Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Monday, January 14, 2008

Blake and Forsberg(!) in Light of the Cap

0 Reviewing the Discussion

Yesterday I suggested the Wings go for Rob Blake and talked about who the Wings might give up for him, specifically Brett Lebda or Derek Meech (both of whom I judge to have little future with the Wings given current d-men under contract and a near-logjam of prospects). Today there's been some awesome discussion around the blagoblag about Blake. Ansar Khan struck first, noting Blake is much more likely available, and is far more in line with the Wings' needs. Al at TWFE joins in with an epic post spanning the entire Detroit/MSU sports scene, including a section on the Wings. And Matt at On The Wings provides his thoughts, suggesting the Wings shouldn't give up Lebda if they do go after Blake, as he thinks a Lebda/Chelios pair is superior to a Lilja/Cheli pair. In the comments on Matt's post, HockeytownTodd weighs in, suggesting the Wings should stand pat, noting the failure of deadline moves across the league in the recent past. He also notes the Wings might be better suited going for a cheaper d like Keith Carney.

1 Lebs or Lils?

First of all, although Blake is my favorite target, the Wings primary goal is to get more physical and not sacrifice defense, so I certainly would be cool with a range of other d-men. Cost, however (as I'll show below when I break out the spreadsheets) is much less of an issue because at the deadline, all salaries are 1/4 their July 1-amount, and the Wings have plenty of cap room.

When I suggest Lils be the 6th d, I'm thinking mostly of the PK minutes he logs, which presumably neither Blake nor Lebda would be able to replace. And while Matt thinks Lilja and Chelios would be a perfect storm of slowness, those two are also among the Wings' best d-men positionally. Lilja makes lots of mistakes with the puck but less so with his positioning. Lebda's speed on the other hand can get him in trouble when he jumps up. It is true that a Lils/Cheli pair would lack an offensive d-man, but with Cheli being the stay-at-homer, Lilja's turnovers potentially have less impact than they do now, when he's the last man back and Kronner is up on the rush. One thing Matt and I can both certainly agree on, however, is that the Wings would be better suited giving up Meech and not Lebda, and that seven playoff experienced D is certainly better than six.

Oh, and to counter my rampant daydreaming and wild speculation, Matt also brings a healthy dose of skepticism:
Who knows, though, whether the Wings will actually look to Blake to fill out their defense? It stands to reason that they’d want to shore up against injuries this time around, as losing Mathieu Schneider while already down Niklas Kronwall was probably the single biggest reason they were eliminated, but Blake may not be their man. Holland likes to go for guys few people were expecting and the more I hear the Blake rumor, the less I’ll believe it.
He's probably right on the money with that last line.

Here's a somewhat crazy idea: if the Wings held on to their current top six, and added Blake (or any other Top 4 caliber blueliner) why not dress all seven d? Scratch, say, Kopecky as your 12th guy. Double-shift Hank and Pavs (I guess it would be 1.5-shifting if they were alternating) to make up for the last forward (you could also give extra minutes to Cleary or Filppula). Then you can use Lebs at even strength, and Lilja on PK. And if the Eurotwins get gassed or the game is in the bag, move Lebda up to fourth-line winger and use Lilja on the 3rd pair. Lils can also be sent out when someone needs to taught a lesson, and he can have much more freedom during the course of the game to drop the gloves, because he knows he won't shorthand his team's blueline. Actually, the more I think about it, I really like this idea.

2 Getting Realistic With the Cap

All this speculation is of course well and good, but these days of course you need to think about the cap. Recent extension for Lidstrom and Osgood have clarified the Wings' salary situation for the next two years. The situation is this: in the summer of 2009, the Hank Zetterberg's new, undoubtedly mammoth contract will kick in, and the Wings will be faced with re-signing the likes of Franzen, Samuelsson, and Hudler, and probably three other forwards as Kopecky, Drake, and Downey's contracts will have expired. Depending on how much the cap rises, this could leave the Wings in a pretty tight spot. Potentially a very tight spot, in fact. The flip side, however, is that next season, Zetterberg will still be on his cheap-o deal, and pay cuts by Draper and Lidstrom, Osgood's hometown deal, and the expected(???) retirement of Dominik Hasek will leave the Wings with a pretty big cushion. Granted the Wings still have yet to re-sign Filppula and Cleary, but even with those deals the Wings will have a lot of room to maneuver. Below you can see all this for yourself on the cap chart I've drawn up.

