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2012 Free Agents — Up Front

Continuing the post from a few days ago, it’s time to explore the free agents-to-be within the forward ranks. Joining the two goalies and seven defensemen are seven forwards who need a contract for next season — and two draft picks whose rights will be expiring sooner rather than later.

Grab another beer. There are lots of words.

Jiri Hudler, 28-years-old, UFA, $2.875 cap hit
81 GP, 25 G – 25 A – 50 PTS, +10
When Scuttles departed for the KHL after an arbitration hearing that awarded him a two-year deal with the Wings, fans of Hockeytown made up their minds. No matter how well he’d play, and the role he’d fill, he was constant trade rumor fodder and many couldn’t wait to dump him when his contract came up. 2010-11 was, admittedly, an adjustment year, as he got back into the groove of the NHL game. It was by no means a poor year — his production matched that of Todd Bertuzzi and Valtteri Filppula (particularly when weighted for ice-time and line partners). But it was this past season where he clearly shook the Russian rust off and became the player that the Wings needed him to be when they agreed to that two year extension worth $5.75M. Hudler was second on the team in goal scoring, and fifth on the team in total scoring, while playing a secondary scoring role.

PREDICTION: In my gut, I feel like he’ll walk. He’s certainly a useful player and his second line (with Z) was the most productive all season. Hudler isn’t nearly as useless as everyone pretends he is, but he may get out of town because that’s the “easiest” way to have some turnover on a roster that’s grown stale. I’d certainly welcome him back — for the right price — but he may be seeking a few dollars more than the Wings are willing to give a player of his caliber, particularly this summer. Wouldn’t be upset, at all, if he’s re-signed, I just have a feeling he’ll end up in Philadelphia or somewhere else that isn’t terribly annoying to Wings’ fans.

Tomas Holmstrom, 39-years-old, UFA, $1.875M
74 GP, 11 G – 13 A – 24 PTS, -9
Doesn’t it seem like Homer is twice as old as he really is? Poor guy plays the most physically demanding role on the Red Wings, and has been for decades. How his body has remained upright, and in one piece, is beyond me. The guy’s a warrior, and he’s served the team well — particularly as a net-front guy on the power play. No one, including Ciccarelli, has ever been more adept at playing that position, and no one can deflect pucks like he does. It’s an art. He is, by no means, a talented skater, nor is he as physically dominating as many guys his size. But he knows his role and gets the job done. This past season, he was expected to be rotated into and out of the lineup, and play mostly fourth line minutes when he was in the lineup. He played more games than Coach Babcock made it sound like he would, but Homer was still a little disappointed about the limited role he took on.

PREDICTION: I think he hangs ’em up. There’s been talk about Nicklas Lidstrom and Homer being so close that they may choose to go out together — especially since they’re the only two left from the Four Cup Crew. But, the time for Holmstrom’s ability to contribute in a way that he’d be expected may have come to an end. He isn’t interested in being a fourth line grinder, but that’s all that’ll be made available to him any longer in Detroit. I doubt that he’d be interested in signing elsewhere, nor would he be interested in signing a two-way deal and risk being a Grand Rapids Griffin. It may be the best time for him to walk away — the team is in need of a bit of a change, and even though Homer has the fire and has played well, he may want to step away from the game and stop feeling horrible pain in his lower back. One has to think that he will endure 100% cross-checks in retirement.

Darren Helm, 25-years-old, RFA, $912.5k
68 GP, 9 G – 17 A – 26 PTS, +5
Even though he’s a third/four line role player, the Red Wings go as Darren Helm goes. Despite a glut of middle or bottom six-type forwards, no one could seem to get things going when Helm went down with an injury. And, according to Mike Babcock, the wheels fell off the playoffs when Helm’s wrist was accidentally slashed open by Alexander Radulov’s skate. That’s quite a statement about a guy that scored fewer than ten goals, but it’s impossible to ignore the contributions that he makes both to the threat of speed and to the penalty kill. Everyone loves Helm, he’s the embodiment of the city of Detroit: he’s a blue collar, hard-working, take-advantage-of-what-you’ve-got kinda player and there legitimately may not be a faster open-ice skater in the whole league.

PREDICTION: He’s going nowhere. Not only is he a restricted free agent, he’s far too important to this team moving forward to allow him to leave. I can’t imagine, given the role he plays, that he’d be in for a HUGE raise, but he’s going to eclipse $1M on this next contract. How much more remains to be seen.

