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Red Wings head into summer with question marks

by Brian Hedger /

DETROIT -- They might have bowed out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after winning just one game, but it's not sitting well with the Detroit Red Wings and they're not exactly bashful about the upcoming off-season.

Red Wings general manager Ken Holland did not meet with reporters at Joe Louis Arena during Monday's locker cleanout/team photo function, but the message couldn't have been any clearer from players and coach Mike Babcock -- Detroit is going to be a major player on July 1, when free agency starts.

"As I've watched these teams go on and I hear, 'Well, this team hasn't won a playoff series since '[2002] and this one just won their first one,' you know, it might seem a little selfish but I don't mind being selfish ... I think we should be there every year," Babcock said near the start of his talk with reporters. "We think with some ... tweaks and some good work in the off-season from our players and us as a management team, we can be way better."


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It's important to note that Babcock first started to say "minor tweaks" in the above quotation before just changing it to "tweaks."

That prompted a question about Detroit going through a possible "major upheaval" this summer, after three straight playoff ousters were too soon for the Wings' lofty expectations.

"I guess my question to you is, 'What's major?'" Babcock asked. "We're in a position financially that we can acquire and get into the [free agent] market. Now, [if it's] set up that it's going to work that way and we think we can make it work, then we'll be all over it. We feel we got some room to add and we're going to do the very best we can and I think that will make us a better team."

The question is where they'd like to add and with what players. Two possible unrestricted free agents, Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter and New Jersey forward Zach Parise, have already been linked through the rumor mill to Detroit as possible free-agent acquisitions this summer.

In fact, one of the most well-traveled spins is that because the American-born stars are good friends and know fellow American-born Wings goalie Jimmy Howard pretty well, they might come to the Motor City as a package deal.

"They're good players," Red Wings star forward Henrik Zetterberg said. "[They're] great players and seem like two really good guys, too. They'd be a good fit in here. We'll just have to wait and see where they decide to go."

The Red Wings not only have a storied history to woo free agents with, but could also have deep pockets under the salary cap if Detroit's five potential unrestricted free agents retire or play elsewhere. Detroit also has Babcock willing to burn up cell-phone minutes trying to recruit free agents.

"I've always been in those conversations or on the phone doing whatever I've got to do," Babcock said, grinning. "I've got air miles, too. I could fly in."

Babcock was displeased with the lack of forward depth that he said was the biggest stumbling block against the tight-checking, defensive Predators in the low-scoring first-round series. It didn't help that speedy third-line center Darren Helm -- also one of the Red Wings' best penalty killers -- went down first with a knee injury late in the regular season and then with severed tendons in his right forearm from a skate blade in Game 1 against Nashville.

Helm was lost for the remainder of the playoffs, but expects to be fully-recovered for Detroit's training camp in the fall. Also aiming for a full return to health by that point will be forward Patrick Eaves -- who had his jaw fractured and received a long-lasting concussion in late December when he was hit trying to block a slap shot by Nashville rookie Roman Josi.

Eaves never returned from the injury and he was missed along with Helm in Detroit's bottom six forward group. Along with Drew Miller and Justin Abdelkader, each had grown into important roles and were making an impact before the injuries.

Not having Eaves and Helm for the playoffs, Babcock said, was a bigger blow than many recognized.

"Our best part of our season is when we had lots of depth and we were able to go after the other team with our third and fourth lines, as well," he said. "If you look at all these other series ... what I see is that [another team's] third line scores and [their] fourth line scores. They just keep coming and they wear on people, and it gives your other guys some breathing space. We didn't have that. We just kept jamming [our top lines] out there. Probably in the end, that didn't help us [against Nashville]."

So, it's probably time for some of those "tweak," which most of the Red Wings interviewed on Monday agreed were probably necessary.

"I still believe we had a good enough team to do damage this year," Zetterberg said. "It's always tough to make big changes, but that's something we have to do. You need to make changes. You add people and you lose people. Some of them are tougher than others. We haven't been good enough in here lately and I think everyone in here is prepared to make those sacrifices to do what needs to be done."

Lidstrom, who'll turn 42 on Saturday, will make the toughest decision about whether to return or retire. He made a reported $6.2 million in his latest one-year contract, but told reporters money won't be a factor in his decision -- and hasn't been the past two years.

Lidstrom's good friend and fellow Swede, 39-year old Tomas Holmstrom, is also a question mark. He's set to become an unrestricted free agent and it's unclear whether he wants to return or retire. It's also foggy about whether the Red Wings will offer him another contract.

Asked on Monday, Holmstrom said he can't see himself wearing another uniform and wasn't all that thrilled with playing fourth-line minutes this year.

"If I'm going to play next year, am I going to play on the fourth line and get seven to nine minutes of ice time a game?" he said. "That's tough to do. Of course, you've got the power play, too, but it's not that easy to get out there and make something happen when you're getting limited ice time."

Defenseman Brad Stuart and 28-year old forward Jiri Hudler are also going to be unrestricted free agents and some believe both will leave. Stuart is almost certain to depart to be closer to his family near San Jose, which was a major off-ice issue the past couple of seasons.

Hudler, who scored 25 goals and added 25 assists in 81 games, may seek a much larger contract after such a nice bounce-back season from the 10 goals he scored in the 2010-11 campaign. Veteran goalie Ty Conklin is also likely done with Joey MacDonald earning the back-up role while filling in admirably when Howard was injured.

Factor in promising rookies Brendan Smith and Gustav Nyquist likely pushing for regular roles and this could be the most tumultuous off-season for the Red Wings in quite some time. That's not necessarily a bad thing, either.

"I think it can be fixed [in one summer]," Zetterberg said. "We have a good team here. We have to [make] some changes. If we [make] the right changes, they will be some tough changes, but if we do that we'll be right back next year."

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