This summer Red Wings fans were on the edge of their seats waiting to see whether or not captain Nicklas Lidstrom would retire. Surprise came when it was Brian Rafalski, not Lidstrom, who retired, despite having a year left on his contract.
Rafalski joined the Red Wings in 2007-2008 and went on to win the Stanley Cup with the team that season. His offensive play was crucial to the success of the Red Wings powerplay, and his point production and defensive intelligence were vital to both his, and the aforementioned Lidstrom’s, success throughout most of his tenure with Detroit. In the end, age caught up with the 38-year-old, and after struggling with a nagging injury, he asked to have his contract bought out. Rafalski at times had his critics, but always provided consistent numbers and lived up to his $6 million a year salary (CapGeek.com). 50 points and 10 goals a season from a defenseman isn’t too shabby.
With Rafalski gone, Detroit had a considerable hole to fill in their defensive unit, a unit that had struggled at times already during the previous season. So Ken Holland and the rest of the Red Wings staff set out to find a solid replacement. With limited players available, this proved to be a tougher task than you’d expect. The hole would not go unfilled though, and Detroit signed players Ian White and Mike Commodore to add to their defensive squad.
The question is, will the addition of these 2 veterans be enough to offset the cost of losing Rafalski? To try to answer that, let’s take a look at some stats.
In 2010-2011 the Detroit Red Wings defensive core consisted of Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart, Jonathan Ericsson, Ruslan Salei, and Jakub Kindl. This group of players combined for 41 goals & 155 assists, a total of 196 points. Now of course point production isn’t everything, but being an offensive defenseman, this is likely the area Brian Rafalski will be missed in the most. Defensive traits are much harder to compare, so I’m not going to try, but keep that aspect in mind as you read along.
This season, the Red Wings defense will look much the same. Returning are Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart, Jonathan Ericsson, and Jakub Kindl. These players, along with the addition of Ian White and Mike Commodore, are likely to make up the defensive group on the ice at any given time. Now, substituting White and Commodore’s 2010-2011 stats in for those of Brian Rafalski and Ruslan Salei (who was tragically killed in a team plane crash shortly after signing with Lokomotiv of the KHL), the Red Wings numbers would have been 41 goals and 129 assists for 170 points. That’s a difference of 26 points, specifically, 26 assists.
Obviously, as I mentioned, there is more to defense than offense, that’s why it’s called defense, but losing 26 points a year from your blue line isn’t a wonderful thing any way you look at it. Detroit may be a very offensive team, but losing production and skill on the back-end will certainly bring that down a notch. Let’s not forget that Rafalski was also a big reason why Nicklas Lidstrom could put up the points he did on the way to another Norris trophy win (#7) last season.
The 2011-2012 Detroit Red Wings definitely possesses the offensive ability to fill in this point gap, but it makes it all the more important that Hudler, Franzen, and Filppula rebound from average-at-best seasons, or that someone else steps up and produces more than what they have in the past, or are expected to this season.