Justin Abdelkader, 25-years-old, RFA, $787.5k
81 GP, 8 G – 14 A – 22 PTS, +4
Much like Helm, Justin Abdelkader’s contribution comes on the penalty kill, and with few minutes each night. The two are similar, but have different skill sets, and may forever be linked a la Henrik Zetterberg/Pavel Datsyuk since they turned pro reasonably close to one another. Gator’s able to play center (having improved on his faceoff percentage) helps his case, as does his “hometown hero” standing — he’s a kid from Michigan, played at Michigan State, turned pro with the Griffins, and now the Wings — so he’ll likely be brought back in. There are some calling for his moving, since he may be a touch redundant and he can be replaced from within, but he’s a proven guy who isn’t afraid to drop the gloves and supports his teammates as well as anyone on the current roster.

PREDICTION: Like all the other restricted free agents, he’ll be qualified and I can’t imagine he wouldn’t be thrilled to re-sign in Detroit. I don’t think the Wings would let him walk, but once he’s re-signed, he may become the kind of guy that’s part of a trade to bring in a premiere forward. Maybe not, and we’d be okay with it because he’s a good kid, but you should fully expect that he’s re-signed in short order. Probably before July 1st.

Chris Conner, 28-years-old, UFA, $550k
8 GP, 1 G – 2 A – 3 PTS, +2 in the NHL. 57 GP, 16 G – 37 A – 53 PTS, +4 in the AHL
There was a time during the season that I thought he’d never get sent back down. He was called up when Patrick Eaves was lost to a broken jaw (and subsequent concussion), and he immediately found a spot in the lineup and found ways to contribute. Unfortunately, after a handful of games, he was injured himself (fractured wrist), and he never got into another game in Detroit. He was called up a few times, but would become healthy scratches when it became apparent the players he may replace were able to go after all. In Grand Rapids, all he did was lead (or fall within a few points of leading) the team in scoring for much of the season. He’s one of those guys that’s too good for the AHL, and will always have a hard time finding a role in the NHL thanks to his diminutive stature.

PREDICTION: I’d love to have him back, but he would likely find himself in a similar situation to this past season: bound for the Griffins since he can’t unseat any of the incumbents. He may be willing to serve as a 13th forward, a la Jan Mursak, in which case he’d be welcomed back with open arms. In the end, it’ll be up to Chris Conner: does he want a better chance to play (and collect a paycheck) in the NHL… or is he content popping back and forth throughout the season and being a member of a contender organization? Time will tell, but I’d bet anything he’s tendered an offer. It’d suck seeing him depart, but we wish the lucky guys well always.

Fabian Brunnstrom, 27-years-old, UFA, $600k
5 GP, 0 G – 1 A – 1 PTS, -2 in the NHL. 45 GP, 12 G – 23 A – 35 PTS, +6 in the AHL
Well, that didn’t quite work out. When Jan Mursak was injured in pre-season, it opened the door for an unexpected body to fill the 13th forward position on the Red Wings. There were incoming rookies like Gustav Nyquist, but we all knew that wasn’t likely given the Red Wings penchant for keeping prospects in the minors while they can. There were veteran free agents under contract, like Chris Conner. And then there were free agent tryouts like Ryan Johnson and Fabian Brunnstrom — they had the inside track since the Wings had another contract slot open and why not stock pile talent? Sure enough, it was the big body who won that last spot, earned himself a contract (with news of said signing broken by TPL Mom at a team function), and made the team out of camp. Things probably didn’t go as Bruno hoped — who admitted be probably should have signed with the Wings the first time, instead of the Dallas Stars. He was scratched for the first five games of the season, played one, scratched for three more, and then waived. He bounced up and down from Grand Rapids quite a few times (a total of nine transactions between October 29th and December 3rd), but spent all but five games in the minors. He was, essentially, a non-factor for the Wings.

PREDICTION: Well, I sort of assumed that he wouldn’t be re-signed, since he was usurped on the depth chart by Nyquist, Chris Conner, Joakim Andersson, and Tomas Tatar. However, recent news reports seem to indicate that he will be given another shot to earn his stripes and potentially play a bigger role with the Wings. I find it difficult to swallow… how likely is it that he makes the Wings next season, given that 13 forwards will be returning, and the team hopes to explore free agency? Sounds like he’s happy being a member of the organization, so he’ll likely be re-upped, but it’ll take quite a bit of a rebuild to get him onto the NHL roster.

Jamie Johnson, 30-years-old, UFA, $512.5k
76 GP, 21 G – 37 A – 58 PTS, +5 in the AHL
When he was signed two summers ago, it was pretty clear that he was signed for veteran depth at the AHL level. He’s never gotten a sniff, and he doesn’t even play in the split-squad pre-season games (meaning he’s likely bound for a permanent stay in Grand Rapids). Nevertheless, he’s a very important part of the Griffins (he tied for the team lead in scoring – with Tatar and Nyquist [Gus played 20 fewer games, however]), and he spent the vast majority of the season centering the club’s top line. It’s hard to understate the value of a player like him — someone who’s content playing on the farm (and making more than the league maximum for re-entry waiver eligibility) and pacing the youngsters. Where his place is on this team moving forward remains to be seen. I’m sure the Wings (and Griffins) would love to have him back, but guys like him come and go through all organizations (Darren Haydar, Andy Delmore, Garrett Stafford, Mark Cullen, Carl Corazzini, Mark Hartigan, etc. and so on), so he may be moving onto another new pair of cities.

