Saturday, June 29, 2013

Final Destination - Why Drafting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope Will Get Joe Dumars Fired

"Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells! But I, with mournful tread, walk the deck my captain lies, fallen cold and dead." - Walt Whitman

At the very best of times, the NBA's annual talent allocation draft is a shocking spectacle that highlights both the most virtuous, and the most base aspects of the proverbial "American dream". The atmosphere surrounding the event itself resembles nothing if not a midway carnival; only if said carnival were being broadcast into millions of homes on live national television. The cameras roll, the photographers flash and one by one this year's cluster of the finest athletes college and international basketball have to offer, are paraded before the hungry eyes of fans, media and general managers. In the moments between picks, an endless stream of retired players, stat geeks, draft gurus, talking heads and mythical beasts named Dick Vitale throw out catchphrases like "wingspan", "upside", "motor" and "stroke" to explain why absolutely nothing they predicted about the Draft is coming true in real time. There are surprise picks, brilliant acquisitions, draft day trades and desperation hires that will likely throw franchises into turmoil for years to come. One franchise, the Dallas Mavericks even did their level best this year to not to make a selection at all; preferring to move down for a much cheaper player so they can stockpile funds to take a run a Dwight Howard in the near future. The players themselves are merely pawns in this grotesque drama; invited to the party so a voracious public can witness their triumphs, anxieties, relief and failed attempts to appear happy when presented with crushing disappointment. They do so willingly; for marketing purposes and because the promise of many, very large paychecks awaits those who's names are called in the "lottery" portion of the draft. At the very center of the maelstrom sits ringmaster, David Stern; a man who truly has become untouchable at this point in his career. The commissioner won't be back next season but for this one final draft he stood in all his glory; his taunts, gestures and smirks never more reminiscent of a brazen main-street pimp who fears no reprisal.

Frankly, I would watch the NBA draft even if Detroit didn't have a franchise; the spectacle itself has become must see television. Of course, for better or for worse Detroit does have an NBA franchise and so like millions of Pistons' fans worldwide, I watched this year's NBA draft with precisely one question on my mind: "Would Trey Burke fall to Detroit at number 8?" After wasting countless hours of my life reading "draft rumors" that turned out to be entirely fictitious as usual, I was fairly certain that Burke was indeed going to last until pick 8. There was even an outside possibility that Detroit could flop picks with Minnesota and get Burke at 9; they were rumored to be interested in some shooting guard from Georgia I'd never even heard of during the NCAA season. For once in the team's miserable existence, the stars were aligning just right. Burke was predictably falling because he isn't very tall, he isn't a ridiculous athletic freak and the draft was full of promising "big men" in a league where size often trumps the ability to play basketball. In short, I was genuinely excited as I sat down to watch the draft and if you're a Pistons' fan, I don't need to tell you that this was a rare occasion indeed. What played out across my television over the next hour or so was dramatic, compelling, heartbreaking and infuriating all at once. That night, I watched a Pistons legend commit career suicide for the most noble of reasons; to make his basketball team better in the long term.

Truthfully, despite overwhelming fan discontent, it's entirely possible that Dumars is correct and that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is simply a better NBA prospect than Trey Burke. The scouting report on this kid reads like a how to manual for creating a threatening wing player at the pro level. He's 6'6", 240 lbs, has a sweet, pull up jump shot, excels in transition and has all the tools to become a very strong defender in the NBA. More than anything else, KCP is the kind of elite, scoring option at the shooting guard position that could eventually make Detroit one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the NBA. Unfortunately this scenario comes with two very relevant caveats; Caldwell-Pope must realize his vast potential and he's likely going to need a significant amount of time to do so. There's a difference between talent and skill; KCP has the necessary talent to become the next Paul Pierce, he is nowhere near the player he could be at this very moment. For starters, Kentavious isn't much of a ball handler; he has basically one move (grab ball, split defenders in the paint), relies almost entirely on mediocre footwork to create room for his magnificent shot and isn't very tough, or physical. He's also not much of a finisher at the rim, although he can throw down a highlight reel dunk with the best of them when he's completely unguarded. To put it bluntly; right now Caldwell-Pope is rawer than a sushi dinner and while he will immediately put some balls in the basket for the Pistons organization, it will be virtually impossible for him to justify his draft position in the short term. He needs time and quality coaching to develop properly and right now, neither commodity seems to be abundant in the Pistons' organization.

On the opposite end of the prospect spectrum, sits "hometown" hero; 20 year old point guard, Trey Burke. By virtually all accounts, Burke is as ready as a college point guard can be for the NBA. Fresh off a sweep of every major national player of the year award, a NCAA Finals appearance and one of the finest sophomore seasons in Michigan basketball history; there is no question that Trey's mental toughness is NBA-worthy. Burke simply does not wilt under pressure. Although he's very cognizant of the need to keep his teammates involved; when the chips are down Burke has absolutely no problem being the hammer that puts the nail in the opposing team's coffin. From a personality perspective, the kid is a born leader. He's calm, intelligent, thoughtful and mature beyond his years; while still possessing the passion and ruthless killer instinct necessary to succeed in the NBA. He's an elite passer, was easily the best pick and roll artist at the position in this draft, has a marvelous spot up jump shot (although it isn't as good as KCP's) and very, very rarely turns the ball over. Although he isn't the athlete that Caldwell-Pope is, it would be criminally unfair to describe Burke as "non-athletic"; he's quick, has an exceptional handle, possesses a number of shifty, open court moves and doesn't turn the ball over in transition either. Burke's problem near as I can tell is that no one thing about his game stands out all that much; he can pass, drive or pull up for jumpers on virtually any possession and as such is hard to classify in rigid, NBA point guard terms. Burke way well be the rare "combo-guard" who's called that because he can score or set up scoring with equal proficiency, but the term itself is still the kiss of death to many NBA general managers. Perhaps most importantly; Trey Burke isn't 6'6", 240lbs and he's much closer to his final destination as a prospect than a player in the mold of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

To be fair to Dumars, he isn't the only person in NBA circles who wasn't sold on Burke as a game-changing point guard; Trey fell from the number 2 prospect to the number 9 pick for a reason after all and many savvy basketball observers saw Burke as nothing more than a decent rotation player at the pro level. The smart money is saying that in a vacuum, Dumars got the better player because if both guys reach their maximum potential; KCP will be a bigger star than Trey Burke by a significant margin. Additionally, a certain argument can be made that Burke would have been a luxury pick for a Piston's team that already has point guards Rodney Stuckey, Jose Calderon and Brandon Knight but definitely lacks a credible shooting guard to speak of. The problem with these arguments however is that absolutely none of the Piston's current options at the position are actually good at playing point guard and Joe Dumars is most certainly not operating in a vacuum. For those still clinging to the "Brandon Knight can eventually become an elite point guard" fallacy it would do to remember that last season Knight finished 40th amongst all guards with a dismal 21.3% assist rate. To place that into perspective; Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings has never seen a contested jumper he didn't fall immediately in love with and even he managed to score a 29.1% assist rate. Even newly crowed "guard-whisperer", coach Mo Cheeks basically called Knight a combo guard during his introductory press conference. Calderon is washed up and likely won't remain on the team and Stuckey has shown literally nothing as PG in his 6 year career that would indicate he's the solution at the position going forward.

Arguably more important than Detroit's point guard situation however, is the general sense of impending doom surrounding Joe Dumar's tenure as the team's general manager. Although there was a time when Joe Dumars was considered one of the better GM's in basketball, the past 8 years have largely served to obliterate his reputation as an elite NBA personnel man. While Dumars may have brought the team a title in 2004 and a finals appearance in 2005; his ineptitude since has lead the team into mediocrity, before bottoming out into a hopeless franchise that perennially tests the very limits of the term "slow rebuilding process." In virtually any analysis of the NBA landscape, the Pistons are considered a bad team, more disturbingly however; management has allowed the franchise to become largely irrelevant. Attendance figures are abysmal, the team lacks marketable star players (although Andre Drummond has potential) and the franchise is not considered a desirable destination for coaches or marquee free agents. The Pistons are perpetually one media crisis away from being a laughingstock; which might actually be an improvement when you realize that fans in the region have by and large lost interest in waiting for the team to get it's sh*t together. Fanspundits and local media have been extremely critical of Dumars as far back as 2009; the calls for his removal as architect of the franchise have literally been overwhelming for years now. As the wait for signs that the team will eventually turn around grows, both Dumars and the team itself continue to lose popularity and by extension, ticket sales.