All speculative salaries are in bold. I've made a few assumptions: Hasek's retirement and Howard's assent, and also relatively low-ball salaries for Cleary and Filppula, as well as the returns of Chelios, Lilja, Drake, and Downey at identical prices.

So what does all this speculation about 08/09 and 09/10 have to do with Blake? Well, nothing, at the moment. As you can see the Wings can handle his contract easily, since it would be prorated to 1.5M at the deadline. Notice under "Current Bonuses" I've put 2.3M, ie, all of Chelios and Hasek's bonuses. By paying those bonuses this year the Wings avoid hamstringing themselves next year (which in turn will make it easier to fit next year's bonuses under next year's cap, thus keeping 09/10, the critical season, free of the burden of past years.) So if the Wings go for Blake they'll have no problem handling this year's bonuses. Same for any other d, assuming the Wings don't have their sights set on anyone with a July 1 salary higher than 6M. Danny Markov is a possibility here too, and is maybe the second best option out there after Blake, in my opinion (given that he comes for nothing, anyway).

3 Rampant, Insane Speculation

Bringing the speculative madness to a fever pitch, George Malik at Snapshots points out an intriguing article which says Peter Forsberg may play hockey this year after all, and goes on to say he is not limiting himself to his former teams. And while the Wings don't need scoring enough to give up primo prospects for Mats Sundin, they'll of course take Forsberg for free, just as they would gladly take Teemu Selanne (at the right price).

The most interesting part of the article is where Forsberg mentions that he wants a multi-year deal, and furthermore that Philly is willing to give it to him. Now the Wings were loathe to give Todd Bertuzzi the extra year, and Forsberg falls into exactly the same category of talented, but old and injury-tastic. Even so, just look at the cap room they have in 08/09 on the chart above. Nearly eight million. Granted Filppula and Cleary may very well cost more than the 2M apiece I estimate but even so the Wings are amazing shape for next year. Suppose the Wings give Forsberg exactly what Bertuzzi got from Anaheim, 4M/yr over two. The first year of the deal (this year) would of course be prorated (1M if Forsberg joins on deadline day). Check out where possible deals for Forsberg and Blake leave the Wings:

(I show Meech and Ellis being taken off the roster on deadline-day as well, although this doesn't mean to suggest I think they will or should. Lebda could be dealt instead of Meech, and Downey could be waived instead of Ellis. But Meech and Ellis make the least of any Wings, so if the team elects to move anyone else, they would have even more room.) Notice the Wings are left with 870K in slush for the rest of the year, which should certainly be enough to cover injury call-ups (notice they spent 120K on that in the first half; having fourteen forwards certainly helps avoid call-ups). And even if disaster strikes and they Wings are forced to call up multiple players for long stretches, worst-case scenario is the Wings defer Chelios and/or Hasek's bonuses to next year.

And take a look at 08/09 in this scenario. With Forsberg on the roster, the Wings still have a whopping five million, and only one roster vacancy, the sixth/seventh defenseman (my guess is it'll be one of the Grand Rapids kids, ie, less than a million). Even if Forsberg falters, the Wings have ample money to replace him. Oh right, and this all assumes that the cap stays at 50.3M, and I think we can probably count on it rising at least a little. The Wings would be comfortable if it stood pat next year, however. But for the Wings to realistically hope to keep the likes of Franzen, Hudler, and Samuelsson, they have to hope it goes up significantly before the 09/10 season.

