonder, would Detroit have fared any better? The Wings and Sharks put on one of the best Playoff series in history, with most people echoing Eklund’s wish that series could be pushed to the best of 15 games instead of 7. After the dust settles, though, there are usually two groups – those who are happy the Sharks are out for the specific reason that they killed the Red Wings’ season, and those who are bummed the Sharks are out because it helps justify Detroit’s elimination. There’s a certain solace to be taken in the fact that your team was eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champion (or runner up). This season, I side with the former. I don’t “hate” the Sharks, or even “dislike” them at all. I rather enjoy watching them play, but I think I feel better knowing they’re out simply because they’ve eliminated the Wings twice in a row, and frankly, I’m kinda tired of it. I do have to add that I don’t think Detroit would have bested Vancouver, although I feel the games would have been closer. And, venturing deeper, if Detroit had beat Vancouver I would have predicted them to win the Cup. But not this year…the mountain was just too high.
So take Heart, Red Wings’ fans. The Western Conference Playoffs finished like the regular season standings…Vancouver first, San Jose second, Detroit third. That’s the way it was for the better part of the season, so no surprises. Look for a very busy summer in the Red Wings’ front office. There’s a really great free agent market out there and Kenny Holland has over 14 million dollars in his pocket (not including Lidstrom’s $6.2 million). I can’t wait to see how this plays out!