Happy New Year!
Now that the odometer has flipped over to 2012, it’s time to take a peek at the players whose contracts are expiring at season’s end. Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland is now free to explore extensions and re-sign any of the following players to additional years of hockey in Motown. Many of whom would be welcomed back — some may have worn out their welcome by July 1st.
The following 18 players represent the 2012 class of Red Wings free agents — both unrestricted and restricted. The team currently has all 50 available contracts filled, and Petr Mrazek signed beginning next season. Presuming none of the following guys are signed before July 1st, there will be 17 available contracts for Holland and Company to splurge.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
G – Ty Conklin, 36, $750,000
The Wings backup goaltender has had a rough couple of seasons. After not living up to the contract given to him in St. Louis (admittedly, playing behind a terrible Blues team), we all thought he’d be redeemed in a Red Wings uniform: one that he’s had a lot of success in. That hasn’t been the case, playing in just six games (starting five), allowing 17 goals despite a season-opening shutout. To outsiders, it appears as if the Red Wings have lost all confidence in their #2 netminder, evidenced by a stretch of 17 straight starts for Jimmy Howard, and Conklin only starting twice in the final thirty games of the calendar year 2011. I doubt Conklin will be tendered an offer, and he’ll once again be in search of employment for 2012-13.
PREDICTION: He will not be re-signed and the Wings will look for an alternative to backup Jimmy Howard, while strongly considering Joey MacDonald who will be on a one-way contract and has proven to be a reliable netminder when called upon. The Griffins situation will sort itself out — with Jordan Pearce still under contract and Petr Mrazek’s deal kicking in — but more on that in a minute.
D – Nicklas Lidstrom, 42, $6.2M
If you’d asked me at the beginning of the year, I would have told you that this was — without a doubt — Nick Lidstrom’s final season in the NHL, whether the Wings win the Cup or failed to make the playoffs altogether. Last season was the first time he’d quote-unquote “taken a step back,” although he was still the dominant defenseman in the game, winning the Norris for a 7th time. This season, he’s playing better than he did a year ago, and appears to have had a sip of whatever the hell it was that kept Chris Chelios young. Does he have more in the tank? Yes. Does he want to continue playing deep into his forties considering he has, on a few occasions, looked downright human? I’m not sure.
PREDICTION: Like always, this will be up to Nick Lidstrom. If he wants to return, he’ll be back no matter what. If I had to yield a guess, I’d say that this is his final season as he prepares for a life beyond the on-ice aspects of hockey and will transition into some superhero role in the Wings front office, a la Steve Yzerman, Kris Draper, Chris Osgood, and Kirk Maltby.
D – Brad Stuart, 32, $3.75M
As solid a second pairing defenseman as we’ve had in recent years, it’ll be an interesting off-season for the likes of Brad Stuart. It’s clear that the Red Wings would like to hang on to the big man, and I’m sure he’s become comfortable with the Wings (it’s already been four years since he came to Detroit via trade). Ken Holland got the Kronwall contract out of the way (his new deal kicks in next season, where he’ll be making $4.75M for seven years), and Stuart’s going to want similar dollars, I’m sure. Is Jakub Kindl ready to take on a more prominent role on the blueline, or do the Wings hedge and keep their top half in tow?
PREDICTION: I’m sure a lot of this decision will be based on whether or not Lidstrom returns. I can’t imagine the team allowing their top defenseman and their #3/4 to walk away at the same time. Gut feeling: Stuart will be retained for somewhere in the $4.5M range — less than he’d get on the market, but more than he’s getting now.
D – Mike Commodore, 32, $1M
Finally, with the season nearly half over, Commodore has begun to get into some games. Having gotten into only three games through the first 33 games, he’s become a regular over the last few weeks, usurping Jakub Kindl’s spot in the lineup. And he’s playing well — he’s not blowing any doors off the rinks, but he’s not expected to. He was brought in to be a physical presence, a veteran influence, and a steady back-end player when called upon, and he has been that since the end of December. I’m positive he wasn’t pleased with his playing situation early on (particularly when Brendan Smith was called up and played above him), but I’m also sure that he appreciates the opportunity to rejoin the NHL with a team like the Red Wings.
