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Wings look to overhaul defense

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
DETROIT – Now that Brian Rafalski has retired and an air of uncertainty still swirls around Nicklas Lidstrom’s playing future, the Red Wings’ best options at shoring up their defensive unit is through trades or free agency, which begins in 36 days.

The Wings have nine of their own that can become unrestricted free agents on July 1, including defensemen Jonathan Ericsson, Ruslan Salei and Lidstrom.

Clearly, the Wings want Lidstrom to return for a 20th season. The same may, or may not, be said for Ericsson and Salei. However, the fact of the matter remains: even if Lidstrom returns, the Wings would like to acquire an experienced defenseman that compliments the captain’s slick style.

“Free agency is a wonderful thing. That’s how we got Rafi,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “Rafi said it himself, ‘That they’re going to have to fill the hole.’ And we plan on doing that. I don’t know how. But we’re going to do it.”

As of now, the Wings have Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart, Jakub Kindl and Doug Janik under contract for the 2011-12 season. They would also like to see how prospect Brendan Smith progresses in training camp.

"Certainly we need to overhaul our defense," Wings general manager Ken Holland said. "Either through trade (or) at the draft when there’s going to be trades. Not a lot of teams are trading defense, most teams are looking for defense. We’ll probably really have to set our sights on July 1."

There are 74 NHL defensemen eligible for free agency this summer, 26 of which played in 61 or more games last season. Of those players, only 10 logged more than 20-minutes of ice-time per game and even fewer corralled 40 or more points.

Even though he played much of the season with pain, Rafalski still managed to compile 48 points and averaged more than 20-minutes of ice-time in 63 games.

Of the likely available free agents, only Montreal’s James Wisniewski, Vancouver’s Christian Ehrhoff, Boston’s Tomas Kaberle, and Carolina’s Joni Pitkanen managed to produce Rafalski-like statistics last season.

The question in July will be: Are the Wings willing to match or increase the salaries for players like the aforementioned, which range now between $3.2 and $4.5 million?

Other options could be mid-range guys that are coming into their prime, like New Jersey’s Andy Greene. Then there are lesser-known younger players, like Columbus’s Grant Clitsome.

"There’s not many Brian Rafalski’s out there," Holland said. "I think we’ll explore, money’s always an issue, in cap dollars. Do you sign one guy? Do you go out and sign two guys and try to have a little more depth? Obviously, over the next few months we have to make decisions in regards to Salei and Ericsson. I know those are two guys who do want to play hockey next year and we’ll wait for the decision on Nick Lidstrom.

"f we can get a great decision on Nick and maybe sign one of those two guys, then you can maybe sign one or two. Depends on who’s available."

Follow Bill Roose on twitter | @RooseBill
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