Brian Rafalski

Report: Brian Rafalski set to retire from NHL, make Detroit’s offseason more interesting

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When the Detroit Red Wings season came to an end in Game 7 against San Jose, many began wondering about whether or not they may have seen the last of Nicklas Lidstrom in a Red Wings sweater.  As it turns out, there was another Red Wings defenseman who had retirement on the mind. 37 year-old Brian Rafalski is reportedly set to call it a career after 11 NHL seasons with the Red Wings and New Jersey Devils.

Rafalski will finish his career as a three-time Stanley Cup champion, two with New Jersey and one with Detroit, with 515 points working as an offensive threat from the blue line in both New Jersey and Detroit. Rafalski also ends his career with two Olympic silver medals with Team USA in 2002 and 2010 and ending up as one of the top American-born defensemen of all time. Rafalski dealt with a back injury through this season and has spent the better part of his career playing without an ACL in one of his knees. That kind of wear and tear takes a toll after time and for Rafalski it’s likely forcing him to hang it up.

By retiring, Rafalski will leave the game and the Red Wings with one year left on his contract worth $6 million and some serious questions for Red Wings GM Ken Holland to answer as to how to prepare Detroit for the future along the blue line. Many of Detroit’s immediate questions will be answered if Lidstrom commits to one more year, but their future is of more concern. With an added $6 million to spend, however, the possibilities are nearly endless for rebuild.

Detroit has three unrestricted free agents on defense this offseason in Lidstrom, Ruslan Salei, and Jonathan Ericsson. Ericsson is the youngest of the bunch but could be in line for a raise. If Lidstrom comes back, he’d likely command a similar salary as he had this past season at $6.2 million. It’s possible he could take less money to help give Holland more freedom to spend and load up for the future, but let’s not get carried away there.

Detroit will likely start refilling their defensive unit from within as top prospect Brendan Smith is poised to join the big club next year after a dominant season in the AHL this past season.  Detroit may consider that Niklas Kronwall is set to be their next Rafalski-like defenseman as he found his offensive touch late in the season and the playoffs. With the added physical edge he brings to the game, Kronwall’s future in Detroit seems virtually set.

From there, taking a look at the unrestricted and restricted free agent markets provides a lot of fodder for thought. Amongst the unrestricted possibilities are Vancouver’s Kevin Bieksa, Montreal’s James Wisniewski, Carolina’s Joni Pitkanen if you’re looking at guys under age 30. If you want someone a bit older, guys like Bryan McCabe, Ed Jovanovski, and Tomas Kaberle could be had.

The three younger guys provide a bit more intrigue and with how Bieksa has played this postseason, he’s going to demand a lot of attention elsewhere. Wisniewski emerged as a major contributor for both the Islanders and Canadiens this season with his offensive touch and physical game. He was successful in Anaheim and knows the Western Conference well. Pitkanen could provide skill and more of the Nordic flavor the Red Wings seem to gravitate toward.

If Holland wants to get really adventurous and delve into the offer sheet season with restricted players, there are more than a few highly intriguing young names out there. Nashville’s Shea Weber, L.A.’s Drew Doughty, Toronto’s Luke Schenn, Atlanta’s Zach Bogosian, Phoenix’s Keith Yandle, Washington’s Karl Alzner, St. Louis’ Roman Polak, Buffalo’s Andrej Sekera, and Montreal’s Josh Gorges are all out there.

Nicklas Lidstrom is a huge fan of Shea Weber’s, even asking that he be paired up with Weber at the All-Star Game in Raleigh, but the chances of him leaving Nashville to play for a division rival seem virtually nil. Doughty and Los Angeles will likely come to a deal atsome point as the Kings have plenty of money to spend. Same goes for Schenn in Toronto and Alzner in Washington.

Detroit was rumored to be trying to acquire Bogosian from Atlanta at the trade deadline but the Thrashers weren’t about to let go of yet another young cornerstone piece before they’ve had a chance to fully develop. Keith Yandle is a fascinating choice because it would give Holland and Wings owner Mike Ilitch the chance to take advantage of the NHL owning the Coyotes and thus having tighter purse strings. Yandle emerged as one of the best point producing defensemen in the NHL this season and at 24 years-old could be just starting to get better. If the Wings wanted to get more defensive, Gorges would be a nice fit although he’s coming off an injury-hampered season.

