In Dan Cleary, the Wings lost easily their most Babcockian player. Cleary has the skill to play with the Zetterbergs and Datsyuks, the defense Babcock demands and the grit he loves. Most of all, Cleary's game goes through the roof when the stakes do. Last year in the playoffs he was a monster, and if you require more recent proof, take a look at the fact that in the opening period of the Wings' game against the Ducks in January, that crazy motherfucker threw hands with Sasquatch. How do you replace him? I mean, you don't. But how do you try?
I've got a plan. Is it insane? Yes. Likely? No. Wild, wanton speculation? Absolutely.
Move #1: Sign Danny Markov. You may be curious as to why I would suggest signing a grumpy defensive D who's sitting out the NHL season, playing in Russia, in order to replace Dan Cleary. It's part of the plan, chill. Markov comes for free, which means you add size and muscle to the back-end and keep all your chips for a trade to replace Buckets. You might even sweeten the deal by offering him a two year contract. Next year Markov could replace a possibly departing Andreas Lilja, bridging the gap until the likes of Jonathon Ericsson and Jakub Kindl are ready to help the big club. Dave at Gorilla Crouch is back and agrees that defense is the Wings' biggest need. Matt at On the Wings continues to defend the status quo and Brett Lebda. I still like Lebda and he showed what his speed can do with the game-winner in Minnesota. But just look at the Anaheim series. The one place the Wings were lacking was their ability to clear the crease and prevent Anaheim from crashing Hasek. So again while I really like Lebda, I still believe Markov is an upgrade. I liked Brandon Inge too, but an upgrade is an upgrade (not that Danny Markov is Miguel Cabrera or anything.)
Markov will bring much needed physicality, and has good speed for a big man, enough to be the Wings "offensive" defenseman on the third pair. Why the third pair and not the second? For one, as Matt at OTW has said a couple of times, a Lilja-Chelios pair would be pretty slow, potentially vulnerable. And also Markov has been playing in Russia all season and his game might take time to find form. And there's nothing wrong with having a couple guys who could easily be Top 4 defensemen elsewhere as your third pair.
Move #2: Trade for Mats Sundin. I didn't realize how big and strong Sundin was until I saw the Toronto game. And until Cleary's jaw was fractured in two places and wired shut, I laughed at the thought of the Wings needing to give up what would surely be a high price for Sundin. Now? I agree with Bill at A2Y, the Wings need to think again about getting Sundin or someone of his ilk. I would love Jokinen, as Bill suggests, but it ain't in the cards: Jokinen's deal runs through 09-10, at a cap hit of 5.25M. Next year, even with new contracts for Cleary and Val Filppula, the Wings might be able to squeeze him in. But the year after? Zetterberg's extension, Franzen, Hudler, Sammuelsson, Kopecky all needing new contracts? There's just no way to get Jokinen's existing deal into the cap.
As for Sundin, what do you give up? Start with a first rounder. Yeah, it's a deep draft, whatever. We're picking last so it doesn't matter. Then you add Lebda and Meech. I know I just said I like Lebda, and I still like Meech. But by picking up Markov you make both irrelevant, and the simple fact is, as I've said before, neither has a future with the Wings. Next year, Kyle Quincey must clear waivers, meaning he'll be Hudlered onto the roster. Unless the Wings carry eight defensemen, Meech is a goner. As for Lebda? He'd likely make the team next year, but he won't survive the advent of Ericsson and Kindl, to say nothing of Brendan Smith further down the pipeline. Again I like Lebda and would rather have him for depth than not, but to get something you have to give up something, and if the Wings do acquire a big top-6 D, dealing Lebda makes the most sense, certainly more than giving up a prospect who has a bigger future with the team.
The cherry on top to sway Cliff Fletcher? The Oompa Loompa. I like the guy, and he's won me over. He's slumping now but if the last big injury is any indication he'll step up and deliver. He is bound to be a big-time producer at the NHL level, and I wouldn't mind seeing him in a Winged Wheel for a while (if may alliterate). But like I said you have to give up stuff to get stuff. Hudler, Lebda, Meech and a first for Sundin. You avoid dealing any of the untouchable prospects (who are, IMHO: Howard, Kindl, Ericsson, Abdelkader, Helm), but Fletcher may prefer more experienced guys anyway. He's likely looking for as short a rebuilding process as possible, so young, relatively experienced NHLers may be what he's looking for. Add in the Red Wings pedigree and these guys might be more valuable than you think. Take a look at Chicago. A huge part of their rebuilding process apparently was to poach the Wings and it worked. Lang, Williams, even Sopel, have all been good for the Hawks, better than they were for the Wings.
But with the loss of Cleary and the proposed swap of Hudler for Sundin, the Wings are short on forwards. Since Cleary should be back for the playoffs, you could alternate Ellis and Downey for the home stretch, and likely the Wings' grip on home ice won't be affected. But since you've basically got another spot, why not make use of it? That's why I suggest the last and most radical part of my plan.
Move #3: Recall Darren Helm. Helm is one of the Wings' top forward prospects, and looks like the next Kris Draper. He has experience at the championship level and has played very well in his first pro season with the Griffins (compare with Jakub Kindl, the Wings top skater prospect, who is currently attempting to shoot the moon with a +/- of -22). Helm is supposedly going to make the team no later than 09-10, and is expected to challenge for a job next year. Can he help the Wings now? Who knows. Can he help them in the playoffs? Probably not. Let's find out. If he's in over his head, send him down. He'll be pumped up by the experience and will come to camp next year ready to roll. Check out these lines, assuming all three of my proposed moves:
Hank/Fil - Datsyuk - Holmstrom
Hank/Fil - Sundin - Samuelsson
Draper - Franzen - Kopecky
Drake - Helm - Maltby
Lidstrom - Rafalski
Kronwall - Lilja
Markov - Chelios
For the playoffs you put Cleary on the second or third line, bumping down Sammy or Kopy. You bump Chelios up to the second pair, and make for a Lilja-Markov third pair (a damn good third pair, IMO.)
Oh, and that other Darren? Yeah, he might not be bad call up either. If he earns it.