In the final analysis, this is the true cost of drafting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ahead of Trey Burke. In one fell swoop Dumars could have provided hope and laid the groundwork for the return of thousands of Pistons' fans desperate for some sign, any sign that this year's team would be different. Drafting Burke would have instantly made the Pistons relevant again; both in the state of Michigan and nationally because of Burke's sky-high profile during his NCAA career. Even with absolutely no improvement as a prospect or quality coaching at the NBA level, Burke would have given the Pistons an instant upgrade on their halfcourt offense and made Drummond and Greg Monroe better players from the season opening tip-off. Dumars could have bought himself a tremendous amount of goodwill and hopefully by extension, time to finally turn his colossal shipwreck into a legitimate playoff contender again. Instead, Joe went with his basketball gut and took the more dominant athlete with the higher potential to develop into an elite weapon at the NBA level. It was a brave decision, rooted in Dumar's unshakeable belief in selecting the "best available player" during draft night, regardless of whom the media or fans expect him to select. Joe has always been a cantankerous fellow and he's shown virtually no interest in "moving the needle" even as the franchise wasted into a trivial bottom feeder. This will likely then prove his undoing when KCP begins his long development process, the team plays another season without an actual point guard and fans continue to stay away in droves. For a guy who's been clinging on to his job like shipwreck survivor clings to a life ring; Dumars has shown precious little understanding of just how precarious his employment situation has now become. Tom Gores has made it abundantly clear that he is not a patient man; he requires some, significant signs that Joe can turn this franchise around both on the court and at the box office or he will terminate Dumars and find someone who will do so. As it stands right now, the current Detroit roster doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of saving Joe's job; this team is going to continue to lose and they'll do so while playing boring, ugly basketball in a nearly empty arena.

Perhaps, one day 3 or 4 years from now; the world will look back on this moment and realize that Joe Dumars ultimately saved the Pistons' franchise during the 2013 draft. There is no question that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has the necessary talent to make this entire discussion an amusing historical afterthought when the talking heads have all had their say. Conversely, there is also no guarantee that KCP will amount to anything in the NBA, prospects with better physical gifts than his have flamed out before; often with a frightening degree of regularity. The simple truth however is that even when (if) Caldwell-Pope turns into Paul Pierce version 2.0; he will likely do so for another general manager unless Maurice Cheeks can somehow work a miracle with one of the 8 worst rosters in the league. I don't want to be a pessimist, but I would strongly advise against betting the farm on that happening ladies and gentlemen. No, what we witnessed on Thursday night was a suicide, plain and simple. Stubborn to the end, Dumars has decided to go out fighting for his beliefs as a talent evaluator and roster manager. In one, short hour, Dumars manged to lose gigantic portions of the fanbase; without the Pistons ever taking the floor as the notably crummy basketball team they will almost certainly be in 2013-14! When the bell tolls for Joe next offseason, it says right here that very few who follow this franchise will be moved to weep at his passing.

The sad part however, is that long after Joe Dumars walks the plank; it will be Pistons' fans who have to live with the consequences of passing on Trey Burke. I'm no NBA scout but something tells me that this kid has the heart to carve himself a place in basketball history. The problem is, he'll do it for Utah instead of Detroit and that's a damn shame folks.
- Sportsball Chic


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Red Storm Rising - Part 4: One is a Lonely Number

(Editor's Note: This article is the 4th and final part of an ongoing series, offering an in-depth look at the Red Wing's roster and it's potential evolution in the future. Part 1 of the series looks at blueliners, Part 2 discusses the present forward situation and Part 3 looks a forward prospects in the Wings farm system.) 

For a man who is himself a retired NHL goalkeeper; Ken Holland's tenure as general manager has seen the Red Wings change netminders almost as fast as some people change socks. In the time period between Holland's ascension to the GM's chair and the Wings' last cup win in 2008, the team went through no less than 5 starting keepers; 7 if you count return visits from Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood after leaving the team. If you're doing the math at home, that works out to changing your starting goalie roughly once every 1.5 years; and that's not even counting the fact that Holland began his managing career by swapping Mike Vernon out for Chris Osgood to begin the team's 97 Cup defense. Naturally, not all of the turnover was by design; at various points over the years Hasek retired, Osgood was released, Joseph was simply terrible, Hasek un-retired, Manny Legace broke down mentally and finally Hasek eventually got too old to steal his job back, so he retired again. Regardless of why, for years it seemed the Wings went into almost every offseason "an elite goaltender away from being the Stanley Cup favorite" and so, Holland was forced to constantly tinker with the position as the previous rental wore out or proved ineffective. Additionally, with the imposition of the salary cap in 2005; market realities dictated that Holland rely on cheaper goaltenders to keep his stunning array of core skill players together as long as possible. While these decisions were rarely popular at the time, few would argue with the results in retrospect; back to back finals appearances and a 2008 Stanley Cup victory have a funny way of altering memories only 5 seasons later. Fortunately for everyone involved, the arrival of Jimmy Howard in 2009 seems to have provided Holland with the necessary stability to end his goalie-swapping ways. Howard has served as the goaltender of note in each of the Red Wings' past 4 seasons, and a recent 6 year contract extension suggests that he will remain so in the near future.

The arrival of Howard also signified another significant change in the Wings' goaltending philosophy; the shift towards larger, more physically imposing netminders. To be fair, this is hardly a "Red Wing" thing so much as a league wide philosophical shift at the position. Although Howard is only 6' tall, he's bullishly strong at 2'18 lbs and his aggressive, challenging style stands in stark contrast to the acrobatic smurfs of seasons past. When you look at the rest of the expanded roster however, it's clear that the Red Wings' days of "mighty mite" goalies are definitively over. While the Wings' haven't gone "super big" at the position, current backup goaltender Jonas Gustavsson is 6'3", while promising prospects Petr Mrazek and Jake Paterson are 6'1"; Holland's latest college free agent prize Jared Coreau actually checks in at a staggering 6'4" and 208lbs! Don't be fooled into thinking these men are merely lumbering trashcans who eat up space either; Detroit's stable of netminders are extremely athletic, with excellent lateral motion and the ability to rip off highlight reel saves. Although Holland's past history says he'll hoard anyone with NHL level talent, it seems clear that when drafting their own goaltending prospects the organization definitely believes that bigger and stronger is ultimately better.   

The Fire Inside: As regular readers of this blog are no doubt aware, I have grown to love and cherish Detroit starting netminder Jimmy Howard. In just 4 short seasons, Wings fans have watched Howard grow from slow developing prospect, to inconsistent battler and finally, into an elite, game-changing goaltender capable of swinging a playoff series by himself. Although many will point to his age (29) and slow development as indicators that Howard is not a great goalie; it is precisely this seasoning that has turned Howard into the excellent keeper he is today. Early in his career, Jimmy thrived primarily on heart, aggression and pure force of will. During his first season in Detroit, Howard attacked shooters with ferocity, making most of his saves at the top of the crease or even further out and frequently pushing and shoving with forwards on his doorstep. This endeared him to the Red Wings faithful but lead to some early struggles with consistency as the league's better forwards learned to use this aggression against him. For a time then, Howard actively worked on playing further back in his net and although the results were less than stellar (2010-11), it also allowed Howard to improve on the "reflex" saves and develop his now tremendous lateral movement skills. As Jimmy began to reintegrate his aggressive impulses, the result was a goalkeeper with all the necessary tools to dominate at the NHL level; although it would take until the 2013 season and playoffs for Howard to finally achieve the perfect balance between these tools. In short, Jimmy Howard has been playing professional hockey for 8 long years; carefully ironing out his deficiencies one by one until the player that remains is far greater than the sum of his talents would suggest he ever could be.

