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Clean-Out Day

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
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DETROIT – The Red Wings gathered for the final time this season at Joe Louis Arena before heading on their separate ways for the summer.

For the second straight heart-breaking season, the Wings were knocked out of the Stanley Cup playoffs in the second round by the San Jose Sharks. Unlike last spring, however, the Wings battled the Sharks through seven epic playoff games, including six that were decided by one goal.

And knowing that they were one game shy of reaching the Western Conference finals for the fourth time in five years it’s a bitter pill to swallow, especially now that a summer of uncertainty looms.

“I thought we were competitive in the playoffs. I thought San Jose beat a good team,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “Last year when they beat us, I didn’t think they beat a good team. I thought they had to beat a real good team to advance this year.

“We were right there with them. It all comes back to little things. At the end, they got five power-play goals in the series, and we got four. If you flip that around, that’s how tight things were. We also felt that the team who won that series was going to have a legitimate opportunity. The bitter disappointment is also a driving force. I know we’ve had it before, with a good year the following year, and that’s our goal and our focus.”

But the Wings immediate focus will be on necessary off-season moves by the front office.

The Wings have 15 players under contract for the 2011-12 season, meaning nine other players will be unrestricted free agents on July 1, including Wings’ lifers Nicklas Lidstrom, Kris Draper and Chris Osgood.

Combined, the veteran trio has played in 3,216 NHL games for the Wings.

Lidstrom, who finished his 19th NHL season with the Wings and is up for the Norris Trophy for an 11th time, has made it known that he will make a decision on his playing future by the beginning of July.

The Wings’ locker room seemed to be split on whether or not they believed Lidstrom would be back. While all of them want him back – and many are believed to be lobbying hard to keep him in the fold – defenseman Brian Rafalski said he wouldn’t be surprised if Lidstrom retired.

Still, others believe he’ll be back for a 20th season.

“He knows that we want him back and everyone wants him back. But now it’s up to him,” forward Henrik Zetterberg said. “But he definitely has more hockey in him.”

Forward Danny Cleary said players in the Wings’ locker room should now turn their attention to being lobbyists for Lidstrom’s return.

“I’d be an idiot not to be,” Cleary said. “I think he proved to himself that he is a top-one defensemen. It’s tough to retire when you’re the best. I hope that he comes back for our team’s sake, for everybody’s sake. His presence is what we’d miss.”

Some think Lidstrom, who finished with 62 points becoming the first 40-year-old defenseman in NHL history to reach the 60-point plateau, will return to chase history.

The only European captain to win a Stanley Cup, Lidstrom has won the Norris six times. Only Montreal’s Doug Harvey (seven) and Boston’s Bobby Orr (record) have more.

“If I were Nick I’d come back,” Mike Modano said. “I’d keep coming back. I think he has a rare mystique. Even if he gets the Norris (Trophy), then you have a chance at history, for the following year and catching Bobby Orr. So there is a mystique there.”

Draper has been with the Wings since he was acquired from the Winnipeg Jets for $1 in June 1993. Faced with a decision that most players would rather not make, Draper, who will celebrate his 40th birthday later this month, has his family well-rooted in metro Detroit. And that, he says, complicates matters.

“This is home,” Draper said. “That’s the one thing that probably makes it that much tougher, for the fact that I’ve been here so long. This is all my kids know.

“A lot of people, when they get to this point in their career, they’ve been to different places. They’ve gone to different schools. They’ve had different friends, and they’ve moved on. For me, that’s not the case, for being here as long as I have. All of those things are certainly going to come into play, and that’s why I say I want to do what’s best for my family first. I mean that.”

Draper said that he’ll meet with general manager Ken Holland soon to discuss his options.

The others eligible for free agency are forwards Patrick Eaves, Drew Miller and Modano, defensemen Ruslan Salei and Jonathan Ericsson, and backup goalie Joey MacDonald.

Eaves had a solid season and was quite a dependable penalty-killer for the Wings. The six-year veteran said that he would like to return to Detroit, but added that contract time is out of his control.

“This is the not-fun part,” said Eaves, who finished with 13 goals and seven assists in 63 games. “I don’t like the business part, but it is what it is. In the end, it is a business, but that’s why I have an agent.”

While most of the soon-to-be free agents want to return, Modano said he’s leaning toward retirement, though there is a quarter-percent chance that he would lace up the skates again next season.

“My year here was a lot of fun and very memorable being back home and playing in front of the people that I grew-up with,” Modano said. “I couldn’t have asked for that situation to have been any better.”

Modano was signed last August to add experience and create a third solid scoring line and to quarterback the Wings’ second power-play unit. But a ghastly cut to his right wrist damaged tendons and nerves that required surgery last November. He missed half of the regular-season and only played in two of the Wings’ 11 playoff games.

“It’s kind of 75-25 (percent) not returning so it’s been tough,” Modano said. “The last couple of years I’ve tried to grasp onto something that maybe isn’t there and some magical moment in time where you can rewind the clocks and have a great year. I thought coming here would be that remedy, but with the injury and the way things happened, it just wasn’t meant to be.”

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter at: @roosebill

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