Lebda vs. Meech

So it’s come to this…Andreas Lilja is on his way back to the Red Wings, and someone’s going to have to go. Ken Holland has made it clear that he isn’t interested in carrying eight defensemen again this season, and when Lilja joins a healthy Lidstrom, Rafalski, Kronwall, Stuart, Ericsson, Lebda, and Meech — that’s exactly what he’s going to have. 
Lilja has been out since February 28th, 2009. When the Wings take the ice tonight against the Ducks, he will be missing his 99th straight regular season or playoff game. Even still, his sudden return to form is a bit of a shock, and don’t think that Ken Holland isn’t at least a little anxious about what to do. Loaning Lilja to Grand Rapids for three games is his way of buying some time before being forced to make a move. Petitioning for an additional two is his way of putting off the decisions for a few weeks, thanks to the Olympic roster freeze. But the NHLPA doesn’t allow players to remain dormant once they’re cleared to play, like Lilja was last week.
When Franzen and Lilja return to the Red Wings, there are plenty of decisions that will need to be made. They’ll need to trim just under two million dollars from the payroll, and drop two bodies. We’ll tackle the bigger picture some other time, but for now, let’s take a look at which of these defensemen is more likely to be moved. 
First of all, neither of these guys cost a ton of money. Derek Meech actually makes less than the league minimum, since he signed his deal before the minimum was raised. At $483,333, he’s obviously one of the lowest paid players in the league. Brett Lebda, on the other hand, makes $650,000. Believe it or not, that’s a bargain for a Cup-winning puck-moving defenseman. In a cap world, every dollar counts, so don’t think that the extra $167k won’t make a difference. It’s reason number one that Brett Lebda is the more likely candidate to get moved — maybe as early as next week, depending on Lilja and Franzen’s progress.
Derek Meech spends an unholy amount of time in the press box as a healthy scratch. And have you ever heard him say a word about it? The answer is no. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s appeased up there, but he certainly won’t rock the boat if he’s the seventh guy during the playoffs again. Brett Lebda – in the long run anyway – may cause more of a disturbance since he’s rarely been the odd man out in his young career – fair or otherwise. 
If the two were to be put on the trade block simultaneously, Brett Lebda would garner the larger return. He has more NHL games under his belt, and was a regular on back-to-back Stanley Cup Final teams. That kind of experience is certainly attractive at the deadline, particularly to a young playoff-bound team that doesn’t have many guys like that: think Los Angeles and Phoenix. That’s not to say that Meech wouldn’t get any interest around the league, but simple math tells me that scouts and other players are more familiar with Lebda and his play than Meech and his. 
Derek Meech has been known to suit up for a game or two as a winger, when forwards run dry. Obviously, Brett Lebda is no stranger to pinching and creating (or attempt to create) offense, but Meech actually has the NHL experience as a forward — at least for a few minutes. Lebda was supposed to do the same at one point last season, but never played a shift anywhere but the blueline. Having the flexibility of a swingman like Meech again makes him the more attractive commodity. 
With Kindl’s waiver eligibility coming up, neither of these guys were likely to be re-signed by the Red Wings in July — regardless of what happened with Lilja. That said, Lebda is unrestricted free agent-to-be, meaning that come July 1st, his services are available to the highest bidder. Derek Meech, however, is a restricted free agent-to-be, meaning the Red Wings would have the right to match any offer sent his way, and would receive compensation if they choose to pass. It’s Ken Holland’s prerogative to qualify his RFA’s, thus keeping the rights to their otherwise free agents. As July 1st approaches, expect Holland to qualify Meech, and letting things develop from there. Either he’s sent offer sheets (for example: Toronto, the new home of Meech’s Junior blueline partner, Dion Phaneuf) or he comes to Red Wings camp again, where he can be traded once its determined he’s not in the team’s plans. Long story short, there’s no hurry to get rid of a restricted free agent that isn’t openly saying he doesn’t want to be here.
I bet Lebda gets traded. I’d be shocked if it was a second rounder (thus, my original offer to videotape my attempted backflip stands). It’s more likely that he’ll fetch a third or fourth rounder, since Detroit can’t take bodies or salary back. Since he won’t be re-signed no matter what happens, any kind of return is a bonus. 
Meech will stay as the 7th defenseman/14th forward for another playoff run, and one of the follwing things will happen:
  • A) Holland will attempt to move him – probably for a lower draft pick.
  • B) Holland will qualify him, offering him a slight raise — which he likely won’t sign — but Detroit retains his rights. Then, Meech’s agent can take offers from other teams, and the Wings can accept the draft pick compensation.
  • C) Holland will flat out re-sign him to be the 7th defenseman again, since he knows the system and – like we’ve discussed above – he won’t mind being shuffled in and out of the lineup. 
Meech won’t be let go for nothing – that much you can bank on. After choosing him and allowing Kyle Quincey to be exposed to waivers, you can rest assured that Ken Holland and the rest of the Red Wings powers aren’t keen on losing two young defensemen for nothing. Even if it’s a 7th round pick (which is a terrible return for Meech + Quincey), it’s better than bupkis. 
Brett Lebda traded to Buffalo/Ottawa/Tampa Bay/Rangers/Atlanta for a 4th Round Pick. Or to Phoenix/Los Angeles for a 3rd Round Pick. Western Conference teams will need to offer more, since there’s a greater chance we’ll have to meet him in the playoffs. I don’t know much about any of those teams’ blueline, so feel free to correct me if any of them are unlikely. 
Derek Meech isn’t moved this season, is qualified, and then offered up to anyone that’s interested. The return will be a mid-level prospect or 4th/5th round pick or some combination of the two. I bet he ends up in Toronto, like mentioned above, and reunited with Phaneuf. 

Regardless of what you’ve read, I don’t think there’s any way Nick Lidstrom doesn’t return next season. He’s in one-year territory now, due to his age, and I believe he’ll sign again for a massive discount. He knows that chopping a few million off of his paycheck will help the team – and he’ll be fine financially when he takes a job in the Wings front office, like Yzerman. 
The Red Wings don’t usually turn guys like Lilja away after they work so hard to get back into game-shape. But there simply won’t be room for him, financially and roster spot-wise, so whatever games he’s able to be in will be a showcase for the rest of the league. He’ll be unrestricted July 1st. Here’s hoping he proves that he can still play and doesn’t have to wait long for offers. 
The rest:
  • Rafalski is signed through 2012, and has a no-trade clause. His cap hit is 6M.
  • Stuart is signed through 2012, and has a no-trade clause through this summer. His cap hit is 3.75M
  • Kronwall is signed through 2012. His cap hit is 3M.
  • Ericsson is signed through 2011. His cap hit is 900k. 
  • Kindl is signed through 2013. His cap hit will be 883k.
…which looks like:
Lidstrom :: Rafalski 
Kronwall :: Stuart
Ericsson :: Kindl