The Thin Blue Line

The Detroit Red Wings have overcome more than a handful of obstacles to stay competitive during Ken Holland’s tenure. They’ve lost key players from numerous championship teams, and somehow managed to keep on contending.

Depending on how things go this summer, Holland may face his steepest challenge yet to keeping the Red Wings in the thick of post season action.

Brian Rafalski announced his retirement earlier today. Despite his age and injury troubles this season, he was a key component of the Red Wings blue line in 2010-11. In just 63 games, Rafalski easily led all Red Wings defenders in even-strength scoring, with 31 points. Among NHL blue-liners with more than 20 games played, nobody was more likely to record a point on any even-strength shift.

That even-strength point production, Rafalski’s work on the power play, and his great possession number (albeit in relatively easy minutes) are all going to be missed by the Red Wings.

Yet, Rafalski’s retirement may not even be the worst news the Wings face this summer. 41-year old Nicklas Lidstrom may have just had a Norris-calibre season, but he has yet to decide whether he will return for another NHL campaign – he’s set a self-imposed deadline of July 1 to make up his mind.

Whether or not Lidstrom decides to retire this summer, there isn’t much time left in his NHL career, and eventually Detroit will need to look at replacing him. They also need to find someone to fill in for Rafalski. Beyond those two, every blue-liner not named Jakub Kindl is slated for unrestricted free agency.

So (beyond fantasies of Shea Weber) how might the Wings fill some of these holes over the summer? Here is a brief selection of some of the top free agents available on defence this summer:

  • Joni Pitkanen – Pitkanen’s a fairly natural option to replace Rafalski. He’s still in the heart of his career at 27 years of age, played over 25:00 per game for Carolina this season, and thrives on offensive minutes.
  • James Wisniewski – The journeyman defender has played for four teams in three seasons, and just finished his finest NHL campaign, recording 51 points in 75 games split between the Islanders and Canadiens.
  • Kevin Bieksa – Vancouver has to make some tough choices on their back end this summer, and it is possible that Bieksa will slip through the cracks. A strong two-way defenseman, he would probably fit right in.
  • Tomas Kaberle – The Czech veteran’s offensive skills aren’t in doubt, but he has struggled since joining the Bruins at the trade deadline.
  • Eric Brewer – Brewer is a defensive defenseman who would not fill the same role that Rafalski did, but there is no doubt he would help shore up the blue line, and perhaps allow Nicklas Lidstrom to move into less of a tough-minutes role.
  • Jan Hejda – Ken Hitchcock relied on Hejda to play tough minutes in Columbus, but the defensive defenseman had a bit of a disappointing season.
  • Ian White – White’s been a bit of a traveller since leaving the Maple Leafs (he played for three teams this season), but while he’s a capable offensive defenseman he isn’t quite in the same class as Rafalski.

My money would be on Pitkanen, but the Wings have multiple options. How the team navigates through these obstacles will go a long ways toward determining whether they remain competitive.