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.