PREDICTION: I don’t think Commodore will be retained because of the nature of his position. He’s essentially the 6th or 7th defenseman and guys to fill that role are plentiful come July 1st. Is he a better fit than most of those guys will be? Perhaps, but considering Smith will likely make the jump next season and Kindl’s expanding role, it may be a one-and-done situation for Commodore in Detroit.
W – Todd Bertuzzi, 37, $1.9375M
Putting my personal feelings aside, Todd Bertuzzi fills a role on the Red Wings: he’s a big dude, he goes to the net, and he’s not afraid to mix it up if need-be. I’m still nowhere near impressed with his offensive output, which — given his top six standing most nights — needs to be a focus, but maybe not the focus. Currently seventh in scoring among forwards (behind the always-a-scrub-for-some-reason Jiri Hudler), his price tag may be large enough that the Wings will look to other options to fill that big man’s role on offense. Likewise, Bertuzzi may decide that his body has had enough and he’d prefer to walk away from the game while he still can. Of the twelve regular forwards, Bertuzzi is one of three whose futures are uncertain. Guys like Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar may be ready to make the jump into the NHL, making this one of the positions to keep an eye on as summer approaches.
PREDICTION: Something tells me he’s in one-year territory, but that he’ll be around again at least for 2012-13. But I won’t be surprised if he’s not.
W – Tomas Holmstrom, 39, $1.875M
After beginning the season as the de-facto 12th/13th forward, and not playing on back-to-back nights, Homer has made his importance well known, especially now that he’s injured. There’s no one — in the entire league, and likely in history — that can do what he does as well as he does it: screening the goaltender and tipping shots that are heading wide through a pinhole are skills that are valuable to a team like the Wings, and he’s a beloved lifer. That said, his game is extremely taxing on the body, and — at 39 — he’s not getting any younger. A groin tear around the holidays becomes a little bit more difficult to recuperate from as you approach 40, and his body may be telling him it’s time to hang ’em up, like Brian Rafalski’s did last summer.
PREDICTION: This is it for Homer. If he wants to return and his body is able, he’d be welcomed back with open arms. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him offered a Maltby-like two-way deal to make sure he is physically capable of continuing into the season that would see him turn 40, but frankly I’m shocked his spine has lasted this long.
W – Jiri Hudler, 28, $2.875M
Everyone’s favorite weird little midget’s deal (the one that was agreed upon as he defected for the KHL) ends after this season. Last year, he had an underwhelming return to the NHL after a year in Siberia. This season, however, has been a welcome surprise: his 9 goals are fourth-most on the team, and he’s playing (relatively) responsible hockey. He’s only been a healthy scratch once this season, but something tells me he’s still not a favorite of Coach Mike Babcock. Would it surprise me to have him back next season? Absolutely not, especially given his resurgence as an NHL player and the amount that the Red Wings have invested in him since drafting him in 2002. Would it surprise me to see him in a Flyers or Hurricanes jersey next season? Nope.
PREDICTION: I bet he’s gone, mostly because he can be replaced rather easily — either with a new addition from outside the organization or with a promotion from within, like Nyquist or Tatar.
W – Fabian Brunnstrom, 27, $600,000
I doubt this season has gone as Brunnstrom had hoped. After making the Red Wings out of training camp, he was a healthy scratch for seven games to start the season. Then, he played one game, was waived, and assigned to Grand Rapids. Between 10/29 and 12/3, Brunnstrom was assigned to Grand Rapids or recalled by the Red Wings a total of niiiiiine times. Currently with the Griffins, he’s only played five games with the Red Wings, netting zero goals and one assist.
PREDICTION: He’s a hell of a guy to have at the ready, but if he’s going to have to compete with players like Nyquist, Andersson, and Chris Conner for a call-up, he may not want to stick around. Granted, he didn’t get a sniff of the NHL at all last season, but he’ll very likely have a better chance of making almost any NHL team than he does the Red Wings.
W – Chris Conner, 28, $550,000
I love this kid — he’s a local Metro Detroiter, he’s fast as balls, he gives hope to the little guys. One thing is certain: Chris Conner is too goddamn good for the American Hockey League. He’s one of those dudes who may forever be a “cusp” guy — too good for the AHL, not quite good enough for everyday service in the NHL. Frankly, I’d love to have him back, but he’s in a position where — at his age and experience — he’ll do what’s best for his future in the game. I hope it’s in Detroit.