From a purely technically standpoint, there's a lot to love about Howard's game between the pipes at this point in his career. As previously mentioned Jimmy's strength and aggressive positioning serve to make him a much larger object in the net than his decidedly average, 6' height would otherwise allow. Howard is an absolute master of cutting down angles and dropping forward on his knees rather than rocking backward as he closes in on the puck carrier. This allows him to present his chest, shoulders and active stick directly at the shooter while still giving him a wide, solid base with which to absorb contact and continue tracking the puck. Howard's hand placement is an equally important element of this play style; by keeping his gloves forward and angled to intercept rising shots, Howard prevents shooters from punishing him for challenging them so brazenly. It certainly doesn't hurt that Howard has one of the quickest trappers in the NHL; although he often fails to completely capture the puck, a quick search on Youtube will reveal that he is extremely difficult to beat on the glove side. Like most aggressive keepers, Jimmy is also an exceptional skater. Unlike other mobile goalies however, he eschews the modern upright "pro fly" stance for an extremely wide, low base (pictured right) more typical of a classic smaller, more acrobatic keeper. This allows Howard to tempt shooters with a gaping five hole while still giving him the necessary balance to actively close the door in a heartbeat when they try to put the puck there. Howard's noticeably loose leg pads aid in this endeavor tremendously but it's his ability to get back up and down again once he sets that make his play style so effective. Although the end result often resembles a chicken with it's head cut off ; Howard consistently finds a way to keep pucks out of the net and he isn't the first goalie in NHL history to excel with a hyper-frenetic playstyle.

If Howard has a downside at this point in his career it's likely his inconsistent rebound control, decidedly average blocker hand and periodic tendency to submit an absolute clunker of a game with little or no warning. One of the reasons Howard makes so many highlight reel saves is because he still hasn't mastered deflecting pucks into the corners off of his leg pads and watching his aggressive play style on film, it's seems fair to ask if he ever will. Although Howard is much better at freezing pucks shot into the middle of the net than he was as a youngster; his unique leg pad positioning seems to cause shots taken low and away to bounce directly back to the hashmarks more often than my heart can take. For now, Howard is usually quick enough to recover and clean his own trash but as he ages, it could become a career ending issue if he doesn't learn to put the puck in the corner more often. Jimmy's blocker issues are mostly a function of modern goaltending conventions; like most pro-fly or hybrid goaltenders, Howard uses a shorter goal stick that leaves extra space high on the blocker side. More space unsurprisingly leads to more goals, and Howard can't compensate as quickly on the stick side as he can with his glove. The upside is, it's easier for Howard to use his stick during lateral movements and as a point of support when he's going up and down to make saves. Finally, while teammates and coaches are forever praising Jimmy's ability to shrug off a bad goal, at times the eye test simply doesn't bear this out. In fact it's quite the opposite, many times during the past 4 years an early soft goal has lead to Howard breaking down mentally and submitting a very mediocre performance. While thankfully these meltdowns rarely occur in important games and for the most part Howard is a very good keeper; it's certainly fair to say that when he's bad, he's remarkably bad. The simple truth is that after 4 NHL seasons, Howard's positives vastly outweigh his negatives as a goalkeeper and as such the Red Wings are prepared to go forward with Jimmy in the nets for the foreseeable future. He's talented, reliable and consistently displays the kind of leadership and commitment a franchise goaltender must provide for a Stanley Cup contender. Although I don't like the play the goalie ranking game; Howard's past two regular seasons have firmly entrenched him amongst the NHL's top 10 netminders. His ability to dominate in the 2013 playoffs however suggested that Howard might be on the verge of breaking into the elite top 4 or 5 goalies in the league; at this point it's all a question of maintaining his current level of play for a full season and beyond.

A Riddle of Monstrous Proportions: While Howard's development and contract have resolved Detroit's starting goalie situation, the back-up picture is decidedly more murky. For the present moment, reserve keeper duties will fall to 6'3", hyper athletic Swedish netminder Jonas Gustavsson. That is of course, assuming he can stay healthy; last season, injuries limited Gustavsson to a parts of a mere 7 games and opened the door for management to get a brief look at promising prospect Petr Mrazek. What's more, Gustavsson's performance when he actually was available to play really didn't do him any favors in that regard; his 2.92 goals against average was decent, but a 0.879 save percentage is completely unacceptable in the modern NHL. The frustrating part is that Jonas actually has a tremendous amount of natural talent; his long legs, ridiculous lateral movement and active glove hand make him a danger to stop shots other keepers would have no business even touching. From a technical standpoint, Jonas is a pure "Allaire"-style butterfly goaltender, but his unusually lanky frame serves to magnify his ability to eat up space within that system. Unfortunately, Gustavsson is also extremely inconsistent, seems to lose track of his position in relation to the net with some regularity and often plays so far back in his crease that his size becomes a non-factor. At this point it would be certainly fair for Wings' fans and management to ask "exactly who the heck is Jonas Gustavsson anyways?" Is he the freakishly talented athlete who spawned the nickname "Monster" and a plethora of loving Youtube tributes? Or is he just another Francois Allaire robot who's game has been exposed once NHL forwards learned to adjust to his "Gumby-esque"physique?    

Truthfully, while the 2013-14 season will likely answer some of these questions for Jonas Gustavsson, the end result is unlikely to benefit the Red Wings in the long term. Gustavsson is only 28 years old and he's in the last year of a 1.5 million a year contract. If he turns his career around next season, Jonas will be in line to receive both more money and more playing time; options that are unlikely to excite a front office that already has Howard and Mrazek. If however he gets hurt again or continues to flounder, there's virtually no incentive for Ken Holland to keep him around long term. In other words; enjoy the highlight reel saves while you can Wings' fans, because Gustavsson is as good as gone come 2014-15.

The Heir Apparent: Of course, the reason Ken Holland doesn't have to be overtly concerned with where Gustavsson will play in 2014-15 is because the Wings have a much more promising player waiting in Grand Rapids; Petr Mrazek. In fact, Mrazek has been so good that some Wings' fans have begun to rumble about Howard's 6 year contract; because it might block Mrazek's ascension to NHL stardom! While on the surface this may seem like wishful thinking on behalf of a spoiled fanbase; a careful examination of Petr's performance at every level of competition he's been exposed to, suggests otherwise. In just over a year Mrazek has lead his junior team to the OHL conference finals, backstopped his country to the quarterfinals of the 2012 World Junior Championships, played himself beyond the ECHL in 3 games, earned a 2 game, cup of coffee call up with the senior Wings and won the Calder Cup as the starting goaltender of the Grand Rapids Griffins. As impressive as those accomplishments are on the surface, the are only magnified by the strength of Petr's performances and the fact that he's burst onto the scene at such a young age; Mrazek is still only 21 years old. The really scary part however is how far he's come already, in such a short period of time. Mrazek was Detroit's 5th round draft pick in 2010, which gives you some idea of how meteoric his rise to stardom has truly been. He wasn't considered amongst the best keepers heading into the 2012 WJHC; he merely became a first team all-star and won the goaltender of the tournament award. Heading into this season he was supposed to compete with Thomas McCollum and Jordan Pierce for playing time; instead he made both men organizational afterthoughts and won himself an AHL championship in the process. At this point Mrazek has done nothing except display the kind of talent, potential and polish that will make it virtually impossible to keep him out of the NHL in the very near future.

When looking at Mrazek from a scouting standpoint, the first thing that stands out is his otherworldly quickness and athleticism. While Jimmy Howard's ability to recover quickly after dropping to his knees is impressive; he has absolutely nothing on a goalie gear wearing gymnast like Mrazek. Petr can and does routinely make the kind of highlight reel saves that change momentum and leave opposing forwards shaking their heads in disbelief. No less an authority than legendary junior hockey coach Brian Kilrea described Mrazek as the kind of player who "makes the impossible seem so easy" and he even managed to provoke Wings' coach Mike Babcock to some rare encouraging words during his time with the senior club last season. Despite his tremendous athletic gifts however, it would be a mistake to assume Petr is your typical lighting-bug keeper, getting by purely on his reflexes and agility; Mrazek's best asset may actually be his extremely well developed mental game. Mrazek is intense, focused and tremendously competitive when it comes to stopping the puck. He never gives up on a shot, works to find sight lines through screens and isn't afraid to pay the price physically to keep the puck out of his basket. He doesn't get rattled and has the necessary superhuman confidence to dominate shooters in breakaway or shootout situations. Finally, Mrazek plays the position with a rare level of passion and enthusiasm; watching him play it's very clear that he simply loves to play the game of hockey.