4 To Conclude...

It's clear that the Wings' primary aim should be a physical d-man at the end of his contract, the best case scenario being Rob Blake. And it's clear that they have the cap room to get pretty much anyone and still cover this year's bonuses. What's less clear is whether they might take advantage of great salary position next year to target a player whose deal extends to 08/09, whether it's a defenseman or one of the free agent forwards like Selanne or Forsberg. In any case, this year and next the Wings' budget is in great shape and the team has a lot of flexibility, both in terms of the length of the contract(s) they acquire and the dollar amounts. However, Zetterberg looms and the Wings need to keep a very careful eye on the 09/10 season.

Wow, that post got so long I had to break out numbered sections with titles and everything. Gimme a break, okay? I'm an academic.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Deadline Needs Clearer?

Back when the Wings biggest hole looked to be secondary scoring, we thought about Mats Sundin and Teemu Selanne. Sundin was probably never in the picture due to the king's ransom he would require in exchange (just look what the Blues got for Keith Tkachuk last year). And he certainly isn't on the radar now that the Wings have bigger needs. Selanne? He comes for free, pick/prospect-wise so the Wings will continue to be interested but conventional wisdom is that it's pretty unlikely to happen. Forsberg, if he became viable (ie, demonstrably healthy), would be another option the Wings would be stupid not to at least investigate.

But it's obvious what the Wings need now. I mentioned a while back that the need had shifted from scoring to the blue-line, but in the last few games that's become far more apparent. The Wings defense was nonexistent against Minnesota, and they got shoved around against Ottawa. The folks at the HNIC Hotstove brought it up, and I agree wholeheartedly that Rob Blake should be the Wings' target. He would bring physicality and defense and would make for a stellar Top 4 D. Imagine what he would do for the second PP unit, which at times looks completely inept.

Now, if we get Blake (or any big, physical D-man for that matter; an offensive touch is a bonus) the question becomes who goes? Lilja is probably the easiest answer and it's true that the guy makes more mistakes than any other Detroit blueliner but, what would the point be of swapping one physical d-man for another? Blake would be an upgrade over Lilja but overall wouldn't make the Wings much better physically. To me Lebda is the weak link.

I like Lebda and the Wings have invested a lot in his development. He's become a solid defenseman. But he doesn't bring any size to the table and he doesn't bring any points. He hasn't gotten a lot of PP time, but on the other hand he hasn't shown at all that he can handle the puck or make breakout passes. His speed makes you think of him as an offensive guy, and his ability to jump up on the rush can help generate offense, at even strength. But I would rather have a third pair of Lilja/Chelios than Lebda/Chelios. Besides physicality and the occasional fisticuffs, Lilja logs huge PK minutes and consistently leads the team in blocked shots. The Wings absolutely need him in the playoffs (just hopefully not in the Top 4).

Which means Lebda becomes expendable. Granted I'd rather have Lebda than Meech for playoff insurance (and playoff insurance is a very good thing, as Lilja and to a lesser extent Quincey showed last year). And it's tough to give up Lebs. But look who's behind him. Quincey, Kindl, Ericsson. All big, physical d-men, the latter two having tremendous offensive upside. You really think Lebda's going to survive those three guys making the NHL roster? It might not be next year but you have to imagine he's going to get squeezed out eventually.

Same goes for Meech. Granted Meech is an actual offensive D-man, QBing the power play for Grand Rapids last year. But he's only on the team because he's out of options and the Wings need a seventh d-man. And he hasn't shown anything in limited time with Wings. And since he has no experience to offer the team during the playoffs (I'd rather call up Quincey than play Meech), to me he's the first chip the Wings put on the table when trying to get Blake (or any other defenseman).

To me Howard, Helm, Abdelkader, Kindl, and Ericsson are the untouchables. Howard's the goaltender of the future and no position is more important than goaltender. He's a no-brainer. Helm and Abdelkader are top-notch physical forwards, a rarity in the Wings' system, and both have extensive championship-level experience. Kindl and Ericsson are goliaths and are easily the two prospects I am most excited about. I only leave off Quincey because of the Wings outstanding depth on the blueline.