PREDICTION: Maybe he’s given a Doug Janik-like deal, where various years are one-way, giving him the opportunity to prove he belongs in the NHL at training camp or — at the very least — make NHL money while playing in Grand Rapids. I think he’ll be re-signed.
D – Doug Janik, 32, $512,500
The aforementioned Jug Danik was an awesome guy to have in the AHL awaiting the call. He really was. Shut up, haters. But he’ll be moving on, signing elsewhere where he won’t be competing with a blue chip prospect like Brendan Smith for call-ups. Story Time with Doug Janik has been put on hold.
PREDICTION: He’ll be snapped up by another NHL club, and will be given every opportunity to be their #7.
D – Garnet Exelby, 30, $600,000
The Griffins captain won’t get a sniff of the NHL with Detroit, and if that’s what he’s after, he’ll be better served somewhere else. I don’t know a thing about him and how he’s playing this season, but he’s the kind of veteran that bounces around each summer, a lifestyle that certainly isn’t ideal, but he’s playing hockey for a living and I’m not. He’s living the dream, and I wish him luck.
PREDICTION: Likely won’t be retained, particularly with an already-crowded Griffins blueline potentially adding some guys next season, like Adam Almqvist. However, if the Griffins lose Smith, Janik, and — as we’ll discuss in a minute — Logan Pyett, the team could be desperate to keep some semblance of familiarity. Don’t count an extension out.
F – Jamie Johnson, 30, $500,000
Signed before the 2010-11 season, Johnson seemed destined to be a guy who — like Chris Minard, who we’ll discuss in a second — that was a veteran depth move made strictly for the Griffins. And that has been the case, but he’s absolutely tearing apart the AHL this season, centering the top line on the farm. He likely won’t get a call-up this season — he’s actually never gotten a call-up in his career — and he’ll continue to play professional hockey at the AHL level. Whether or not that’s in Grand Rapids remains to be seen, but he’s making a wonderful career for himself in the AHL, like Darren Haydar.
PREDICTION: I bet the Wings offer him another opportunity to play within the organization, but he may seek out his options. He may choose to re-sign in Detroit because Grand Rapids is relatively close to his hometown of London, Ontario — but closer AHL cities are Hamilton (Montreal), Toronto (Toronto), Rochester (Anaheim), and Syracuse (Buffalo).
F – Chris Minard, 31, $525,000
Like Johnson, Minard was a veteran signed mostly for depth prior to the 2010-11 season. Unlike Johnson, Minard has gotten into 40 NHL games with the Penguins and Oilers. After a successful 2010-11 season in Grand Rapids, Minard’s career hit a bump: he has yet to be medically cleared to play after missing all of training camp, pre-season, and the first half of the NHL and AHL seasons with a concussion. At his age and experience, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he may be forced to walk away from hockey. He’s very quietly missed more than five-plus months of training.
PREDICTION: Sadly, Chris Minard may be one of those guys that rides softly into the night, saying goodbye to a hockey career and taking advantage of alternate opportunities. However, we’ll be pulling for him to get another shot and stay active in the AHL.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
F – Justin Abdelkader, 25, $787,500
Raise your hand if you think the Red Wings are going to walk away from Gator? Everyone with their hands raised is a moron. He may not be Maltby or McCarty 2.0, but he’s proven to be a valuable asset to the Red Wings, and he’s growing up before our eyes. I’d be hesitant to give him much more money than he’s currently making, because his skill set is (relatively) limited, but there’s just no way he’s not re-signed.
PREDICTION: Two or three years at — or just under — a million, and hometown hero will be a Red Wing for the foreseeable future.
F – Darren Helm, 25, $912,500
An even bigger lock than Abdelkader, Darren Helm is one of those ‘heart and soul’ guys that the Red Wings have become famous for. Every single person on Earth loves him, and with good reason: he’s one of the fastest dudes I’ve ever seen on skates, he works his ass off, kills penalties, sacrifices the body, and chips in the odd goal that you need from players like him. Lifer. Bank on it.
PREDICTION: It may be unwise to sign a guy like Helm to a fifteen-year deal, but they’ll give him a longer term than he’s been getting so far. Expect four years and similar cash, maybe a few bucks over the Mendoza Million Marker.
