Speculation about the off-season plans of Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland began almost immediately following his team’s elimination from the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Though only three years removed from their last Stanley Cup final appearance and four years since their last championship, the Wings have been moving in the wrong direction.
One reason is their aging core. Defenseman and team captain Nicklas Lidstrom is 41, while left winger Tomas Holmstrom and right winger Todd Bertuzzi are 39 and 37, respectively.
Center Pavel Datsyuk (33), left winger Henrik Zetterberg (31), along with right wingers Daniel Cleary (33) and Johan Franzen (32) may seem like spring chickens by comparison, but their style of play exacts a heavy physical toll, especially as they grow older.
If the Wings had depth in younger talent to help the aforementioned players carry the load, it wouldn’t be an issue.
Thirty-one-year-old hard-hitting defenseman Niklas Kronwall has become a more well-rounded blueliner, 28-year-old left winger Valtteri Filppula had a career year scoring 23 goals and 66 points, and 28-year-old right winger Jiri Hudler rebounded nicely from last season’s poor performance with 25 goals and 50 points.
The problem, however, is they aren’t on the same level of Lidstrom, Datsyuk or Zetterberg to take over for them one day, nor is there anyone else in the lineup capable of helping their aging stars shoulder the burden or eventually replacing those players as their careers wind down.
Coach Mike Babcock blamed a lack of forward depth for his team’s inability to overcome the Nashville Predators in their conference quarterfinal series. Holland is expected to address this area in the summer.
If New Jersey Devils left winger Zach Parise becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, Holland is expected to pursue him.
Earlier this month, Parise acknowledged his admiration of the Wings’ puck possession game, calling Datsyuk his favorite player to watch.
Should Parise hit the open market, the opportunity to play alongside Datsyuk could prove an irresistible attraction.
Another area Holland is expected to address is on the blueline.
Lidstrom and Brad Stuart are eligible for UFA status on July 1. It’s unknown if Lidstrom will retire or return for another season, though he is expected to declare his intentions before July 1. Stuart, however, is expected to sign with a California-based team in order to be closer to his family in San Jose.
Even if Lidstrom returns, Stuart’s expected departure leaves a gaping hole on the blueline, which Holland could attempt to fill by pursuing Predators defenseman Ryan Suter, who is also eligible for UFA status.
Other notable Wings free agents include pending UFAs Holmstrom, Hudler and goalie Ty Conklin, along with restricted free agents such as defenseman Kyle Quincey and centers Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader.
The Wings currently have more than $43.5 million invested in 17 players for next season and assuming the salary cap for 2012-13 remains around $64.3 million, their ability to sign Parise and Suter to heavily front-loaded, cap-friendly contracts is there.
Assuming the two cost a combined $12 million, that would push Detroit’s payroll above $55 million, leaving enough for modest raises to Hudler, Helm and Abdelkader, while Quincey would have to accept a pay cut from his current $3.125 million to remain in Detroit. Holmstrom, who was clearly a spent force this season, is expected to retire.
The wild card is Lidstrom, who made $6.2 million this season and could seek roughly the same salary should he return for another season.
Holland could afford to sign Lidstrom, Parise and Suter, but their combined salaries would make it difficult to re-sign most of their remaining free agents, unless Holland sheds salary elsewhere from the lineup via trades, demotions or buyouts.
Should Holland fail to reel in Parise or Suter, he’ll consider other free agents, as well as trades and promotions from the farm team, to address his needs this summer.
It will be a summer of change for the Red Wings, but as more than one Detroit pundit suggested, it will be more of a retool than an overhaul.
Rumor Roundup appears Monday-Friday only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.