As far as downsides go, Mrazek doesn't have many to be honest; no prospect is perfect however and there are still minor holes you can poke in Petr's game. Although he's roughly the same height as Jimmy Howard, he's nowhere near as developed muscularly. Various prospect guides have him listed at 184lbs, and that might actually be fairly generous when you consider how much weight Mrazek probably loses in sweat over the course of a season, making all those highlight reel saves. This lack of strength and ballast means that Mrazek often plays "small" in the net and while he's still fairly aggressive; he doesn't have the physicality to stand his ground when surrounded by shooters. As far as playstyle goes, Mrazek is from the Dominik Hasek mold of goalkeeper; he doesn't have a style so much as a desperate, burning desire to stop the puck by any means possible. He tends to rely on his reflexes and instincts more than any sort of positioning or technique; which can at times leave him exposed to embarrassing goals when he "guesses" wrong. Much like Hasek; he also spends a great deal of time flopping around low on the ice, which can leave him vulnerable when elite forwards have the time and space to "roof" the puck into a high corner. Finally, while he's not a poor puck-handler by any stretch, Mrazek isn't as good as he thinks he is with the biscuit either; a scenario that will no doubt be familiar to Wings' fans who suffered through tense moments during the careers of similarly afflicted netminders Hasek and Chris Osgood.

Let's face it folks, none of Mrazek's faults will matter in the slightest if he can stop pucks at the NHL level like he's stopped them at every level he's competed at so far. Howard's entrenchment as a franchise netminder has afforded Holland the luxury of developing Petr slowly; but if he keeps playing like he has, there is absolutely no way he'll stay in Grand Rapids for the full 4 year "over-ripening" program other prospects have been forced to endure. In 3 short years time, Howard's 5.3 million dollar cap hit could look quite reasonable on the NHL trade market if Holland were to suddenly find himself blessed with a better, younger player in Mrazek. Of course, such a scenario is a long way off at this very moment but the simple truth is that the Wings' aren't necessarily married to Jimmy Howard for the next 6 years; if Petr Mrazek is the better goaltender the job will likely be his for the taking at some point down the road.

Farmhands With a Future: While it's tempting to assume that the Red Wings' future is already set between the pipes; a smart hockey follower knows that a team is only one injury or complete mental breakdown away from looking for a new goalie in the blink of an eye. In that regard it's important for an organization to have at least a few talented, young keepers, with some NHL potential in the farm system at all times. At this moment, the most talented goalie prospect in the Red Wing pipeline (besides Mrazek) is 19 year old junior; Jake Paterson. Although he's hardly hulking, the 6'1 goaltender is another example of a player who uses excellent positioning and a muscular body to "appear bigger than he is" and take away the entire bottom of the goal cage. He has good (not great) athleticism, notable mental resiliency and the necessary passion and desire to compete for every puck fired towards the goal. To be fair, Paterson is probably not an elite talent and while his positioning is solid, he could stand to work on his consistency and fundamentals. He does have a surprisingly fast glove hand however and he's already a very strong skater for a 19-year old goalie. He'll return to the OHL next season and with further seasoning, could be given a chance to win a spot on Team Canada for the 2014 WJHC tournament. Right now, Jake is viewed as more of a scrappy, battler type who could one day grow into an NHL, starting quality netminder. If he were to win the number 1 job for a nation as deep as Canada though, and then excel in the tournament itself; Paterson would put himself on the NHL map much the way Mrazek did in 2012.

Of course, Paterson is an awful long way away from getting his first taste of NHL action and as such; 21 year old college netminder Jared Coreau probably warrants more attention from Wings' fans in the here and now. The first thing scouts talk about when discussing Jared as a goaltending prospect is his ridiculous combination of size and athleticism. Simply put; a man as big and muscular as Coreau should not reasonably be as quick or agile as he is. In addition to his physical gifts, Jared is also blessed with tremendous confidence, a calm, steady playing demeanor and what appears to be a very strong work ethic. Coreau arrived at Northern Michigan as a skinny freshman with terrible technique and through hard work, he left a strapping, scholarly prospect with a legitimate NHL future. He's also tremendously tough; Coreau wordlessly played his past few seasons in college with a torn labrum in his left shoulder that required offseason surgery to repair. The downside is that, like most college goaltenders; Jared's technique, positioning and fundamentals are simply not at an NHL level right now. Holland competed with 7 other NHL team's for Coreau's signature in 2013 and it's hard to believe Jared would have signed with the Wings if he didn't believe he had a real chance at eventually making the senior club. With former prospect Thomas McCollum rapidly playing himself out of the Wings' plans and veteran, system depth keeper Jordan Pierce likely to move on to medical school; Jared should easily establish himself as the backup netminder in Grand Rapids next year. In time and with proper development, Coreau could have the inside shot at Detroit's backup goalie position 3-4 years from now; especially if the team moves Howard to make room for Mrazek.

As those of you who've taken the time to read this entire series (thank you) are no doubt aware; the current and future roster situation in Detroit is an incredibly complicated matter, with multiple moving parts, salary cap options and fall back plans. After 16 seasons, this has become the hallmark of Ken Holland's management style. He hoards talent and manipulates his roster for both the short and long term success of the franchise. The Wings' are dedicated to making the conference finals every season; a long term rebuilding project fueled by multiple top 5 draft picks is simply not in Holland's game plan. Not now and frankly not ever. Right now, the Wings' are in year 2 of a 3 year plan to turn over 75% of the roster that Holland set into motion as many as 4 seasons ago. Although he's been careful not to tip his hand too early; Holland himself has admitted that injuries forced the team to bring up several prospects a little earlier than management had intended. Perhaps, in the final analysis this will be a good thing; although Holland's long term vision is legendary, he can be downright miserly when it comes to awarding NHL playing time to promising Wings' prospects. If last year's success can convince management and coach Babcock that the next wave of Wings' prospects can be trusted sooner; the team can avoid dipping heavily into an already overpriced free agent market in the coming future.

In the end, I believe that the key to understanding Ken Holland's management of the Red Wings roster is to view him as a shockingly honest man, who has two stated, but at times diametrically opposed goals. For the past several years, Holland has been shouting from the mountaintops that the Red Wing's future will be built through the draft, while simultaneously stating that the franchise was trying to make at least the conference finals every season. While these may appear to be the ravings of a madman in light of the NHL's new fiscal realities, it's important to remember that Holland never promised to strive for both goals with the same players. To oversimplify; Holland clearly intends to use retreads, reclamation projects and discount, veteran free agents to keep the team competitive in the short time. At the same time however, he's refusing to sign the kind of long term contracts that would clog up roster spots beyond his 3 year rebuilding window. In this way, the future of the team very much will be forged through the draft; but only if and when the Wings' young prospects can play well enough to keep management's conference finals expectations alive. Holland knows that the tightrope he's walking now is a difficult path, but if he's successful; the Wings will have forged the kind of dynasty the NHL hasn't seen since the Montreal Canadians tore up the back half of the 1970's. The funny part is; Holland probably already has a good idea of what he's going to do if none of this works out and the entire Wings' farm system flops like a Bisquick pancake. That's the Detroit general manager for you; a man who has plans within plans and the courage to make at least some of them a reality for the Red Wings.

- Sportsball Chic


Monday, June 17, 2013

Red Storm Rising - Part 3: Forecasting the Forward Foundation

(Editor's Note: This article is the 3rd part of an ongoing series, offering an in-depth look at the Red Wing's roster and it's potential evolution in the future. Part 1 of  the series looked at defensemen, while part 2 focuses on the Wings' muddled forward situation.)

Despite the Wings' apparent logjam at forward for the 2013-14 season, a careful examination of the contracts involved and the hidden gems in Detroit's farm system suggest a massive sea change is underway in the organization. While the shortened 2013 campaign saw Mike Babcock groom a 5 pack of former prospects into full-fledged Red Wings; they represent only the beginning of Ken Holland's plan to revitalize the franchise. The 2014 offseason will see a number of cumbersome contracts wiped off the ledger and by 2016 the roster should consist only of veterans Holland actually wants to keep; assuming plans to trade Johan Franzen once his salary drops become a reality that is. Of course, this is only a boon for the organization if the young prospects in the system are actually ready to take over the open roster spots all of Holland's machinations have created. Fortunately the Red Wings' ability to identify, draft and develop talent is legendary. Although Holland gets the lion's share of the credit; guys like Joe Macdonald, Ryan Martin and treasured "Euro-whisperer" Hakan Andersson are a big part of why the Wings always seem to have a fresh wave of talented prospects on the cusp of breaking into the NHL. In fact, with the addition of numerous recently retired Wings to the front office; it can be said that Detroit's entire management team has a hand in scouting and developing players for Holland and Babcock to plug into the lineup as time passes.

