Sunday, June 29, 2008

Road to Repeat: Making Room on the Blueline

Helene St. James is a pretty smart writer. Her Free Agency Preview over at the Freep assures us that indeed, Sundin is the Wings' number one target, the ideal if they can get him, although that's far from a certainty. She also points out that the Wings are willing to go ahead with what they've got on the blueline, as I think they should.
...the Wings are well set on defense. Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Kronwall are under contract, as are Derek Meech and Brett Lebda. Unrestricted free agents Chris Chelios and Andreas Lilja both are expected to be re-signed, as are restricted free agents Jonathan Ericsson and Kyle Quincey. If the Wings sign everyone they want to on defense, they'd have to move one guy just to get down to eight bodies.
Move one guy indeed. And who moves? The "easy" guy to move is Jonathon Ericsson, and by move I mean send to Grand Rapids. It's easy in the sense that he doesn't have to clear waivers and you don't give up any commodities that way. It's really not easy in the sense that Ericsson may be the most talented defenseman outside of the Big 3 on the Wings' roster, if not the most polished or experienced.

I fully expect the Wings to go to camp with 9 D, ten if Stuart signs (more unlikely every day, imho - if he makes it to July 1, some Brian-Campbell-Sweepstakes-Loser is going to overpay for him). There's no sense in making any moves now, now when everybody thinks they can go out and fill their holes on FA. And if the Wings do go to camp, there's a possibility that Ericsson isn't one of the six best D in camp, in which case it is indeed easy to send him down.

But I expect Ericsson to win a job on the final pair in camp, and eventually work his way up to the #4 slot (the Wings will probably start out with Lilja at #4 - not exciting, but not terrible either). That leaves the Wings with one too many D as St. James points out. So who goes?

It's not Lilja or Chelios - the Wings value veteran depth way too much and it would be mind-boggling to trade a guy who you just re-signed. And obviously it's not one of the Top 3. So that leaves Lebda, Meech, and Quincey.

Another possibility is to waive Quincey, who had the worst season of any of them least year. However, I think it was a down-year for Quincey and there's no sense in getting rid of a player when his value is lowest. He will not make it through waivers - at this point, very few teams wouldn't take a flier on a Red Wing cast-off.

I think the answer is to trade Brett Lebda. There are two reasons: one, his trade value is highest among those three; and two, his value to the club in future years is lowest of the three. I'll start with the second one. Lebda is a UFA in two years and what are the odds he returns? Not good with this depth. Furthermore, although some people think of Lebda as an offensive defenseman, he really isn't. He's just small and fast. He's not capable of manning the point on the PP as he has proved. And while his speed does occasionally open up things and lead to the odd goal, a quick look at his stats will tell you that doesn't happen too often.

And he's not a bruiser either. He's competent along the boards and certainly he is sound positionally. He's not bad in any sense - he just doesn't offer anything. He doesn't scare anyone the way Kronwall scares opposing forwards or Lidstrom scares opposing D. He's a solid #6 NHL D-man, but the Wings are used to having what we call depth - Hall of Famers riding the bench, could-be superstars on second and third lines.

And direct comparison to Derek Meech should seal the deal. Meech is basically a Lebda clone except that he's not as fast, but can actually move the puck and handle the PP quite well. When Meech was playing regularly due to the injury plague, he, not Lebda or Lilja or Ericsson, was the Wings' #1 D, playing in all situations. After Babcock saw what he could do, Meech was working the PP every time he was on the roster, even when he was playing forward at even strength. And I think it's time to give the kid a shot.

So you deal Lebda. What do you get back? I couldn't say what his value is but I know it's higher now than it's likely ever to be. He's young and cheap - perfect for any rebuilding team, but relative to his youth he's got a ton of experience. Not only has he played a lot of games and a lot of playoff games, but he's been tutored by Chris Chelios, one of the greatest to ever lace them up. He's got that Red Wing pedigree that ought to have any team interested. And any team, especially in the east, has got to look at his speed and maybe hold out the hope that he could develop into more of an offensive threat. I don't think it's likely, but it is possible.

Meech and Quincey are way too unproven to draw much in return. Lebda, however, fresh off of a Cup, could bring in (relatively) a lot right now. Well, not right now, actually, but rather in training camp. Like I said above, every team thinks they have a shot at Brian Campbell or whoever and isn't going to offer anything for Lebda. But in training camp? Right around the time Jonathon Ericsson is earning a job, and the Wings are realizing they have more depth than they can handle, a number of team around the league are going to realize they have way, way too little. That's when you strike. I can see it now, whether it's Cliff Fletcher, Don Waddell, Jay Feaster, or whoever.

Kenny won't put Lebda on the block, no no, he'll talk about sending Ericsson down despite his fantastic training camp. "We like to have a potential Calder-winner in the AHL at every position," he'll say. "We're thinking about sending Filppula down too. Just to get some seasoning."

His phone will be ringing off the hook.

FLETCHER: Listen Kenny, you gotta help me out. I need to rebuild, but without actually rebuilding. My money's all tied up in bought out contracts. I need someone cheap, someone young, but someone who's got experience, and speed to boot.

HOLLAND: Well I suppose we have Brett Lebda, if that's what you're looking for.

FLETCHER: That is exactly what I'm looking for.

HOLLAND: I don't know... we were planning on having him as our waterboy. We like depth, you see.

FLETCHER: Kenny, this isn't fair. You have 17 NHL defensemen. I've got 3. My number four guy is forward, my number five guy is the backup goalie, my number six was the A/V coordinator for the Manitoba Moose last season. You gotta help me out.

HOLLAND: Weeeell, I'll see what I can do...

The one potential downside is it leaves the Wings a little green on the blueline, but hey, that's what the deadline is for. Whatever draft pick(s) you get for Lebda (I'm thinking he's worth a 4th maybe?) you can immediately turn around and deal for veteran help in February. Someone like Brad Stuart. Hell, maybe Brad Stuart himself. It worked pretty well the first time. He could just split his time every year, spending the fall and winter in Cali with his family, then come aboard every spring for a playoff run. I could get used to that.

-Brett Lebda is a solid NHL defenseman, by no means a liability
-however, his trade value is high and he has little future with Red Wings
-I have stopped making threats of violence against others/myself. Positive!
-hey kenny: sign sundin. do it fucker.
-Derek Meech is ready for a full-time job, and should be the Wings #4 D on the PP
-Quincey will likely ride the pines all year like Meech did this past season
-fuck the leafs