The Red Wings’ off-season just took an interesting twist before it even started.
According to various reports, defenseman Brian Rafalski is set to announce his retirement on Wednesday. Rafalski will be walking away from his contract with one year and $6 million remaining. Even though the 37-year-old had a great NHL career and will be missed, the cap-strapped Wings will now have some breathing room to make some moves this summer.
Rafalski’s absence will leave a hole on the Detroit blueline. No doubt about it. In 63 games this season, he racked up 48 points and a +11 rating. Throughout his career, the undersized Rafalski was a model of consistency. In each year since the lockout, he tallied at least 42 points. Only twice in his 11-year career, split between Detroit and New Jersey, did Rafalski not record 40-plus points in a season.
With that being said, Rafalski’s retirement may not be as big of a loss for the Red Wings as some may think. Aside from the money freed up, the team went 11-5-3 in 19 games without the veteran puck-mover. Plus, Rafalski was starting to wear down physically. If you were to ask me, Rafalski might be the third-most valuable defenseman on the Wings roster (behind Nicklas Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall).
Since Rafalski did not sign with Detroit when he was 35 years old, his contract will come off the books. With $6 million to spend, options are aplenty for GM Ken Holland, who usually spends every penny he can (and that’s not factoring in other possible departures/retirements). Holland can look at this as an opportunity to get younger on defense, while possible upgrading another area(s) of his roster as well.
There is a handful of solid defenseman that will be available this summer. Notable unrestricted free agents include the likes of Christian Ehrhoff, James Wisniewski, Tomas Kaberle, Kevin Bieksa, Joni Pitkanen and Andrei Markov.
Ryan Dixon of The Hockey News recently had a piece on how Kaberle may be a fit. If I’m Holland, though, I’d rather lean towards a pair of Canucks castoffs (Ehrhoff and Bieksa) with the way Kaberle, 33 years old, has performed in Boston. Plus, there’s always the trade route that the Wings could explore; and I would not rule out them using some of this money on a young forward.
The wild card here is Lidstrom, who is not under contract for next year. Most believe he will return for another year, despite retirement speculation. Would he take less money to further help the team improve? I would almost expect it from the man who already has a spot reserved in the Hall of Fame.
For the first time since 2008, when Detroit stunningly inked prize free agent Marian Hossa, Holland has some money to throw around this off-season. For the rest of the Western Conference, that’s a scary proposition.
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