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The Detroit Red Wings' stealth rebuild

9/12/2011

It's going to happen eventually, maybe even next summer. Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom will retire. He's back this year to defend his Norris Trophy, which he won at 41 years old, but it's quite possible this could be it.

Red Wings GM Ken Holland likes to joke that Lidstrom's retirement press conference will be followed shortly by his own, but during a conversation at the Red Wings-hosted prospect tournament in Traverse City, Mich., Holland said a stealth rebuild has been going on for quite a while in Detroit.

The Red Wings have been planning for life after Lidstrom, and the rest of their recently retired players such as Brian Rafalski, for years.

"We're trying to rebuild," Holland said. "The planning can't just all of a sudden be 'Nick Lidstrom's gone, what are we going to do?' We started the process in 2005."

In '05, the Red Wings drafted Jakub Kindl in the first round, a defenseman they'd love to see grow into a regular on the blue line. From that year on, rather than dealing their first-round pick at the trade deadline for help in the playoffs, the Red Wings' focus was on getting max value out of their typically low first-round pick to restock the system.

They've traded down in the draft three times since 2005, adding Landon Ferraro, Andrej Nestrasil, Cory Emmerton, Shawn Matthias, Tomas Jurco and Xavier Ouellet in the process. Detroit's first-round pick in 2007, Brendan Smith, is a defenseman the franchise is watching closely this week at the prospect tournament.

It's possible Smith finds his way onto the Red Wings' roster out of training camp.

"We're going to give him a chance," Holland said.

Smith will certainly be part of the next wave on defense in Detroit when Lidstrom retires.

"To be part of that wave would be huge," Smith said. "To have us as the next wave and fill in for him is nearly impossible. Hopefully I can find myself up there and helping out."

Holland is trying to compile as many options as possible when the day finally comes that Mike Babcock can't automatically send out Lidstrom against the opposing team's top line. Smith is one option, but there are others.

Niklas Kronwall and defensive partner Brad Stuart are unrestricted free agents following this season, so signing one or both has become a priority for Holland early this season. The idea of losing Lidstrom, Stuart and Kronwall in the same offseason isn't one the Red Wings want to entertain.

Kronwall and Stuart are represented by CAA's J.P. Barry, and Holland has had brief talks with Barry about new deals. He expects the conversations to get serious later this month or in early October.

While Holland would like to sign both, Kronwall's deal is the one likely to get done first. Stuart is a little more complicated.

"[Stuart's] family stays in California, so I think there are family decisions he needs to make going forward," Holland said.

The Red Wings are roughly $5.8 million under the cap, Holland said, which gives him flexibility to add a defenseman through trade if the opportunity presents itself. Since signing Marian Hossa in 2008, the Red Wings have been fairly quiet in free agency. That will change once Lidstrom retires.

If Lidstrom's retirement happens following this season, Nashville's Ryan Suter would be the best defenseman potentially available in free agency. With long-term deals needed in Nashville for Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne, it's not out of the question that Suter reaches free agency.

At some point, the Red Wings will return to being one of the most aggressive shoppers on July 1.

"We're obviously going to be involved more actively in the unrestricted free-agent market than we have been the last couple years," Holland said. "At some point in time, Nick Lidstrom's going to leave. We're not replacing him. We have to figure out other ways to be competitive. We're going to be involved in unrestricted free agency, we're going to have to look at the trade market. We're going to draft, we're going to develop. We're going to address it."

Notes

Washington Capitals goalie Tomas Vokoun recently told The Washington Post's Tarik El-Bashir that he turned down a similar offer from the Red Wings to sign instead with the Capitals for one year and $1.5 million. Vokoun said he felt the Capitals had the better shot at winning the Stanley Cup than Detroit. Holland confirmed that the Red Wings made him the offer but added that Vokoun wasn't going to get the same chance to start he's getting in Washington.

"We wanted him to be the backup," Holland said. "I made it very clear to the agent he was going to be the backup."

The offer wasn't any indication the Red Wings have soured on Jimmy Howard. "Jimmy's our guy," Holland said. "In the last two playoffs, we rated our players, Jimmy's been one of our three or four best playoff performers. We've had no issues with goaltending in the playoffs."

• Hope to write more on him later this week, but one player who is impossible not to watch during the Traverse City prospect tournament is Buffalo Sabres forward Zack Kassian. He has been playing on a line with Marcus Foligno and Luke Adam and it has been one of the most impressive lines in the tournament so far. Of the three, Adam is closest to playing with the Sabres, but Kassian certainly has the skill set to play in the NHL.

"He had to get out of junior," said one NHL scout who thought Kassian wasn't always motivated in the OHL.

Columbus Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson has clearly been given the green light to spend this summer with the Blue Jackets surprisingly having the fifth-highest payroll in the Western Conference, according to CapGeek.com. Columbus currently has a higher payroll than big market teams such as Toronto, Detroit and Boston.

Howson isn't done. R.J. Umberger is set to be an unrestricted free agent this summer and Howson would like to get an extension done with him, possibly before the season starts. Those talks will heat up soon. "You've got to take care of your top players, and Umberger's a really important part of our team," Howson said. "R.J. is a top six forward on our team. On any team."