If we go for Blake or another potential PP-QB, Samuelsson is another possibility for trade fodder since the Wings would have their 4th point-man for the PP, although I'd rather not deal him. Kopecky is another possibility, but I'm afraid the guy might turn into a first-class grinder with a knack for the net (a la Dan Cleary). And of course there's draft picks.

So maybe Lebda, Kopecky, a first, and a third for Blake? Perhaps Sammy, Meech, a 1 and a 3? I'm honestly not sure what the market value is for any of these guys. Just stabbing wildly at this point. Oh yeah, and if the cost makes you squeamish... there's always Danny Markov. No doubt that guy would bring an edge to our second pairing.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Another Hometown Deal

Part of the Wings success is undoubtedly the value they get on some of their contracts. Hank Zetterberg for 2.65M? That's gotta be one of the bigger steals in the league. Other guys are cheap because they're young (Filppula for 733K) or they're just much, much better than when they signed the contract in the first place (Cleary, 663K). But a lot of Wings deals come at hometown discounts which dramatically help the Wings squeeze all the talent they can out of the same budget as everyone else in the league.

Holmstrom for 2.25M, which he signed at the tail end of his best offensive season ever. Chelios, still one of the best defensive d-men in the league (as he showed when called upon in last year's playoffs) for 1.15M (includes bonuses). Lidstrom's old deal of 7.6M was considered a slight discount, when his value was being estimated at 8M. His new deal, a very slight cut to 7.45M, is a much bigger bargain, where he could have reasonably hit the market and asked for the league max, ~10M.

And now another, Osgood for 1.5M/yr for 3 years. First, Big Al sums up why bringing Osgood back for three years is a smart move for the Wings, over at The Wayne Fontes Experience.
...keeping Osgood gives long time prospect Jimmy Howard a safety net, and the ability to ease his way into the lineup over the next 2-3 years as the full-time net minder. (If he's capable, that question is still not answered) It's also good for the Wings' locker room, as Osgood is thrilled to stay in the D, doesn't matter if it's as a starter or backup. I'm sure he'll retire a Red Wing.
Right on the nose. But as good as this is for the Wings in terms of Osgood's ability to play and mentor Howard, it's even better because of the value they get on his deal. Currently Osgood is, in both GAA and SV%, the best goalie in the league. I'm no mathematician, but 1.5M is a bit less than he could have gotten. He wouldn't command 6M or anything, but I think the guy could have gotten 3 or 4 over the same length from a couple of teams this summer.

This is huge not because of next year, when the Wings will enjoy pretty considerable salary room, especially if the cap continues to rise (I have no idea whether that's likely or not). The critical year will be the season after next, 09-10. That will be the first year of presumably a pretty big contract for Hank Zetterberg. Datsyuk, Lidstrom, Rafalski, Kronwall, will all still be under contract as well. Could be a tight situation. But we can now be sure that the Wings will at leasts be keeping goalie expenses low that year - Howard will presumably still be on a sub-1M rookie deal, and Osgood for just 1.5M, without a sacrificing talent (assuming Howard progresses and Osgood doesn't precipitously decline...).

To me that's the best and most critical part of Osgood's deal - we probably could have fished around for a goalie of his caliber and gotten one if we needed to do so this offseason. But he offers what a run of the mill UFA can't (or rather, won't): huge value that will help the team compete in the long run.

Edit: Matt over at OTW basically already said all of this. Nice work Matt!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

4th Liners and MVPs

First things first: the Wings play Colorado tonight and Homer and Malts return. The unsurprising thing is that Holmstrom will return to Datsyuk's line, which should make for a pretty dynamite top unit. The surprises are these: Drake will stay on the Grind Line, despite Babcock's promises earlier this year that he would have a reduced role in the first half. I guess it's the second half now, but I figured that since Drake had to step up in Maltby's absence Babcock might give him a breather.

The other surprise is that Samuelsson, who has stepped it up lately, got dropped to the fourth line with Franzen and Kopecky. Granted, another way to interpret this might be that Babcock means for the fourth line to be something more like the 3.5th line, given it's got two top-six forwards on it. Kopecky worries me, but one thing Babcock might start doing as we approach the home stretch is to double-shift Datsyuk and Zetterberg, to give the Wings three legit scoring lines. Franzen has also been scoring lately, so a Hank/Dats-Mule-Sammy line could actually do pretty well for itself, in both ends of the ice, methinks.