The catch to pursuing any restricted free agent is that you have to sign them to an offer sheet which the team owning their rights can then either match or allow them to sign and receive compensation for the signing. The kind of deals it would take to get any of those guys would likely see the Wings giving up multiple first round draft picks. On the upside for Detroit, they generally pick in the 20’s of the first round thanks to their regular season and playoff success. It’d be a gamble but if they had a shot at any of that talent there, it could be a very worthy sacrifice to get a young defenseman locked up for years to come.

One way or  the other, Detroit’s offseason just a got a lot more interesting and rival general managers who have potential free agents this summer have a real reason to be concerned. The Wings are officially on the prowl to reload.

Sens sign Smith to four-year, $13 million extension

Pittsburgh Penguins v Ottawa Senators
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Two weeks ago, we passed along word that Ottawa and Zack Smith had engaged in preliminary extension talks.

On Monday, the two sides wrapped ’em up.

Smith and the Sens have agreed to a four-year deal worth $13 million — an average annual cap hit of $3.25 million, as announced this afternoon. It’s a pretty nice pay bump for the 28-year-old, who’s in the final year of a deal that pays $1.88M.

Smith had a breakout performance last year, scoring a career-high 25 goals while averaging a healthy 15:24 TOI per night. This year he’s been equally effective offensively — 11 goals and 22 points in 43 games — and has thrived at times playing on a line with Derick Brassard and Mark Stone.

Smith also earned the praise of his coaching staff, particularly assistant bench boss Marc Crawford.

“He is so strong on the puck and he has got a very good shot,” Crawford explained, per the Citizen. “He’s fearless and he goes to the net.”

This new extension kicks in next season, and will keep Smith in the Canadian capital through 2021. The only players on the current roster locked in for that long are Dion Phaneuf and Bobby Ryan.

 

Pre-game reading: Remembering the ’74-75 Caps, who were just terrible

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— Up top, Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh recalls his high-school hockey days in Minnesota, where he won a state championship with Cretin-Derham Hall and received the 2007 Minnesota Mr. Hockey award.

— An enjoyable look back at the NHL’s worst-ever team, the 1974-75 Washington Capitals. “To date, no team has played at least 70 games while posting fewer points (21), wins (8) or road wins (1) than the 1974-75 Capitals. Nor has any mustered a lower points percentage (.131), allowed more total goals (446), or dropped more contests consecutively (17).” The expansion Caps lost 67 games that season, including ones by scores of 10-4, 11-1, 12-1, 10-0, 10-3, 12-1, and 10-2. Click here to see their entire season. (Sports Illustrated)

— Speaking of expansion teams, Sportsnet recently caught up with Vegas president Kerry Bubolz, who had the following to say about the Golden Knights’ unique market: “We are setting aside some of our ticket inventory for that convention or leisure traveler, but the vast majority of our inventory is going to be sold locally. The local who happens to be from another market, maybe their hometown is Philadelphia or Boston or Chicago… we’re going to be embracing the fact that they may be fans of another team. But we’re going to encourage them to join our team as well. You can only play those other teams once a year.” (Sportsnet)

— A touching tribute from Paul Holmgren to his late brother, Dave, who gave him a gift he’ll never forget. All these years later, Holmgren only wishes he’d made more of an effort to say thanks. “I don’t remember thanking him, even though my father had specifically told me to. And even if I did, I’m convinced that I didn’t thank him enough.” (Player’s Tribune)

— The Boston Globe remembers the last Bruins team to make the playoffs. “Tuukka Rask was doing his thing. Zdeno Chara and Dougie Hamilton formed an excellent top defensive pairing. Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand were emerging as the best 200-foot tandem in the league with Reilly Smith riding shotgun. Musclemen Milan Lucic and Jarome Iginla flanked David Krejci. Carl Soderberg and Loui Eriksson were chewing up bottom-six forwards and third pairings as third-line partners.” Indeed, it’s a different-looking group today, and management must accept much of the responsibility for what’s gone wrong. That doesn’t mean Claude Julien’s job is safe, but the Globe’s analysis is worth a read. (Boston Globe)

— The NHL has hired an artist to paint 100 portraits of the league’s 100 top players. It’s quite an undertaking for one artist, but for Tony Harris, it’s also “maybe the greatest job I could ever get.” (NHL.com)

Enjoy the games!

The goaltending market is going to be very interesting this summer

New York Islanders goalie Thomas Greiss makes a save during the third period of the NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in New York. The Flyers defeated the Islanders in overtime 3-2. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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Thomas Greiss is the NHL’s second star of the week, and his New York Islanders suddenly have a flicker of hope.