Grinding Out a Future: Naturally, when looking at Red Wings' forward prospects, the same organizational rules apply as when we looked at defensemen. No matter how highly rated a forward is; he will not touch the ice at Joe Louis Arena until he's grown strong enough and smart enough to execute Mike Babcock's system. In that regard the forward most likely to find his way to Detroit soon, at least in a part time role might well be scrappy, 6' grinder, Mitch Callahan. Although his player bio lists him at 190lbs, the eye test suggests the winger is at least 10lbs heavier after two seasons of work on his core body strength in Grand Rapids. To be fair, Mitch isn't the most talented player in the organization by any stretch and he'll only be 22 years old when the 2014 season begins.  He is however strong, a decent skater, aggressive and willing to drop the gloves when necessary. Although he doesn't project to ever be more than a checking line forward, his numbers in Grand Rapids, suggest that he might provide more skill than current pugilist Jordin Tootoo. At a very minimum, he'd be considerably cheaper and is young enough that with any luck he might develop some offensive skills down the road. Regardless; necessity dictates that the Wings find someone to step into a checking line, agitator role in the near future and right now, Callahan looks like the best fit in the organization. In a similar mold is 22 year old winger Trevor Parkes. At 6'2", 188lbs he also brings size to the table and he's shown considerably more offensive touch than Callahan has. The downside is that Parkes is still very thin, lacks core body strength and a recent demotion to the ECHL makes it clear that he might be a couple years away from even a "cup of coffee" tryout with the senior Wings. Finally, the team still has 6'2", 200lb winger Andrej Nestrasil splitting time between Toledo (ECHL) and Grand Rapids (AHL). To be fair, Nestrasil is more of a chippy battler than any kind of enforcer and he's actually quite a skilled passer for a man his size. He's also a borderline terrible skater and at this point is his career it's not entirely clear how much he'll improve on that trait in the future. Nestrasil could easily be looking for a new organization by this time next year but if he does stick around, he'll have to significantly improve his skating to warrant consideration as more than a spare part, grind-line winger.

Having it Both Ways: Of course, Ken Holland knows he's not going to reload the Red Wing empire with a bunch of checking-line muckers. Over the next two seasons the team will need an infusion of skilled, two-way forwards to replace the likes of Todd Bertuzzi, Mikael Samuelsson and Dan Cleary. Depending on how contracts and injury rehab situations break out, management might also be looking to replace Darren Helm and/or Patrick Eaves. Finally if the Wings fail to retain Filppula and Brunner it could have a cascade effect on the roster; pulling guys like Nyquist and Tatar onto the 2nd line and opening roster slots for new forwards to emerge on the 3rd line as a result. In my eyes, the two players most likely to step into this void are current Grand Rapid Griffin lynchpins; Riley Sheahan and Landon Ferraro. Of the two, Sheahan is definitely the more promising prospect. At 6'2' and 213 lbs, he practically screams "elite, rugged power forward in training" the moment he steps on the ice. Unfortunately, it typically takes years for this type of player to truly realize their full offensive potential, and in that regard Riley is no different. In the meantime, the Wings' brass will just have to settle for a strong, physical, hard skating, two-way center who knows how to use his stick defensively, kills penalties and periodically unleashes a hellacious slapshot that can fool goalies from 30+ feet out. The NHL comparison draft analysts were throwing around in 2010 was Ryan Kessler and 3 years later, that comparison still seems reasonable; if Riley can reach his full potential. Frankly, Sheahan is good enough to play with the big club in Detroit right now but consistency issues, lingering character questions and a lack of room on the roster will conspire to keep him in Grand Rapids next season. The upside for Riley of course, is that it gives opposing fans an additional year to forget who, or what a Tinky Winky is. With another season of pro hockey under his belt; look for a stronger, faster and more offensively skilled Riley Sheahan to challenge for and ultimately win a roster spot with the big club in 2014-15.

Nipping on Sheahan's heels in the quest to earn a permanent home in the Motor city is undersized, lightning-bug fast center; Landon Ferraro. The three things you need to know about Ferraro are that he's tenacious, his draft day comparison was David Krejci (which is hard to say with a straight face in 2013), and he can flat out fly with a pair of skates on. He's the son of former 400 goal scorer Ray Ferraro and based on video evidence; the apple certainly didn't fall far from the tree in the Ferraro family. Landon's problem has been and remains a notable lack of size and upper body strength. The game day program lists him at a generous 6', 174lbs, and he might actually be a lot closer to 5'11" and 170lbs with his skates off. Ferraro has also struggled to meet expectations at times; after a 37 goal season in the WHL, he regressed mightily over the next 3 years. At this time last year, the sense was that Ferraro was a first round bust who might some day develop into a 3rd line center. Thankfully, Landon really turned his career around this past season in Grand Rapids and put himself firmly back on Ken Holland's radar in the process. Unfortunately for Ferraro, his size and time wasted trying to find his game at the professional level all but ensures he'll be back in Grand Rapids for the entirety of next season. Interestingly enough, his waiver exemption runs out in 2014-15; if he isn't ready for a promotion to the big club by then, he might very well be shipped out of town before he ever cracks the Red Wing lineup. Rounding out the Wings' clutch of two-way center prospects is the thus-far disappointing, former 3rd round draft choice Louis-Marc Aubry. At 6'4" and 205lbs; Aubry possesses both the size and natural talent to eventually be a solid 3rd line center in the NHL. He's a strong skater, has great awareness, wins faceoffs, blocks shots and plays well without the puck. The mystery thus remains, why hasn't he been able to put all of that together into a single credible season in professional hockey? Over the course of two seasons in Grand Rapids, Aubry has struggled mightily to adapt to AHL level competition; at this point the NHL remains a distant dream.

The Skills that Pay the Bills: As a general rule; Red Wings' personnel types are not prone to bouts of hyperbole. In this regard, when multiple members of the organization go out of their way to compare a young prospect to Henrik Zetterberg; it's a pretty safe bet you have a very special player on your hands. That special player is 21 year old, Swedish play-making center; Calle Jarnkrok. If everything goes according to plan, Jarnkrok will be a household name in North American hockey sometime within the next 5 years; just in time to replace the waning contributions of an aging Zetterberg and a likely retired Datsyuk. As of this very moment, Calle is simply one of the best players in the entire Swedish Elite League; last season he racked up 13 goals and 42 points in 53 games, all while competing against grown men in one of the better professional leagues outside of North America. Jarnkrok is off-the-charts smart, he has exceptional vision, floats an extremely soft pass and has the kind of stick handling skills to literally "rag the puck" for entire shifts. He's also a relentless worker, a world class skater and an elite weapon in power-play situations; there's simply a whole like to like about Jarnkrok's game, even this early in his development. What's keeping Calle out of the NHL right now is the same thing that's holding back many of the Wings' best prospects; at 5'11", 174lbs he simply isn't big enough or strong enough to compete at this level yet. At both the IIHF world championships and during his 9 game stint in Grand Rapids he struggled to produce much offensively, primarily because of this lack of strength. Early indications are that Jarnkrok will be brought to training camp in 2013-14 with a real chance to earn a roster spot on the team immediately. If I had to guess however; I'd say that the 10lbs of raw muscle Calle needs to put on to realize his potential in the pros will simply be "a bridge too far" for one offseason's worth of development. Whether or not the Wings send him to Grand Rapids or back to Sweden will likely be a function of his personal preferences and how much muscle he's able to develop in Europe. If it looks like his progress has stalled, Holland will likely be eager to get him to North America; where they can keep a closer eye on, and exert a greater level of control over, his core strength training. (Edit: actually, it appears that Jarnkrok will be playing in North American regardless; former assistant GM Jim Nill said he'd be assigned to Grand Rapids if he failed to make the senior club in late December. Sorry folks; thanks for the reader catch by The Zetterberg Era.) Whether it's now, next year or even 2015-16; at some point Calle Jarnkrok is going to be big enough for the NHL and all signs point to him continuing the Red Wings' tradition of elite, play-making centers for years to come.     