Say the Mule line pulls ~12 minutes a night. Divvy up the third forward's IT between Dats, Hank, and Kopy. All three would play wing for two reasons - less skating for the Eurotwins and more IT at center for Mule, who clearly excels there. If you're worried about Dats and Hank's minutes, I think you can take them off PK duty. The Wings have six solid PK forwards besides them: Draper, Franzen, Maltby, Cleary, Filppula, and Drake. Kopy and Sammy can also kill if needed. Obviously you can use the twins there in a pinch (big face off, late-game, 5-on-3, etc) but I think, as good defensively as they both are, I don't really want either blocking shots at this point, not if we've got the talent to not really need them.

On to far more trivial matters, namely the huge glut of mid-season grades, awards, and predictions. I could really care less about all of these; all I do is scan the article for Wings' names, feel good when I see them and feel outraged when I don't. Then I remember what a pointless fucking exercise they are and get on with my life.

I will say a few things though, out of boredom mostly. First of all, Hank Zetterberg is better than every one of the other EC forwards getting tossed out there, and I will not even mention his Selke-caliber defense. I will say exactly one thing: despite some injury time, he is in the ballpark for top goals and points. Unlike Lecavalier, Kovalchuk, Crosby, Alfredsson, Heatley, Ovechkin, Spezza, St. Louis, and Sundin, Hank plays in the Western Conference, which is a) arguably the superior conference, b) inarguably the vastly more defensive conference, c) inarguably the more physical conference, d) inarguably the conference with better goaltending, etc. The guy is going to score 50 and 100 in the West, which I think blows 60 and 120 in the East out of the water. I don't understand how the guy doesn't more credit for doing what he does IN THE WEST.

All this having been said, Jarome Iginla is far and away the most valuable of the forwards being talked about, including Zetterberg. Luongo could beat him, but of forwards Iginla takes the cake. He's on pace for 60 and 120, not just in the West but in the Northwest, home to Luongo and Lemaire. The guy isn't just his team's leading goalscorer, like Zetterberg, he is also their captain, like Lidstrom, and their heart and soul, like Draper (to say nothing of their sheriff, like Downey).

But back to the Wings. As much as Hank is much better and more valuable than the Eastern high-fliers, he is nowhere near being the Wings' or the league's MVP. It's not even close. We went 4-1 without him. You might argue Datsyuk is more valuable, you might not. For the record, I would, but it's not the point. Nick Lidstrom is so far and away the MVP of the Wings it's not even funny. Hank can't be the league's MVP if he's not even his team's MVP. Can you imagine five games in the middle of the season without Lids. I can't. It's not just that I don't want to, I literally can't. It's beyond human reckoning. The guy is the fucking most important player on the team. A defenseman is in general more valuable than a forward to start with. We're talking about 30 minutes a night against the league's top talent. Don't even start the conversation. Don't even try to talk about Hank being the MVP. It's not even fucking close.

Should be between Luongo, Iginla, and Lidstrom. Then again I'm WC-biased. But my point is you'd think that a guy who is undisputably the best player at his position, who is the captain of far and away the best team in the league, would get at least some consideration. Whatever. When he lifts the cup in June, Crosby and Lecavalier can go... well I'll let you finish that.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Sorry Sammy

Okay, so, I was wrong when I suggested the Wings' biggest need at the deadline was secondary scoring. Well I wasn't wrong, secondary scoring was the biggest problem, then. It's just that all the kids needed was an infusion of pressure and IT, not veteran talent. Valtteri Filppula has gotten the most spotlight, with Hudler, Sammuelsson, Kronwall, Cleary, and Franzen all stepping up.

I stand by what I said, that acquiring Selanne would be a great move - it would bolster a potent offense, and with a proven winner. The addition of Selanne would make for one of the best offenses ever, and would come at the cost of no prospects, picks, or players. That being said, my guess is for Selanne it's Ducks or retirement. And it's clear now the Wings don't really need a scorer, at least not of his caliber.

