Traverse City Record-Eagle

Sports Columnists

July 7, 2012

James Cook: Wings in unfamiliar offseason spot

It's interesting that of all the major Detroit pro franchises, the Red Wings are suddenly the ones that people have concerns about.

And that says a lot, given that the Pistons were 25-41 and 25 games out of the division lead.

But all is not lost in Hockeytown — which starts its development camp today in Hockeytown North — after losing out on top free agents Ryan Suter and Zach Parise.

The Red Wings were fourth in the Western Conference and finished with the seventh-best NHL point total (102) with a 48-28-6 record. And that was with a team that suffered through a massive amount of injuries — losing Pavel Datsyuk, Todd Bertuzzi, Nicklas Lidstrom, Darren Helm and Jonathan Ericcson for at least 11 games each, goalie Jimmy Howard for 25 and Patrick Eaves for nearly the whole season. All things considered, not a bad year.

But this is the Red Wings we're talking about. Anything less than the Stanley Cup is considered a failure, and an early playoff exit started the grumbling by fans.

Then Lidstrom retired and Brad Stuart was traded to San Jose as his request, and suddenly the team's two top blueliners were gone.

Enter the Wings being suitors for Suter, the crown jewel of free agent defenders this year. General manager Ken Holland personally flew to Suter's home in Wisconsin to increase their already generous offer to $90 million. Given the Wings' sudden cap space windfall due to the loss of Lidstrom, Stuart and Jiri Hudler, Detroit was a player in not only the pursuit of Suter, but also Parise, the best forward free agent. If the Wings landed both, they'd be instant Cup favorites. Hopes shot up.

Then they were dashed when both Parise and Suter decided to go to Minnesota of all places. The Wild used some tricky cap-evading contracts to offer nearly identical $98 million deals over 13 years, a tactic that straddled the newly-drawn line on such large contracts.

The Lions are obviously on their way up after a 10-6 record and their first playoff berth since Barry Sanders wore Honolulu blue. The Tigers are nearly everyone's pick to eventually win the A.L. Central. And even the Pistons are coming off a very successful off-season, adding big man Andre Drummond to Greg Monroe in the frontcourt, not to mention jetisoning the contract of Ben Gordon for scoring forward Corey Maggette, agreeing to a deal with 24-year-old Ukrainian 7-footer Vyacheslav Kravtsov and getting forward Kyle Singler back from Europe.

That leaves the Wings and their sudden struggle to lure big-time free agents to one of the dynastic franchises in hockey's last two decades.

They added Mikael Samuelsson back, brought in Jordin Tootoo for a more physical presence, signed Swiss scorer Damien Brunner and solidified the backup goalie spot with Jonas Gustavsson. But they're also left with only four NHL-proven defenders. Brendan Smith may be able to make that jump, but Jakub Kindl appears to have lost his luster. That leaves the immediate need for at least one more blueliner — even if Smith is ready.

Holland will come up with something. He always does.

Will it be a deal for Jay Bouwmeester? A trade for Rick Nash? Who knows? But it's a good bet that if you see Holland this week in Traverse City, he'll be on the phone with other teams or agents a good portion of the time.

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