D – Travis Ehrhardt, 23, $533,333
Ehrhardt’s in a strange position: he’s not a big time prospect like Brendan Smith, but he’s certainly capable. He’s also only 23 years old and in his third professional season. He’s currently on the shelf, nursing a shoulder injury, but the Wings are high on him and look forward to his return to the Griffins lineup. Will he be a Red Wing one day? It’s too early to tell, but Detroit has turned undrafted guys into NHL players in the past, why not Ehrhardt?
PREDICTION: You bet he’ll be qualified and signed. He’ll be waiver exempt for another season, too.
D – Logan Pyett, D, 24, $525,000
Speaking of waiver eligibility, Logan Pyett is already in the danger zone. He hasn’t yet played a game in the NHL, but this is his fourth full season in the AHL. No one claimed him on waivers prior to the season (and no one will claim him next season if he’s still Red Wings property) because he hasn’t shown what he can do at that next level. With guys like Brendan Smith above him on the depth chart, despite being younger, Pyett’s opportunity to show the Red Wings he can be an NHL player may have run out. For a guy that played on Canada’s WJC squad, it’s hard to believe he may not play in the NHL. From the 2008 team he was a part of, only Pyett, Josh Godfrey, Riley Holzapfel, the notoriously flaky Stefan Legein, and the notoriously “bust” list worthy Thomas Hickey have yet to step on the ice in the big league.
PREDICTION: He’ll be offered an extension, either by the Red Wings or by the Griffins directly, to continue playing in the only professional organization he’s ever known.
G – Thomas McCollum, 22, $845,833
Our good friend Tommy McCollum is at a very important crossroads of his young career. Though he’s only 22, he’s having a heck of a time sticking in the lineup in Grand Rapids — instead spending half (or more) of his pro career in the ECHL with the Toledo Walleye. A pair of injuries to Griffins goaltenders Joey MacDonald and Jordan Pearce have allowed McCollum to take the pipes in Grand Rapids, and in his eight games he’s found himself once again above hockey’s version of the Mendoza line: a 3.00 goals against average. For the first time in his pro career, he has a save percentage above .900 in both the AHL and ECHL, but it’s pretty close (.901 and .905, respectively). Sadly, it may be the end of the road for McCollum when it comes to the opportunity to play with the organization that drafted him in 2008: another OHL stud goaltender with an impressive WJC under his belt will be turning pro in 2012-13 in Petr Mrazek. Between Mrazek and Pearce, who will still be signed, McCollum stands to be the odd man out in the AHL again.
PREDICTION: I bet he’s tendered an offer by the Griffins, but not by the Red Wings. Considering the difficulty he’s had making his way up the depth chart during the course of his three year entry level deal, I can’t imagine the Red Wings using one of their coveted 50-man reserve list spots on Mr. McCollum unless he shows that he’s worthy of an everyday start with the Griffins, or at least the occasional start with an NHL club somewhere down the line.
THE 2012-13 DETROIT RED WINGS
Franzen — Datsyuk — (vacant)
Filppula — Zetterberg — (vacant)
Eaves — Helm — Cleary
Miller — Abdelkader — Mursak
Emmerton / (vacant)
(vacant) — White
Kronwall — (vacant)
Kindl — Ericsson
Call-ups: Nyquist, Andersson, Tatar
As always, you can keep up to date with the Red Wings goings-on using our Chart. If you navigate over to the tab titled Free Agents, you can see the upcoming summers of free agents-to-be.
Photography Credits: Ty Conklin, Dave Sandford, Getty Images; Nicklas Lidstrom, Doug Pensinger, Getty Images; Brad Stuart, Jim McIsaac, Getty Images; Mike Commodore, Julian H. Gonzalez, Detroit Free Press; Todd Bertuzzi, Dave Reginek, NHLI via Getty Images; Tomas Holmstrom, Gregory Shamus, Getty Images; Jiri Hudler, Jim McIsaac, Getty Images; Fabian Brunnstrom, AP Photo; Chris Conner, Paul Sancya, AP; Doug Janik, Dave Reginek, NHLI via Getty Images; Garnet Exelby, Gregory Shamus, Getty Images; Jamie Johnson, Adam Bird, The Grand Rapids Press; Chris Minard, Mark Newman, Grand Rapids Griffins; Justin Abdelkader, AP File Photo; Darren Helm, Doug Pensinger, Getty Images; Travis Ehrhardt, Mark Newman, Grand Rapids Griffins; Logan Pyett, Tony Ding, AP Photo; Thomas McCollum, Dave Reginek, NHLI via Getty Images