Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Road Less Traveled...Since the Cap

I couldn't write this until it felt real. Last night night Detroit was eliminated from the playoffs, but it just hadn't set in yet. It still felt like there could be a game Sunday. There may be something happening Sunday, but it's going to be a locker room clean out and not a game.

The facts are the facts, and Detroit has failed to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the past three seasons. There will be significant changes to the roster this offseason because there has to be. Detroit has the cap space to operate like they haven't in years past, and if the cap goes up once again and Nick Lidstrom (God forbid) retires, the Wings will have more money to spend on free agents than they have since the cap was instituted.

Mike Babcock said that the Wings weren't deep enough up front to win the series. From this, it isn't too hard to surmise that the Wings will make a push for a top-six forward during free agency. They'll likely attempt to sign a top-two defeneseman as well. Though Babcock stated that the depth on the back end was a strength, there's a possibility that two of Detroit's top four won't be on the roster when training camp starts (Stuart and Lidstrom).

One way to go about analyzing the offseason is to frame it through the complaints of many fans, and these complaints were nicely assembled in an article by Shark Circle. This is also a nice metaphor for how strange this postseason has been. A Sharks blog is writing and writing well about the Wings and their offseason needs.

The article bemoans the lack of spending on free agents Detroit has done in the past three years. The reasons that Ken Holland put away the checkbook are two-fold. First, the organization has been trying to utilize the framework it built in which prospects are left to marinate in the minors until they're very well seasoned, at which point they're brought up and given a fair shot on the big team. It's been an organizational pillar since the lockout to focus more on drafting and developing talent in house, as the days of Wild West offseasons where money and contracts flow and three future Hall of Famers are added to a roster have passed us by. Second, there just haven't been choice free agents to spend on. Last season had an especially weak crop, and Ken Holland isn't going to make a move simply to make one. He's still an efficient manager, and he made the choice to wait until the trade deadline and see what was available instead of overspend on replacement-level talent. Things fell the wrong way at the trade deadline, and now Holland looks a bit more foolish for not making moves last summer.

Many may have wondered whether Holland has gradually become afraid to trade, and there's no denying that it could appear this way due to the inactivity of the Wings in the offseason and to a lesser extent at the deadline. Shark Circle uses San Jose as an example of moving packages of players to get high quality young talent, the kind that is rarely available in free agency. The problem with making these kinds of moves is that you essentially have to mortgage your present to have a brighter future, and that's something the Wings don't have an interest in. Babcock stressed last night that Detroit wants to win and win now, not rest on their laurels and back into a playoff spot.

I would be very hesitant to say that there's a disconnect between Babcock and Holland, even if it does seem that the coach is asking for roster moves that the general manager has yet to deliver. I believe that both understand the issues the team has, and that they each want the same thing to remedy this. The Wings had some cap room that they didn't expect to have because of the suddenness of Brian Rafalski's retirement, and they did what they were able to do without being irresponsible. Detroit pushed for James Wisniewski last offseason, but he signed with Columbus during the five minute window in which they were a fashionable spot and a trendy playoff pick, having just picked up the since-traded Jeff Carter. Detroit had to settle for the next best option, which was Ian White.

Detroit also made a push for Jaromir Jagr, who appeared to be a wild card and something of a risk because of his time away from the league. The Wings were afraid to overspend on a potential bust, and it's possible that memories of how long it took for Jiri Hudler to readjust to the NHL from the KHL scared them off when Jagr's asking price went up precipitously thanks to the Flyers and their offer.

This is the most important offseason for the Wings since 2001, when they were facing a similarily uncomfortable early exit and a need to retool. That was the year Hasek, Hull, and Robitaille were added over the summer, additions that led to a Stanley Cup the next June. The salary cap makes it difficult for that much talent to be added in one offseason, but it's not impossible to add the necessary pieces to Detroit's roster.

Everyone would likely be able to embrace the addition of Zach Parise up front and Ryan Suter on the backend, one a true top-three forward and the other a top-two defensemen that has yet to peak. Typically I'd feel the need to come up with some caveat, or at the very least list a couple of players that fill similar needs but don't carry the same price tag. Not this time. Parise and Suter are two high profile free agents, and attempting to sign them should be at the absolute top of Ken Holland's to-do list. For the first time in the post-cap world, Detroit can act like the Detroit of the mid 90's and early 00's. They can once again spend wildly, and hope to lock down a couple of perennial All Stars in the process.

I would be shocked if Holland didn't look to make a couple of high impact moves this offseason. There's no need to rip this team apart; a couple of strong roster additions would put Detroit in Cup contention again. Holland being told that he isn't allowed to spend to the absolute ceiling of the cap would be a tremendous surprise, at least judging by the Tigers payroll and the revenue of Illitch Holdings in 2011 (9th paragraph). I expect that he will take advantage of this.

There's a critical point in the franchise's history fast approaching, as the retirement of Nick Lidstrom will in all likelihood be coupled with that of Tomas Holmstrom. Whether it's this offseason or next, that signals the end of an era. Whether the Wings remain a Cup contender will be determined by the strength of their roster, and the strength of that roster can be further developed this offseason. Moves must be made, changes must occur, and faith must be restored. This is an anxiety provoking time to be a Detroit fan, but there are potentially exiting additions waiting in the wings.

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