Of course, as anyone who's been following the Red Wings for the past couple of decades can tell you; the Wings' seem to find their superstar forwards in pairs. Steve Yzerman had Sergei Federov, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have become inseparable in Red Wings lore; if Jarnkrok is the next great center, who will be his partner in crime on the wing? Based on sheer talent alone, that would likely be 20 year old, Slovakian magician Tomas Jurco. To say that Jurco is an elite puck handler would be completely unfair; Tomas can do things with a puck that nobody has ever thought of trying before! Jurco is however, more than a youtube sideshow. He's a blazing fast skater, an accomplished play-maker in the passing game and has a quick release to pair with his strong, accurate shooting. In short, Tomas Jurco was born to make goals at the highest levels of hockey.  As if that weren't enough to entice Wings' fans; he's also blessed with a 6'2" frame and has already bulked up to 193 pounds as a 20 year old. The NHL comparison being whispered around the front office is Marion Hossa and while a lot of things would have to go right for Jurco to eventually justify those comparisons; there's no question he has the body and the natural talent to do so. Tomas produced a respectable 14 goals and 28 points during his rookie year in the AHL last season, and has thus far looked pretty good during the Griffin's run to the Calder Cup finals this spring. The key for Jurco moving forward will be his ability to step up next season and become a scoring leader in Grand Rapids. Tomas has the talent to dominate at the AHL level and at his age, the Wings have plenty of time to wait for him to do so before calling him up to the big club. Exactly when that occurs will be entirely up to Jurco; he's definitely good enough to steal someone's job before his waiver options expire if he works hard enough.

While the final forward in this category is nowhere near the hockey player that either of the first two are, Teemu Pulkkinen makes this list because he does have one skill that's extremely valuable to NHL clubs; he can put the biscuit in the basket at a truly elite level. Pulkkinen's scouting report reads like a min/maxed video game character: he's a pure sniper with a great shot who excels on the power-play because of his sick one-timer and assassin's mentality in the offensive zone. He's also a notably poor skater, short (but stocky) and ambivalent at best about defense. He has been compared to Jari Kurri but his skating implies that Hakan Andersson's suggestion that he's a "poor man's Brett Hull" is likely more accurate. Those scoring at home however will note that both players are in the Hall of Fame and combined for 1, 342 goals at the NHL level. If Pulkkinen is even 75% as good as scouts suggest he might be, Teemu will have a long and glorious career in the Red Wings' organization. Unfortunately, due to his poor skating and defense; it's very difficult to get a good read on exactly when Pulkkinen might join the senior club in Detroit. As it stands right now, the team believes he would be nothing more than a power-play specialist in the NHL; some would even say that's all he'll ever be. If Pulkkinen can improve his skating and defense however, even marginally; Ken Holland would have yet another mid-round (4th) draft robbery on his hands in short order. Pulkkinen will get a chance to earn a spot on the senior team this fall; if he doesn't make it, he'll spend the season in Grand Rapids. If I had to guess, I'd say that Teemu's road to the NHL will be a little longer than most; look for him to check in with the senior Wings on the 2015-16 edition of the "Kid line" at the earliest.

The Next, Next Wave: With both the present and the immediate future locked up, the challenge for Ken Holland them becomes planning for the distant future. Time stands still for no organization and the Wings brain trust are already working on a plan for when this wave of prospects must be replaced by another. Although predicting the hockey fortunes of teenage boys is an inexact science at best, names to watch out for in the future include Marek Tvrdon, Andreas Athanasiou and Martin Frk. Although nothing is written in stone; Tvrdon and Frk both have the size, skill and shooting prowess to grow into functional power forwards. Athanasiou on the other hand is a speedy play-maker who needs to be paired with strong shooters to capitalize on all the chances his hands and stick create. Right now all 3 players are listed as wingers but, Andreas has shown some aptitude for the center position and it will be interesting to watch if the Wings eventually move him there full time to create yet another new "kid" line in the distant future. Right now, this is of course all speculation however; Athanasiou will play in Juniors again next year, Tvrdon has graduated to the ECHL after 3 injury-filled years in the WHL and Martin Frk is slated for his rookie season in Grand Rapids. By the time any of these young men realize their NHL dreams, much of the current senior roster will be retired and Holland will be faced with a whole new generation's worth of challenges to maintain the degree of excellence expected in Hockeytown.

(Editor's note:concluded in Part 4 here.)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Red Storm Rising - Part 2: Forward Progress

(Editor's Note: This article is part 2 of an ongoing series, offering an in-depth look at the Red Wing's roster and it's potential evolution in the future. You can find part one of the series; which discusses the blueline corps here.)

While the lockout shortened 2013 season provided a clear vision for the future of the Wing's blueline, the team's forward situation remains far from settled. As of this writing there are no less than 17 players already in the mix up front in Detroit; and that's without adding a single outside free agent or "cup of coffee" promotion from Grand Rapids. What's more, any serious discussion of who does and doesn't make the roster must be framed by considerations such as age, contract status, Ken Holland's historical trends when managing the salary cap, Mike Babcock's coaching philosophies and to a smaller degree the "human" element. While it's tempting to use CapGeek and various trade machines to generate magical Christmasland scenarios for your favorite team; the reality is that the Red Wings' moves at forward will be dictated by previously established organizational philosophies. On paper, the Wings have 2 compliance buyouts and just over $10 million worth of cap space but in reality, Holland will almost certainly save a buyout and at least $2 million for both insurance and roster mobility purposes. In the same vein; Mike Babcock isn't going to change his system at this point in his coaching career. The Wings' top two lines will feature their best two way threats, the 3rd line will be counted on for energy and supplementary scoring, and a player won't touch the checking line unless he shows strength, hustle and some sandpaper. Finally for better or for worse, Wings' management is reluctant to unceremoniously dump players who have made heroic sacrifices for the organization; particularly if said player is willing to take a hometown discount on his salary. This means that if they agree to affordable contracts all of the Wings' unrestricted free agent forwards will return next season; although as you'll see below I don't think all 3 of the remaining forwards will agree to team friendly contracts. These are the laws of the frozen jungle in Hockeytown Mowgli; this is the Red Wing way.

In an attempt to sort out the tangled mess that is the Red Wings' forward situation, I've divided the players below based on how I think team management perceives them at this very moment. As every dedicated Wings' fan is no doubt aware; coach Babcock is prepared to shuffle his lines at the drop of a hat and so it doesn't make very much sense to discuss the players in terms of forward units. Naturally, we'll look at what type of role I think each player will settle into this season and how I see that role changing in the future, but the categories themselves are meant to reflect the 2013-14 season primarily:

Forward Locks and Building Blocks: With recent news that Pavel Datsyuk will sign a contract extension sometime in the near future, it seems clear that both he and longtime teammate Henrik Zetterberg will finish their NHL careers as Red Wings. Frankly, that's a very, very good thing for the organization, even if Pavel's new contract continues to pay him north of $6 million a season. One only has to look at the $9.5 a year contract Pittsburgh just gave Evgeni Malkin to know that retaining the services of these two fine gentlemen could certainly be more costly. While Datsyuk's age (34) is a concern, both men maintain fantastic fitness regimens and there's little reason to believe either player's role will change much over the next 4-5 years. This means that barring times when Babcock loads them up together; one will center the first line, one will center the second line and both men will play extensively in power-play situations. Babcock will also throw either player over the boards on the penalty kill as game situations and body fatigue warrant or allow. While at times the super-talented duo leave Wings' fans salivating for more point production, there is no question that both Datsyuk and Zetterberg remain amongst the game's elite two-way players. In short, Mike Babcock's system can't function without forwards who can impact the game in all 3 zones; the team is literally built around the particular talents of Pavel and Hank.

Joining the dynamic duo at the forefront of the Red Wings' long term plans is burgeoning power forward Justin Abdelkader. At 26 years old, Abdelkader is already one of the team's classic player developmental success stories. Originally slated for long term duty on the checking line; the past two seasons have seen Justin play himself into a larger role on the squad both now and likely into the future. Although you'd like him to be an inch or two taller; at 6'1' and 220lbs, Abdelkader has the size and strength Babcock desperately craves to compliment his never-ending waves of highly-skilled European forwards.  He's a tough player who gives and takes the body with relish while still avoiding unnecessary penalties; for the most part. Abdelkader's skating has also improved noticeably in every season he's played with the big club and he's worked hard to improve his positioning at both ends of the ice over that time as well. What's really earned Justin a place in the Wings' long term plans however, is his willingness to take punishment and abuse to screen the front of the net; especially on the power-play. The position of "goaltender infuriating pest" has a long and storied tradition in franchise history; from Ted Lindsay, to Dino Ciccarelli and on through Todd Bertuzzi. Right now Abdelkader's production implies that he's more Thomas Holmstrom than Brendan Shanahan, but both his age and work ethic suggest a significant leap is not out of the question. In 48 games last season, Justin translated his time on the "skill" lines into 10 goals while still maintaining a +/- rating of 6.  While those numbers don't guarantee the Wings' have a perennial 20-25 goal a year man on their hands, they do make it abundantly clear that Abdelkader isn't going back to the checking line anytime soon; regardless of who's healthy this upcoming season. Justin will continue to work as a winger on one of the top two lines and play significant power-play minutes. Best of all for the Wings, he'll do so at the bargain basement price of $1.8 million a year for at least the next two seasons; at which point the Wings might have to rip up his contract to get an extension done if he does actually "blow up".