So the big question, really, is can the Wings' kids maintain their scoring prowess when Hank returns tomorrow, and Homer does later in January. Let's take a look at their performances during Hank's four-game absence.

@Minnesota, W, 4-1
Every one of the top six (Fil, Dats, Cleary; Mule, Sammy, Huds) collected a point. Nick, Lebs, Lilja, and Rafalski got assists. Kopecky scored late.

@St. Louis, W, 5-0
Fil (2 G) and Huds (1 G, 1 A) blow up and grab most of the spotlight. But take a look at the veterans: Datsyuk 3 A; Lidstrom 1 G, 1 A; Rafalski 1 G, 2 A. Sammy also picks up 2 A.

@Colorado, W, 4-2
Fil pots 2 again. Hudler scores. Sammy grabs an A and an empty-netter. 2 A for Kronner.

@Phoenix, W, 4-2
Sammy scores, Hudler, Kronner, and Fil get assists. It's all about Datsyuk though: GWG, assists on the tying goal and the empty netter.

St. Louis, L, 2-0
I didn't see this game so I'll assume it didn't actually happen.

So one question is, did the kids, Filppula and Hudler especially, step up because of the increase in responsibility? Or can we attribute their success to veterans like Datsyuk and Lidstrom cowboying up in Z and Homer's absence and improving the players around them? Little bit of both I think. Datsyuk was unquestionably the MVP of the road trip, stellar* in both ends, with Val being the prime beneficiary. He and Hudler were beauties both, engineering the efforts of the secondary scorers, dominant with the puck in the offensive zone. To me Hudler was the best kid on the trip; he was Datsyukian at times.

Which is why I think Babcock's doing the right thing putting Z on the second line tomorrow. I think Datsyuk has shown, in this mini-absence as well as at the end of last season, that he needs Hank less than Hank needs him. Z's more the goalscorer, Dats more the playmaker. Put any guy with some goal-scoring sense on the line and Pavs'll make him look good. But while Hank can be the more dynamic and prolific of the two, he needs a playmaker of his caliber to really make use of his talent. Huds isn't quite there but he's close at the moment. As good as Jiri has been lately, he'll be all the better with Z taking all of the opposing D's attention. I would expect Hank won't score much in the first few games back, but that Huds will have a lot more space and will find a currently hot Sammuelsson a lot. And that's especially good because we can expect Z to be a little rusty, so look for Huds and Sammy to pick up the slack.

(We need a nickname for Huds, a la Mule or the Perfect Human. I've been going with "The Littlest Red Wing" or "The Little Red Wing That Could" but the guy needs something a little more complimentary. How about "The Subtle Knife." Nerdy, yes. But appropriate: Huds is small, doesn't look like much, but he'll fucking kill you. Also he can cut windows into parallel universes. Actually, that name is so cool I think I'll have to give it to Dats. Hmm. I'll think of something for you Huds.)

So with Fil still on Pavs's line, and Huds and Sammy benefiting from Zetterberg's return, hopefully the Wings are appropriately set up to keep their young talent contributing. However there is one issue: as I mentioned, with Hank centering his own line he'll get a lot of attention. Including physical attention. Which makes me a little concernicus. If he were on Dats's wing he could elude attention as The Subtle Knife is currently the league's best player. Then you could put Filppula and Hudler together, keeping the appropriate goal-scorer/playmaker dynamic. But you risk screwing up Fil's mojo which the Wings likely don't want to do.

One good question: Do you put the Eurotwins together for the PP? At the moment I'd say no. Use your two lines as they are (adding Franzen up front to the second unit). The other good question: where does the Wings attention turn for the deadline? Clearly it must be defense. I'll talk about the Wings deadline strategy and cap situation in the next few days.

*- language nerd moment: I think the word stellar has become unfortunately watered down. It once meant star-like, celestial, godly, angelic. All more fitting descriptions of Datsyuk's performance lately.