Last season, the best division in the league was likely the Central. St. Louis was in the Presidents’ Trophy hunt all season long and was the stingiest defensive squad backed up by the best goaltending, Detroit was Detroit, and Nashville and Chicago were Nashville and Chicago, the two having joined the Red Wings as perennial Western Conference playoff contenders.
And what’s happened in the space of a month? Nicklas Lidstrom, the calm, cool, intelligent, possession-driving, tough minute monster on the Wings blue line retires after 20 seasons in the league. In all of them, of course, the Wings made the playoffs.
Nashville lost out on the sweepstakes to their own unrestricted free agent Ryan Suter. Suter and Weber may not have individually been as good as Lidstrom in his prime, but the effect was the same. It gave the Predators a dominant top pairing and powerplay quarterback.
And everyone, myself included, that the Wings were going to use their cap space on Suter. He was unrestricted, the Wings would have a roster spot open for a No. 1 defenceman, and without enough depth or an obvious candidate to step into that spot, unless you think that Ian White’s strong possession numbers weren’t a result of Lidstrom.
For the record, they weren’t. While White had a +13 Corsi per 60 rate this season, it worked out to about +14 per 60 with Lidstrom and +9 without him on the ice last season. It’s nothing to sneeze at, and I doubt that the Red Wings, who are the embodiment of puck-possession, forward-thinking hockey will suddenly become the Minnesota Wild without a clear No. 1 defenceman leading the way.
As it happened, Suter wound up in Minnesota. Shea Weber signed an offer sheet in Philadelphia, a front-loaded behemoth that the Predators can’t possibly match if it isn’t money they weren’t willing to commit to Weber until now. Should the Predators not match the 14-year, $110M commitment offered up by the Flyers and Weber finds himself off the team, look out.
Thanks to Broad Street Hockey, we have the details in an easily digestible format. Yes, that is $68M in bonuses over the first six years of the contract, with $12M in actual salary.
All of a sudden, two defence corps, for all intents and purposes, gutted of their stars. You can’t look at Nashville’s Behind the Net page on defence and find a player who you can’t for sure say won’t get creamed in puck possession when given tough minutes. It’s not like the Predators were good at out-shooting opponents last year.
This upsets the balance of power in the division in a heavy way. Not that any two players can ever be the lone reason for success of a hockey team, but I’m not convinced the Predators would have kept winning games the way they were playing last season. They were hemmed in their own zone a lot, banked on their goaltending and a few good shooting years from their forwards.
All I know for sure is that the team didn’t get much better.
Detroit has done little to improve. They lost out on the two major free agents and sit with piles of salary cap space and have Niklas Kronwall and his -6.6 Relative Corsi as their highest paid defenceman. White, Kyle Quincey, Jonathan Ericsson,Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith round up the rest of their corps. While it was passable last season, everybody is now shifted upwards one spot in the depth chart, and that’s a tough problem to fix.
Nashville have some promising talent in Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm, but Suter and Weber were a tight pairing that had been together for a while. It’s not going to be an easy transition.
So the balance of power has shifted. In a division that had four competing powers last season, as of Friday, July 20, I only see two. And what will happen when Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak inevitably regress next season in St. Louis?