Unfortunately, our final player makes this portion of the list primarily because his contract all but guarantees that Johan Franzen will remain a Red Wing for quite some time. Don't get me wrong; I like Franzen and when "the Mule" is rolling his $3.95 million cap number feels like an absolute steal. He has ideal size, soft hands, periodically shows a delightful mean streak as an open-ice hitter and isn't particularly afraid to play in front of the net when he has to. As Red Wings fans are by now painfully aware however; the problem is that Franzen isn't always "on" and when he's not tearing up the ice, he performs the exasperatingly difficult trick of making a 6'3", 225lb hockey player somehow disappear. This is not hyperbole folks; at times while watching games on television you will realize that entire periods have passed without you becoming aware of Franzen's presence in any discernible way. Even more disturbing is the fact that the periods between Franzen's bursts of inspired play seem to grow longer as he ages; and Johan is already 33 years old. To say that all of the above frustrates Wings' fans and management would be a notable understatement: as recently as June 5th, 2013, Red Wings senior vice president Jimmy Devellano made it clear that the franchise is more stuck with Franzen, than thrilled to have him. Despite his maddening inconsistency issues, Franzen is still a gifted scorer who will play on a skill line and chew up minutes on the power-play. He's still far too useful to buy out, making way too much money to demote to a checking line and won't draw even remote trade interest around the league until his salary drops in 2016.

What are you worth?: The simple truth is that modern NHL economics dictate that successful teams work hard to lock up their own young talent to long term contracts. This has notably diluted the strength of this year's free agent class and while the expected coming drop in the salary cap will add some talent to the market; it won't be enough to change the Red Wings' attempts to sign their own unrestricted free agent forwards. I promise you right now that if any one of Valtteri Filppula, Dan Cleary or Damien Brunner signs with the Red Wings this offseason, it will be because they turned down a better offer(s) from another team; the market is just that bad. In that regard I feel fairly confident in predicting that Filppula is already vapor and in the long run Red Wings' fans may actually come to breathe a deep sigh of relief when they reflect on this decision in the future. Two years ago Val racked up 23 goals, 66 points and registered an eye opening 18 in +/- rating. Unfortunately last year Filppula regressed mightily in the regular season before turning in a tepid at best performance in the playoffs. Filppula is reportedly asking for a $5 million a year contract based primarily on his speed, defensive play and precisely one career season as an elite 2nd line center in his pocket. Sadly, early rumblings around the league indicate that he'll more than likely get multiple offers from other teams within his desired range. At that price, Ken Holland will walk away quickly; if the Wings had any intention of giving Filppula that kind of money they would have agreed to an extension this past season without letting Valterri test the free agent waters.

In that same vein, I'm also genuinely worried about the Red Wings' ability to sign 27 year old Swiss scoring sensation; Damien Brunner. Although Brunner suffered a notable slump after the first 10 games of the season, his one year audition in Motown has largely been viewed as a smashing success. In 44 games last season Brunner registered 12 goals, 14 assists and in the process tantalized the Detroit faithful with the kind of nose for the net that suggests he's capable of much more. Unfortunately; his defensive game wasn't quite up to NHL standards and as the travel demands of an NHL schedule wore on him he developed a habit of "floating" that no doubt concerns Wings' brass preparing for an 82 game schedule. Brunner then further complicated matters by leading Detroit in playoff goals (5), registering 9 points and posting a respectable 2 in the +/- department. The organization reportedly values Damien in the $2.5 million a year for 3 years range but his playoff numbers could easily convince another suitor that he's worth significantly more than that. My gut feeling is that the Wings' won't budge on the term but could be persuaded to sweeten the pot as high as $3 million a year. If anyone offers more than that, Brunner has given every indication that he'll take his services elsewhere next season. If the Wings can fit him in the budget however he'll see time on the 2nd and 3rd lines, chew up minutes on the power-play and generally make Tomas Tatar's life miserable in 2013-14. With a gun to my head, I say Brunner also walks but Wings' management does like him, despite their lukewarm statements about his future; they'll do everything short of breaking the bank to keep him in the fold.

Oddly enough, the free agent forward I most expect the Wings to retain next season is the one many fans seem most eager to get rid of; 34 year old Danny Cleary. Despite a growing number of niggling injuries and steady downward tick in production the past two seasons; Cleary still brings a tremendous number of important elements to the Red Wings' roster. Although father time has sapped some of his athleticism, Clearly is still a strong skater, plays a solid two-way game and can literally play on any one of the Wings' forward lines with equal proficiency. His performance in the playoffs this year was nothing short of heroic, as his 4 goals and 6 assists put him behind only Henrik Zetterberg for the team scoring lead in the NHL's second season. More importantly, Clearly plays with heart and toughness; the team feeds on his energy and leadership as if he were an assistant captain, without the formality of having a letter on his sweater. Although Cleary won't be flooded with offers on July 5th; it's likely that he'll easily command the same $3 million a year he made last season in Detroit and perhaps even a small pay increase if he isn't too pushy about adding a 3rd year to the contract. Such a number isn't out of Holland's reach, but if it comes along with a notable raise for Brunner, it would almost certainly mean the Wings would be unable to add impact players in free agency. In my opinion, the best scenario for all parties concerned is for Holland to pony up the 3rd year at somewhere between $2.5 and $2.75 million a season. I believe that based on his stated desire to remain in Detroit that would be an acceptable compromise for Cleary; whether or not that's an acceptable compromise for his agent is another question entirely. If Danny does stay, he will likely resume his role on the Wings' second line with extra minutes on both the power-play and penalty killing units in 2013-14. Cleary isn't getting any younger however and as the team's Grand Rapids brigade earns time in "skill situations" it will almost certainly come at Danny's expense.

Stuck in the Middle With You: In the modern NHL landscape, every organization needs muckers, grinders and inexpensive fill in forwards to field a competitive team throughout an 82 game schedule and the playoffs. While it would be unfair to say the players in this category are easily replaceable, none of these guys could be described as a franchise pillar either. The most talented forward in the group is clearly Darren Helm, who has 3 years remaining on his contract at a reasonable sum of $2.1 million a year. When he's healthy, Helm frequently displays all-world speed and 2nd line offensive talent. The problem of course is that Helm hasn't been healthy in 6 months; he played in a total of 1 game last season and by playoff time the Wings were openly admitting that he was no closer to playing in May than he had been in January. The Wings will remain patient with Helm but after Mike Babcock noted that he was basically unavailable for each of the team's last two playoff runs; the pressure is on the 26 year old forward to prove Holland should hold a roster spot for him. Even if Darren is healthy enough to resume normal play next season; his extended time on the shelf and the quirky nature of back injuries all but ensures he'll lose "skill" minutes to healthier, emerging scorers. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cory Emmerton and Jordin Tootoo are literally "just guys". Emmerton is young and cheap but only has one year left on his contract and isn't talented enough to command a long term investment from Holland. Whether or not he remains with the team in future years will depend entirely on his desire to continue working for very little money; if he does remain he has no future beyond a checking line and penalty killing role. Tootoo however, is neither young (30) nor inexpensive ($1.9M) and with two years left on his deal, he makes a tempting candidate for one of the team's compliance buyouts. Although he's something of a fan favorite amongst the more bloodthirsty portions of Red Wings nation; the simple truth is that Tootoo is a poor skater, takes too many penalties to stay on the ice during high pressure situations and doesn't possess even a lick of NHL-level offensive talent. His best skills: fighting and drawing penalties, are completely replaceable on the free agent market at virtually any time. My best guess is that Tootoo will play 60-70 games on the Wings' checking line next season but it wouldn't surprise me to see him shipped out of town or even bought out either. I would suggest that it's highly unlikely he will play out the final year of his contract in Detroit unless absolutely nobody in the Wings system shows an aptitude for a checking line role.

