Niklas Kronwall isn’t going to make any decisions about his future quite yet, but the 37-year-old defenseman said over the weekend that he could possibly be playing his final campaign in the NHL.
"I know where I'm at right now,” Kronwall said, according to NHL.com's Mike Zeisberger. “A year from now I don't know where I'll be at. I'd love to sign [for] another year but let's face it. The team's getting younger. I'm getting older. The game's getting faster. I'm not the same player I was 10 years ago.”
A fixture on the Red Wings’ blueline for more than a decade, Kronwall is about to enter into the final season of a seven-year contract he signed with Detroit back in October 2011, and it’s no surprise to hear mention of potential retirement. Over the past three seasons, Kronwall has had to battle against not just time, but knee injuries that have seen him miss nearly 50 games, including stretches of 15 and 11 games on the sideline since January 2016. It wasn’t that long ago, either, that Kronwall revealed he even attempted stem-cell therapy as a possible solution for his knee problems.
Despite clearly slowing down over the past few seasons, though, Kronwall has maintained a certain level of production despite dwindling ice time. Skating the lowest average ice time of his career as a full-time NHL rearguard last season, 18:31, Kronwall scored four goals and 27 points across 79 games. While far from his career high of 51 points, it was a marked improvement from his production during the 2016-17 campaign. As Kronwall noted, however, the game is getting younger and faster, two things he is decidedly not as he inches towards his 38th birthday.
But Kronwall likely isn’t the only player heading towards the finish line. Here are five others who could be playing their final season in 2018-19:
MATT CULLEN, PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
Cullen is somehow both the most and least obvious answer when it comes to who’s about to play their final season in the NHL. After chipping in a healthy 13 goals and 31 points in his age-40 season with the Penguins, Cullen had a solid post-season performance as Pittsburgh completed its journey to consecutive Stanley Cup victories to close out the 2016-17 campaign. At the time, there was serious belief that Cullen would be calling it a career. But sure enough, he signed a one-year deal with the Minnesota Wild and played what many thought would be his final campaign in his home state. Again, though, Cullen surprised by returning to the Penguins on a one-year contract this summer as he inches ever closer to his 42nd birthday.
So, will Cullen hang 'em up after this season? His age would suggest there isn’t much tread left on the tires. Then again, he scored 11 goals and 22 points as a 41-year-old last season and decided he still had enough gas in the tank to contribute during the 2018-19 campaign. One can’t help but think this has to be the last go-round for Cullen, though.
CHRIS KUNITZ, CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
Last season saw Kunitz have something of a resurgence, thanks in large part to an eye-popping 16-percent shooting percentage, as he posted 13 goals and 29 points across a full 82-game campaign with the Tampa Bay Lightning. But Kunitz, formerly a first-line winger with the Stanley Cup-winning Penguins, has seen age catch up to him in recent years. Not only has the one-time 35-goal man scored just 56 goals over the past four seasons, but his production has steadily declined from twin 40-point campaigns in 2014-15 and 2015-16 to twin 29-point seasons in the past two campaigns.
Kunitz, who turns 39 before the puck drops on the regular season, isn’t even likely to crack the middle-six in Chicago this season, which would be par for the course for a veteran winger who has seen his ice time dwindle by nearly six minutes per game in four seasons’ time. And given he’ll be 40 ahead of the 2019-20 campaign, chances are Kunitz is going to have a tough time finding work in an increasingly younger, faster league.
RYAN MILLER, ANAHEIM DUCKS
Miller has had a quiet descent into the life of a backup netminder and it appears fairly likely that he could exit the league after this season given his role at this point. After reaching the highest of highs at the position when he won the Vezina Trophy in 2009-10, not to mention finished fourth in Hart Trophy voting, Miller spent three seasons in Vancouver which gave way to a backup job with the Anaheim Ducks, where he’s currently in the final year of a two-year pact.
And while Miller could likely keep his career going on the basis of his play — he posted a .928 save percentage and four shutouts in 28 games last season — the fact of the matter is that he’s a 38-year-old goaltender who will turn 39 shortly after free agency opens next season. It seems hard to fathom any team will be willing to pay to bring in a 39-year-old netminder next summer, particularly given not a single goaltender of that age has signed a contract in nearly four years.
One possibility for Miller, however, could be a one-day contract that sees him retire as a member of the Buffalo Sabres. He’s the franchise leader in wins and games played and spent over a decade with the organization.
BROOKS ORPIK, WASHINGTON CAPITALS
His contract with the Capitals just about says it all. While there was some speculation that there may have been conversations with Washington about a return long before the deal was official, the fact of the matter is Orpik had a chance to find himself a better contract elsewhere after the Colorado Avalanche bought him out. Instead, he wound up returning to the Capitals for an even $1 million on a one-year pact. As much as it his contract, though, Orpik’s steadily dwindling usage from the regular season to the playoffs — his average ice time dropped by nearly three minutes — points to the veteran blueliner being on the 18th green of his career. That’s not to mention he’ll be a 39-year-old rearguard, and one that’s not all that fleet of foot, by the time the 2019-20 campaign rolls around.
And really, what does Orpik have left to prove after he plays out this year? Following Washington’s Stanley Cup victory, Orpik now has two titles on his resume, and it’s not as if he’s going to need to recoup any earnings lost from the buyout. In fact, his $1-million pact covers almost all of his losses. He’s all set to head for retirement.
DEREK MACKENZIE, FLORIDA PANTHERS
The 37-year-old Panthers captain is heading into the final season of a two-year pact in Florida, and chances are that when his contract is up, his next stop will be retirement. A heart-and-soul type for the Cats — for every team for which he’s played, really — MacKenzie simply doesn’t have the numbers to support another team bringing him aboard. Over the past four seasons in Florida, MacKenzie has scored 20 goals and 54 points in 303 games. And given he averaged little more than 11 minutes last season and has averaged little more than a dozen across his time with the Panthers, it’s most likely that he passes the captaincy along once the season closes.
Call it a hunch, but even once he retires, it sure feels like it won’t be the last we see of MacKenzie. Always a strong faceoff guy who was able to make depth contributions, he feels like one of those players who will leave the on-ice for a spot in the off-ice, be it player development or coaching of some kind.
HENRIK ZETTERBERG, DETROIT RED WINGS
Here’s a sixth possibility for asterisk's sake. There’s some speculation that Zetterberg has already played his final NHL game, that he won’t be returning this season due to back issues that date back a few seasons. That said, nothing is official yet and with Zetterberg still under contract — and with one season remaining at a $3.35-million salary before his back-diving 12-year pact sees him paid $1 million for two consecutive seasons — let’s assume he returns. That would almost undoubtedly make the 2018-19 campaign his last, giving him a victory lap around the league and a chance to really, truly pass the torch to the Red Wings’ next generation.