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Wings have a busy summer ahead

by Michelle Crechiolo / Detroit Red Wings
DETROIT – Now that the season has come to an end, Red Wings general manager Ken Holland has plenty of difficult decisions to make this summer.

The Wings have 14 players under contract for next season, leaving Holland with approximately $15 million to work with under the NHL’s salary cap. But that number doesn’t seem to be enough, considering the caliber of players whose fate must be determined.

The most notable prospective unrestricted free agent is captain Nicklas Lidstrom, who has spent all 18 seasons of his NHL career in Hockeytown. Despite turning 40 last month, Lidstrom is still considered by many to be one of the league’s premier defenseman.

A player of Lidstrom’s caliber – six Norris trophies, a Conn Smythe trophy, and four Stanley Cups – is virtually irreplaceable. And he doesn’t seem to be slowing down, averaging a team-leading 25:25 minutes along with ranking third in scoring with 49 points this season.

He has remained tight-lipped about his plans for next season, but the Wings are optimistic that Lidstrom will return, the only issue being his $7.4 million salary.

Many players’ fate will be impacted by Lidstrom’s decision and the expectation that Jiri Hudler will return to the Wings have a one-year sabbatical in Russia.

Hudler filed for salary arbitration with the Red Wings last summer, then abruptly signed a two-year, $5.7 million deal to play for the Moscow Dynamo in the Kontinental Hockey League.

His agent and former NHL defenseman, Petr Svoboda, confirmed last month that Hudler planned to return to the Wings to fulfill his NHL contract. A Red Wings draft pick in 2002, he posted 127 points in 255 career games.

Lidstrom is not the only veteran player facing unrestricted free agency. The hockey futures of Tomas Holmstrom and Kirk Maltby – who have spent a combined 27 seasons with the Wings – are in the balance.

Both veteran players are 37-years-old and each has voiced a desire to continue playing next season. They take up a combined $3 million in cap space, but could be willing to sign for less in order to stay in Detroit.

“I still feel like I’m going to train with the mind-set this summer of coming back and playing with another year,” Maltby told The Detroit News. “It’s no secret I hope it’s here.”

The remaining forwards who are UFAs are Todd Bertuzzi, Jason Williams and Brad May, who all signed one-year contracts and take up a combined $3.5 million.

Bertuzzi was the most productive of the trio, ranking fifth on the team with 44 points and providing a physical presence on a line with Henrik Zetterberg and Valterri Filppula.

Forwards Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, Drew Miller and Patrick Eaves are all restricted free agents, meaning Holland must extend qualifying offers to them in order to maintain negotiating rights. If the players reject an offer and sign with another team, the Wings can either match the offer or let them go.

Helm and Abdelkader are two definite priorities, having been drafted by the Wings in 2005. They’ve proven their worth, establishing themselves as solid, fast, and physical role players. Either could easily be a top-six forward on any team, so it makes sense for the Wings to lock up the two young forwards, especially since they only take up $1.21 million in salary.     

Miller and Eaves are also two players who are cheap on the books (just over a combined $1 million), but have filled much-needed roles for the Wings. They’re both effective defensive-forwards, spearheading a successful Detroit penalty kill, and would be valuable returners.

In terms of defensemen, Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart and Jonathan Ericsson are all returning. Jakub Kindl, drafted No. 19 overall in 2005, signed a three-year, $2.65 million contract extension with the Wings that goes into effect next season.

But Andreas Lilja and Brett Lebda are both UFAs. At 6-foot-3 and 225-pounds, Lilja is a solid third-line defenseman, but has a history of concussions. Lebda was a healthy scratch in nine of the Wings’ 11 playoff games, and restricted free agent Derek Meech hasn’t had a defined role. The three take up $2.6 million under the cap.

Holland will be spending his summer negotiating these contracts amidst rumors that the Wings may leave Joe Louis Arena, most likely for the Palace of Auburn Hills.

The Wings’ lease with the city-owned Joe Louis Arena expires in June, and team owner Mike Ilitch’s Olympia Entertainment informed the city of Detroit they did not want another long-term lease.

On Thursday, Ilitch told Detroit’s 97.1 The Ticket’s morning show that the Wings, “Will probably play their games again” next year at JLA, but that the organization is trying to find a way to build a new downtown area.

“We’re still going to get it done,” Ilitch said.

With an estimated cost of a new arena being $400 million in a tough economy, along with a limited market for building, the Wings aren’t in a rush to move. But it will happen.

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