By Dave Waddell -
DETROIT - After being dumped out of the NHL playoffs early for the third straight season, there’s a sense this off-season is going to be very different than previous summers for the Detroit Red Wings.
There’s going to be change.
More significantly, the prevailing opinion among players as they cleaned out their lockers Tuesday was it needs to be more than tweaking if the Wings are to pull themselves out of the spiral that has seen them lose four of their last six playoff series.
“I think so, there needs to be,” said Pavel Datsyuk about the possibility of significant change.
“It might not be something really, really big, but there has to be some change for sure.
“It’s a good thing we make the playoffs, but the last few years we don’t go too far. The second round is not good.
“We need to improve ourselves for sure. We need to take at least two steps (to conference finals).”
While some change is inevitable with the fluidity brought on by the salary cap, Henrik Zetterberg said the Wings need to go beyond cosmetic line-up changes.
The team simply isn’t good enough to win the ultimate prize in its current form.
“You need to make changes,” Zetterberg said.
“You add people and you lose people. Some of them are tougher than others.
“We haven’t been good enough in here lately and I think everyone in here is prepared to make those sacrifices to do what needs to be done.”
However, Zetterberg said the changes that are needed aren’t necessarily a rip down and rebuild. He feels the Wings’ problems are fixable and can be done fast.
“I think it can be fixed (in one summer),” Zetterberg said. “We have a good team here.
“We have to do some changes. If we do the right changes, they will be some tough changes, but if we do that we’ll be right back next year.”
The question to be answered is how will general manager Ken Holland approach the task?
The blueprint may be similar to the one he used after the Wings flamed out in six games to the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the 2001 playoffs.
Detroit went big into free agency getting Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull and trading for Dominik Hasek. They also began to introduce some youngsters in the form of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
The similarities to the situations are startling. Detroit looks the same stale team that couldn’t score enough after enjoying years of success.
With an owner like Mike Ilitch, who likes some sizzle to keep his teams in the headlines and whose of an age where winning now is of paramount importance, it’s not likely Detroit will have nearly $6 million of unused cap space at the end of next season.
The Wings have 16 players signed for next season, worth a total of $42.3 million. The salary cap this season was $64.3 million.
With youngsters Brendan Smith and Gustav Nyquist almost assuredly on the roster next fall, along with their entry level salaries below $1 million apiece, the Wings will have plenty of cash to fill out their 23-man NHL roster.
“It’s hard to predict what they’re thinking,” said Wings’ captain Nick Lidstrom, whose future will be at the center of how significant the change will be in Detroit this summer.
“We have some guys whose contracts are up.
“You’re always going to see some changes, whether they’re major or minor, we’ll have to wait and see.”
For those fretting over the future of Lidstrom, one worry to strike off your list is the veteran defenseman has no concerns over whether the team will be competitive next season.
“We still have a solid core group of players that’s been part of this team for a while that are still contributing to this team,” Lidstrom said. “I don’t see the team slipping.
“There’s a lot of parity in this league and if you don’t play as good as you have to, you’re going to lose and that’s what happened to our team.
“I haven’t my meeting with Kenny (Holland) yet, but I doubt he’s thinking about rebuilding. I think they’re going to do whatever they can to get the best players and put out the best product.”
That product would be immeasurably better if Lidstrom was still part of it. The soon-to-be 42-year-old will take his customary few weeks to ponder his future, but will give the club a decision before the end of June.
“I’m happy with how I played the first half of the season, I felt I dropped off a little bit in the second half,” Lidstrom said.
“Then I got hurt 60 games into the year. I think that slowed me down I bit. I wasn’t where I wanted to be after I got back from that injury.”
Lidstrom led the Wings in ice time this season and he has no doubts he’s capable of playing at the elite level he demands of himself next season.
“I feel physically I can still play,” said Lidstrom, who will also take into consideration his family situation with two sons expected to be attending a hockey school in Sweden next season.
“I can contribute, but you have to be motivated and you have to have the drive and that’s something I will think about.”
Regardless of Lidstrom’s decision, Detroit looks like it’ll need to replace at least one top-four defenseman. Though he said he hasn’t settled on a decision, Brad Stuart sounded like a man really struggling at the thought of another season away from his family in California.
Stuart’s wife has a daughter from a previous marriage who must stay in the state until she finishes high school.
“The situation isn’t normal,” Stuart said. “There are a lot of other factors other than hockey.
“It’s been a tough couple of years. As much fun and as great as it’s been to play here, it’s been equally as tough on the family side of it.
“Those are things I’d like to consider, at least try to fix.”
Whether Stuart is part of the fix in Detroit this summer or not, Wings’ coach Mike Babcock said he’s confident with more than $20 million in available cap space his team will be back in the hunt come fall.
“We’re in a position where we can get into the market,” Babcock said. “We feel we have some room to add and we’ll do the very best we can.
“We feel we have lots of good pieces. We feel we have a ton of guys in their prime, but we’ve been disappointed now a few years in a row.
“There are people out there and we’re going to do our best.”
The Wings have two glaring needs entering the free agent market, which opens July 1.
Detroit has to find a goal scorer and someone to help feel the vacuum left by Lidstrom’s eventual departure.
“We need to score more,” Datsyuk said.
“We have a few with injuries, but we need more score. When the playoffs start, we have not many goal scorers.”
Zetterberg was even more specific when asked his thoughts on who Detroit should pursue when one inquisitor began rambling off a list of potential unrestricted free agents.
“Yes, those are two right there,” said Zetterberg when New Jersey forward Zach Parise and Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter were mentioned.
“They’re good players. Great players and seem like two really good guys too.
“They’d be a good fit in here. We’ll just have to wait and see where they decide to go.”
Other potential forwards who could be free agents are Washington’s Alex Semin, Ryan Smith, Shane Doan and Teemu Selanne, but it would seem unlikely the final three would leave their long-time homes in Edmonton, Phoenix and Anaheim.
Beyond that you have Calgary’s Olli Jokinen, Florida’s Mikael Samuelsson and Philadelphia’s Jaromir Jagr.
Amongst defenseman, Suter is clearly the potential prize catch.
Other defenders scheduled to enter the market are Ottawa’s Filip Kuba, Florida’s Jason Garrison, Washington’s Dennis Wideman, St. Louis’s Barret Jackman, Dallas’ Sheldon Souray and Phoenix’s Michal Rozsival.
The Wings may also be able to get involved in what is expected to be a very active trade market at the NHL Draft in June in finding a forward.
Columbus’s Rick Nash and Calgary’s Jarome Iginla could well be dealt at that time.
While there’s no chance Columbus would trade Rick Nash to a Central Division rival, the dominoes falling in such a deal might shake loose some other players.
The third area of improvement needing attention involves adding more size and sand paper to the line-up.
Travis Moen, who the Wings inquired about several times the trade deadline, would fill that need nicely and he’s also less than 30 years of age.
Depending on the state of Joey MacDonald’s sore back, the Wings might also have to add a back-up netminder.
There are plenty of those available including Florida’s Scott Clemmensen, New York Ranger’s Marty Biron, Winnipeg’s Chris Mason, Minnesota’s Josh Harding and Columbus’ Curtis Sanford.
Babcock, who sees forward as the trouble spot unless both Stuart and Lidstrom depart, said one thing that won’t change is the Wings’ style.
The Wings have identified a self-image their comfortable with and they won’t be trying to emulate the next Stanley Cup champion.
“Every year, whoever wins, you could say let’s model ourselves after them,” Babcock said.
“Teams that do that end up changing models every year. We’re going to stay with the model we got and keep making it better and reload it.”