DETROIT – It promises to be a busy start to the month of July for the Red Wings, and coach Mike Babcock is at the ready to board an airplane at a moment’s notice to help with the recruiting of any potential free agents.
The Wings want to add a couple of unrestricted players, namely a top-pair defenseman and a forward to address scoring depth. The NHL’s annual free agency period begins this Sunday at 12 p.m. EDT.
However, this year’s pool of UFAs is widely considered to be, more or less, on the shallow end with New Jersey forward Zach Parise and Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter expected to be the biggest catches in the market.
“I’m in a position to fly wherever they want me to fly,” Babcock told the NHL Network Thursday from his home in Saskatchewan. “We’re a work in progress, so we’re talking each and every day about the moves that we’re trying to make, and we kind of have an A Plan, a B Plan, a C Plan, and we’ve probably got even a D Plan. I’m just going to be ready to go.”
The lose of defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski to retirement in the last 12 months, and the recent departure of Brad Stuart – who signed with San Jose – are reason enough for the Wings to make an expected serious run at Suter, who produced seven goals and 39 assists for the Predators last season. Detroit didn’t have a defenseman compile 39 points last season, let alone 39 assists.
The 27-year-old Suter would give the Wings two top pairings and help Nicklas Kronwall quarterback the power play. But regardless of what the Wings’ front office does in the coming days in the open market, it will remain important that the team’s home grown players, like Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith, continue to develop so they can contribute at the NHL level, Babcock said.
“I think it’s a big real opportunity for both of those guys and it’s going to be competitive for them and they’ll have to come in and take jobs,” Babcock said of Smith and Kindl. “Smith, to me, has been a player that we felt made our team out of training camp and as a coaching staff really felt like he could have helped us when he came up. Right now he’s a player that generates offense for you and a little bit for the opposition. We want him simply generating offense for us, he knows that. But we think he has upside potential.
“Kindl, on the other side, I think has really taken some steps in the last couple of years. He could be a puck-mover at the NHL level, he’s 22-pounds, he’s 6-foot-3, he can shoot the puck, it’s now time to grab a job and be an every day player that makes a contribution.”
While the Wings thought Lidstrom still had some good years left in him, Rafalski’s unexpected retirement last summer freed up some cap space, which the Wings still have available. It’s that money, along with the new windfall from this summer’s departures that will allow the Wings to pursue Parise and Suter. Currently, Detroit has 19 players under contract for the upcoming season at a cap hit of a little more than $46 million.
On Thursday, the league and the players’ association announced that the team payrolls have been adjusted up for next season with the cap floor set at $54.2 million and the ceiling set at $70.2 million.
With so many clubs expected to make lucrative offers to both Parise and Suter, getting them in Detroit isn’t a slam dunk by any stretch of the imagination. But, even if the Wings don’t land either – or both – of this year’s big free agency fish, there will be other tangible options out there for general manager Ken Holland.
Possible forwards include Shane Doan, Alex Semin, Jaromir Jagr, Teemu Selanne, and Ray Whitney, a 20-year veteran who played for the Wings in 2003-04. Defensively, there’s Jason Garrison, the 27-year-old left-handed shot, who finished second in the league with nine power-play goals among defensemen.
“We’re fortunate that there will be people on the market and we’re going to have to improve our hockey club,” Babcock said. “We were in a situation last year where we played $6 million under the cap on purpose to kind of be set-up for going ahead and that’s what we’re trying to do to secure the best people that we can possibly secure and then go from there.”
Injuries and the lack of depth certainly cost the Wings last April when they were bounced out of their first-round playoff series against Nashville. But if the Wings can secure one or two new players in free agency, then, Babcock said, he sees his team back in the thick of next spring’s Stanley Cup race.
“We think that we’re set-up to have pretty good depth. We just have to add a couple of people in spots and we’ll have that right back,” Babcock said. “To me, at playoff time, depth is everything. All you have to do is look at the team that wins at the end with four lines that can play.
“The way it worked out for us, we had guys at minus-5 in five games in the playoffs up front; depth didn’t work that way for us, so we’re going to try and address that. Now obviously, the more you can add at the top and slide people into the right spots the better off you are.”
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