DETROIT – Though the Red Wings aren’t moving on in the playoffs this weekend, Friday’s locker room clean-out wasn’t as bleak as last year when the team seemed like they were headed for catastrophic chances in the off-season.
For all of the doom and gloom predicted by those who said the Red Wings couldn’t compete in a post-Nicklas Lidstrom era, well, it sure looks like the future is pretty bright.
“We’ve heard a lot of talk that we’re not going to be even close to what we’ve been in previous years,” defenseman Jonathan Ericsson said. “I think everyone just wanted to prove that we were going to be a better team than anyone expected.”
The Red Wings still had a loaded lineup even with the retirement of Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom and the departure of defenseman Brad Stuart. But young unknowns – guys like Brian Lashoff, Gustav Nyquist, Joakim Andersson, Damien Brunner and Danny DeKeyser, who weren’t on the roster at the start of the 2011-12 season – stepped up and assumed control of roles that helped the team secured the 22nd straight playoff appearance.
“We still had a lot of good players here after Nick, Stuey and Homer all left,” Ericsson said. “They were very important guys, of course, but we have some young guys who took some very important steps. Guys were stepping up and took the opportunities pretty good and I think we got better as the year went on. We had a very good feeling at the end of the regular season and that carried us throughout the playoffs.”
That same feeling will carry the club through the off-season too, and into the Eastern Conference next fall.
The Wings battled through countless injuries, which provided young players from Grand Rapids the opportunities to show that they belong on the big-league roster. Guys like Lashoff and DeKeyser – players nobody in Detroit had heard of before this season – made huge contributions and proved their worth.
Brendan Smith, Jakub Kindl, Brunner, Nyquist and Andersson also were key contributors in the regular season and throughout the playoff run, which ended with Wednesday’s Game 7 overtime heart-breaker in Chicago.
“A lot of the young guys gained a lot of experience this year with all of the injuries that allowed them to come in and play,” goalie Jimmy Howard said. “They stepped up for us and we needed them to be a successful team, and they all played extremely well for us.”
Unfortunately, a part of the annual locker room clean-out for players is saying their good-byes before heading home for the summer to teammates, especially those who may not be back next season.
“It’s part of the business and it’s part of the job and it is tough,” Howard said. “You get these connections, friendships throughout the year and then the following year they’re not around, so it’s kind of weird seeing them around the NHL on different teams. It’s one of those things where you just wish the best for everyone.”
The Wings have 19 players under contract for next season worth $53.4 million, and Brunner, Daniel Cleary, Valtteri Filppula, Drew Miller, and Ian White will all become unrestricted free agents on July 5. The Wings very much want to sign Andersson, Kindl, Nyquist, and Smith to new contracts as each of them will become restricted free agents in July.
New this year for NHL clubs is the $64.3 million salary cap for 2013-14, which is part of the new collective bargaining agreement between the league and its’ players. In order to help with the new cap adjustment, each club has two amnesty buyouts to help them through the transition.
Players that are bought out still receive two-thirds of what’s left on their contract, but those costs do not count towards the salary cap.
Whether or not the Red Wings’ front office chooses to use the buyouts, time will tell, but Babcock has his wish list for next year’s roster, which he presented to general manager Ken Holland on Friday.
“We're way farther ahead just because of DeKeyser, Kindl, Smith, Lashoff, Nyquist, (Tomas) Tatar, Andersson, Brunner. That's significant,” Babcock said. “But the guys we got coming can't all play here. But you have assets, so you make the decisions based on what's best for you.
“Anyway you look it, and I'm not taking away anything from what we accomplished, but we squeaked into the playoffs. We don't want to squeak in, you want to be in.”
Now it’s Holland’s job to mold the roster for next season, which will take some creativity on his part because four young players – Lashoff, Tatar, Nyquist and Andersson – are out of options, meaning they must first clear waivers before the Wings can assign them to Grand Rapids in the future.
“Other than DeKeyser, they've all got to go through waivers,” Holland said. “Someone will claim them, which means that we either have to have him on this team or we have to make some moves. We've got some tough decisions to make and at the same time, obviously I don't think it's a big free agent market, if you look in comparison to other years, I think the free agent market every year is going to get a little thinner and a little thinner because teams are signing their best players. Nobody is letting those types of assets hit the market.”
Had the Red Wings not mounted a late-season surge to get into the playoffs, perhaps the outlook for next season would be different, captain Henrik Zetterberg said. But with a few tweaks in the off-season, he likes the direction that the team is headed.
“We're probably one game away from big changes if we wouldn't have won the last four games of the regular season, it would have been a lot different. It's a fine line here,” Zetterberg said. “But it's nice to see that we pulled together and played the way we did with the guys we have here. It's definitely something that we can build on and we have to make some changes, guys will unfortunately leave and we’ll add some new guys, but it feels better this year to stand here and look for the future than it did last year.”
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose
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