Greiss went 2-0-1 with a .971 save percentage and two shutouts last week. Even the game he didn’t win was a good performance, as he made 44 stops in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Flyers on Sunday.

Greiss, 30, is a pending unrestricted free agent. And given his numbers over the last two seasons combined (35-18-7, .928), he’s got every right to seek out a significant raise from his current cap hit with the Isles of just $1.5 million.

For that matter, so does Scott Darling, who’s been so good as Chicago’s backup behind Corey Crawford. Ditto for Buffalo’s Anders Nilsson, New Jersey’s Keith Kinkaid, Ottawa’s Mike Condon and Calgary’s Chad Johnson. All are pending UFAs. And all are enjoying good to great seasons.

Another pending UFA who’s playing well is Vancouver’s Ryan Miller. Granted, his situation is a bit different in that he’s 36 years old and proven as an NHL starter.

Read more: What does the future hold for Ryan Miller?

But all these goalies playing well, and none of them with contracts beyond the current season, could sure make for an interesting summer — and that goes double for a summer that will start off with an expansion draft.

As you surely know by now, each team is only allowed to protect one goalie. It’s already created quite the debate in places like Pittsburgh, where the youngster, Matt Murray, has outplayed the veteran, Marc-Andre Fleury.

Meanwhile, goalies like Brian Elliott, Ben Bishop, Steve Mason, and Michal Neuvirth have hurt their value. Each had an excellent 2015-16 campaign. Alas, they’ve all struggled quite badly this season, to the point any GM would have to think long and hard about signing one to a big-money, long-term contract. All four are — yep, you got it — pending UFAs.

With almost half a season, plus the playoffs, to go, there’s still plenty of time for goalies to make their cases, or lose them. We’ll have to wait and see how the market looks come July 1.

But it’s going to be interesting to watch. Goaltending is inherently unpredictable. There will probably be a surprise or two more.

Related: Anton Khudobin hasn’t solved the Bruins’ backup goalie problem

Goalie nods: Days after debuting against the Sharks, Martin gets second career start… against the Sharks

SAN JOSE, CA - JANUARY 21:  Spencer Martin #30 of the Colorado Avalanche plays in goal against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center on January 21, 2017 in San Jose, California. This is Martin's first NHL game.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Haven’t run this one through the folks at Elias yet, but Avs goalie Spencer Martin might be on the verge of history.

Martin, who made his NHL debut in Saturday’s OT loss in San Jose, will be right back in goal as the two teams flip venues — Colorado hosts the Sharks tonight at the Pepsi Center.

So Martin — a 21-year-old rookie — first makes his big-league debut, then gets a second consecutive start, all against the same opponent. Can’t imagine that’s happened too many times.

There’s an interesting dynamic at play beyond the historical stuff, too.

Last week, the Avs shut down Semyon Varlamov until after the All-Star break so he could deal with a lingering, troublesome groin injury. Around the same time, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman speculated that Colorado might look to change its situation in goal, writing “I’m not sure Colorado is too secure in what they have.”

Given this season is toast, it would appear the Avs are analyzing what they’ve got in Martin. He does have some pedigree — the 63rd overall selection in 2013 — and has played reasonably well for AHL San Antonio this year. Of course, gauging Martin will be tough. He’s playing behind one of the worst teams in the league, and is still really inexperienced. In fact, he’s the second-youngest goalie to appear in an NHL game this season.

For the Sharks, Martin Jones is in goal.

Elsewhere…

Henrik Lundqvist, fresh off a 21-save shutout of Detroit on Sunday, will go back-to-back when the Rangers host the Kings at MSG. No word yet on who starts for L.A.

— Carolina gave Cam Ward a rare night off on Saturday, as Michael Leighton was in for a loss to Columbus. Ward returns to the starter’s crease tonight in Washington, where he’ll face Braden Holtby.

Brian Elliott, who came on in relief of Chad Johnson in Saturday’s blowout loss to the Oilers, gets the start for Calgary in Toronto. The Leafs will counter with Frederik Andersen.

— Ondrej Pavelec looks for his third straight win since being recalled as the Jets host the Ducks. Jonathan Bernier, who came on in relief of the injured John Gibson on Saturday, appears to be in for Anaheim.

Mike Smith, who made 45 saves in a win over Tampa Bay this past weekend, goes for the Coyotes. No word yet on who starts for the visiting Panthers.