Filling the role of veteran defensive forwards who kill penalties and can step up onto a scoring line in a pinch will once again be Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller. Of the two, Miller is easily the better offensive option but a comparison of career +/- ratings makes it clear that Eaves is the better defender. Although Miller looks like he's in his mid-40's with his helmet off; both players are only 29 years old and while neither has much upside left to explore there's no reason to think either man's play will fall off any time soon either. As of this morning Miller has a 3 year contract worth $1.35 million a year and while he's hardly invulnerable, there's no reason to believe he won't remain an effective part of the team throughout the entire length of the deal. Eaves is a more difficult case; in part because he only has 1 year left on his contract and in part because he lost a season and a half with a concussion when a Roman Josi slapshot broke his jaw in November of 2011. Freak accident or no, Holland will be extremely leery of committing significant dollars or term to a player with a history of serious head trauma. If Eaves is prepared to accept a very similar deal to the one Miller just signed, perhaps even for only two years; he has a good chance of remaining a Wing after this season. If he's looking for a significant raise however, my guess is that Holland will pull up stakes and simply move on. For the moment; both players will feature primarily on the 4th line with extensive penalty killing duties, cameos on the 2nd power-play unit and periodic stretches on the "skill" lines if injury or ineffectiveness force Babcock to shake things up.
The Grand Rapids Connection: As anyone who's been paying attention to either coach Mike Babcock or GM Ken Holland is no doubt aware; the so-called Grand Rapids 3 will be playing in the NHL next season.This is because Joakim Andersson, Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar are all out of waiver options; meaning they can't be sent back to Grand Rapids without clearing through every other team in the league first. Naturally, that won't happen because Holland knows the chances of any one of the trio clearing waivers is somewhere south of a snowball's chance of surviving the fires of hell. Additionally the Wings aren't about to let Andersson or Nyquist bolt on the restricted free agent market either; it's a matter of time but both players will be signed long before the 2013-14 season opens. How exactly they will be used in Detroit however depends in part on whether or not Damien Brunner is resigned and in part on the continued development of each player individually. Of the 3, 24 year old center Joakim Andersson is both the most physically imposing and defensively sound forward. At 6'3", 206lbs and with a notable affectation for contact play, Andersson provides necessary size, grit and defensive prowess to a 3rd line otherwise populated by smallish offensive dynamos. Although a lack of speed and offensive skills could eventually push Joakim to a checking line roll; his ability to win faceoffs, block shots and kill penalties will likely ensure he finds extra ice time on special teams throughout the season. For now Andersson will start the season as the 3rd line center and Babcock will rely on him to be the defensive lynchpin of a unit that will be learning how to succeed in the NHL on the fly. Whether his role shrinks or grows from there depends on Joakim's ability to at least maintain, if not improve on his impressive 2013 season.

While Andersson is the largest of the Grand Rapids 3, there is no doubt whatsoever that Gustav Nyquist is the most polished forward in the trio. At only 23 years of age, Nyquist is already fast, smart, a gifted passer and relentlessly determined to either obtain or protect the puck. His slight frame (5'11", 185lbs) belies his tenacious two-way play and if he learns to shoot the puck more, he'll permanently entrench himself on Mike Babcock's 2nd line this season. He represents the primary reason the team is under no pressure to give Danny Cleary a raise, sign a top 6 forward or rush Darren Helm back into the lineup before his back is fully healed. Naturally of course, Nyquist is also capable of playing on the 3rd line with Andersson and Tatar if everything breaks out perfectly for Detroit and his services aren't needed in the top 6. Although he hasn't been asked to do it very much in Detroit, Gustav is also an exceptional penalty killer; regardless of which line he starts on, the Wings will find plenty of ways to get Nyquist on the ice every night. In time as Gustav develops and other forwards in the organization age, it's entirely possible that Nyquist will eventually take over a first line scoring winger role; he legitimately has the talent to eventually be a star at the NHL level.

Rounding out the group is enigmatic Slovak sniper, Tomas Tatar. At this point Tatar has been knocking on the door to the NHL for at least two entire seasons; a situation that has frustrated both fans and people named Tomas Tatar to no end. The simple truth is that while Tatar's offensive game has been more than good enough for the NHL during that time; his streaky play, lack of size and somewhat average defensive skills make it impossible to play him in a checking line role. As there haven't been a whole lot of openings on the Wings' skill lines recently and Gustav Nyquist plays the better two-way game; Tomas has been forced to wait in Grand Rapids for his waiver option years to expire. Now that the wait is finally over for all parties concerned, expect Tatar to delight the Joe Louis faithful with a stunning display of pure offensive skills and a refreshing, almost infectious burst of energy. Tomas has all the tools required to create goals at the NHL level; he skates well, passes well, has excellent vision as well as sublime stick-handling skills and he tops it all off with a hard, accurate shot that seems to find it's way to the net through traffic frequently. The downside is that at roughly 5'9" and 185 lbs he's practically a midget and despite giving maximum effort on every shift, he just isn't strong enough to be more than an average defender at this point in his career. This isn't to suggest that Tatar is irresponsible in his own end; he's spent the better part of two years killing penalties in Grand Rapids after all. For now however; his size and inexperience will likely restrict him to a 3rd line role with some bonus minutes on the 2nd power-play unit. For Wings' fans who don't get the chance to see many Griffins games, I would describe Tatar as being a lot like Juri Hudler talent-wise; except with a much better work ethic, vastly superior wheels and without (thus far) the outrageous contract demands.           

Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls: For those of you counting at home; that makes 15 different forwards, including at least 11 players who will make the 2013-14 squad baring injuries or accidents. The Wings' will keep 14 forwards on the senior roster unless Holland/Babcock decide to keep an 8th defenseman as insurance against injury or inconsistent play. Even if you assume Filppula is gone, Helm starts the season on the injured list and Holland is only able to keep one of Dan Cleary or Damien Brunner; that still leaves both Mikael Samuelsson and Todd Bertuzzi outside of the 12 man starting forward lineup and potentially fighting for a single roster spot. Given a choice between the two, my money is on Holland keeping Bertuzzi and dumping Samuelsson for a number of reasons. For starters Todd is just under a million dollars cheaper per season than his Swedish counterpart. Since both players are 38 years old and on contracts that won't come off the cap if they are released outright; getting either one off the roster will likely require the team to use one of their two compliance buyouts. As previously mentioned I don't think Holland is going to burn both of his mulligans immediately and if he's going to actually burn one, he might as well burn it on the guy with the higher salary. Additionally, Bert is a little bigger than Mikael, is more suited to a checking line role and brings the occasional fight to the table to keep opposing teams honest. Finally, during his time on the sideline this past season; Bertuzzi demonstrated tremendous leadership skills by serving as both a nominal assistant coach and a personal mentor to the team's young forwards. That sort of thing still counts for something in Mike Babcock's world and it might just be enough to earn Bertuzzi a roster spot for 2013-14; assuming Filppula leaves and the Wings strike out on the free agent market. Regardless, I expect Samuelsson to be either traded (fat chance) or bought out before the regular season begins; simply to free up a roster spot and give Holland some financial flexibility at the trade deadline.

Hired Help: The good news of course, is that the Wings have enough talented players that they won't be required to dip heavily into the free agent forward market. The bad news is that the team could desperately use another 20 goal man; preferably one with size, aggression and a right handed shot. As previously mentioned, a thin free agent class has created a sellers market and although there will be some tempting options on display; there's no guarantee any of them will fit into Ken Holland's price range.  While I don't have any inside information to confirm my assumption; I would think a look a Holland's conservative history in the salary cap era suggests he's unlikely to spend right up to the line and leave himself paralyzed during the season. It's going to take real money to reel in a fish like Nathan Horton, David Clarkson or even breakout playoff star Brian Bickell and based on the projections above; Holland just isn't going to have that kind of scratch lying around this season. After signing his own free agents (restricted or otherwise) it's entirely possible that the team will have enough money for one of the cheaper options on the market; someone like Viktor Stalberg, Michael Ryder or Brad Boyes, A more likely scenario however; is that Holland will stay pat with what he has early in the offseason and then wait for compliance buyouts to open up more and cheaper options before the season starts. I do still believe the Wings will sign at least one free agent forward, possibly two; if only to protect themselves from injury or ineffective rehab efforts. My bet however is that Holland will go cheap and bring in guys to compete with fringe players like Bertuzzi, Emmerton, Tootoo and maybe even Patrick Eaves. Winners stay and the losers get a one way ticket out of town via trade, release or the waiver wire just before the regular season begins. Regardless of who Holland ultimately signs however, there's a pretty good chance Wings' fans will be disappointed; you don't sign a guy like Jerome Iginla to compete for a 3rd/4th line role with the likes of Cory Emmerton after all.

(Editors Note: Continued in part 3 here.)