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:
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
(Editors Note: Continued in part 3 here.)