PREDICTION: I bet he’s offered a deal similar to the one he has now (league minimum-ish at the NHL level, $200-300k in the AHL instead of the usual $105k veteran number), but I wouldn’t be shocked to hear he’s signed with the Boston Bruins or Calgary Flames or whatever. If, this summer, the Wings decide that they need an organization shake-up at all levels, then Johnson will likely be looking for employment elsewhere. But, if the Wings decide that they’re going to continue to toe the familiar line and they don’t want a ton of turnover on any of their rosters, then he’ll return and potentially captain the Griffins.

Chris Minard, 30-years-old, UFA, $525k
39 GP, 21 G – 11 A – 32 PTS, +11 in the AHL
What a story. Chris Minard finished last season on the shelf with a concussion, and began this one in the same manner. He opened the season on long-term injured reserve and wasn’t able to be waived (with the intention of being demoted) until January 13th. After missing nearly an entire calendar year, he dropped back into the Griffins’ lineup and tore it apart, averaging nearly a point-per-game after that. He was 2011-12’s winner of the Fred T. Hunt Award, which is the AHL’s version of the Masterton Trophy for dedication to hockey, sportsmanship, and determination. Like Johnson, he’s on a two-way deal, but his AHL salary is above the veteran maximum reserved for exemption from re-entry waivers. In fact, Minard was one of the five most highly-paid players in the AHL (in terms of AHL salary… not hidden one-way deals like Redden) and he definitely was a kick-ass part in the Griffins’ machine.

PREDICTION: It’s hard to say. He’s certainly earned his way to another contract, but it remains to be seen if he — like Johnson — is in the Wings’ plans for the Griffins. Neither served as Black Aces for the brief playoff run, and both could very likely serve important veteran roles in any organization’s depth chart. But what’s working in the Red Wings’ favor is that Minard has a home in the Grand Rapids area and he and his wife just welcomed a child… he may be looking for a place to call home for longer than a year at a time. Thirty is too old to be bouncing around every August.

Brooks Macek, 20-years-old, unsigned draft pick
54 GP, 14 G – 24 A – 38 PTS, +8 in the WHL

Unlike all of the players mentioned in this and the last post, Brooks Macek isn’t under contract with the Red Wings. Instead, he’s a draft pack whose exclusive rights are set to expire (on June 1st). If the Wings fail to sign him (or choose not to), he may sign with another club or, potentially, re-enter the NHL Draft. Every so often, the Wings opt not to sign a draft pick — sometimes they sign with another club (Zack Toquato and Randy Cameron), sometimes the Wings have the Griffins and/or Walleye sign them (Bryan Rufenach). Either way, they likely don’t factor into the Red Wings’ future plans, and that’s where I see Brooks Macek ending up this summer. The Wings have quite a few contract slots open, but he hasn’t done anything that’s forced the Wings to sign him — and he’ll be able to continue playing professional hockey without one of them. For the one Wings prospect that refers to the Winnipeg Jets as “we” on Twitter, I’d suspect that he’s anxious to sign elsewhere.

PREDICTION: I doubt he’s signed — at least by the Red Wings. Perhaps he’s offered a “tryout” deal, to come to training camp, where he can earn a place with the Griffins or Walleye. But don’t expect him to be signed by the Detroit Red Wings’ parent team.

Julien Cayer, 23-year-old, unsigned draft pick
30 GP, 5 G – 5 A – 10 PTS, 30 PIM in the NCAA
Like Macek, Cayer is an unsigned draft pick. Unlike Macek, he’s been on the Wings radar for four years. Collegiate prospects have a four-year window to be signed (Macek and other juniors get two) and Cayer is set to graduate from Clarkson University. He never really matured into a player that has a major professional hockey career, but he may get a similar deal to Macek — a tryout that turns into a minor pro deal.

PREDICTION: He’ll be in camp, because the Wings are good to their prospects in that way, unless Cayer wants to play closer to home (Quebec) and asks for his outright release so that the Canadiens can offer him a similar deal. He very likely won’t play into the Red Wings’ future plans.

Photo Credits: Jiri Hudler (AP File Photo); Tomas Holmstrom (Claus Andersen, Getty Images North America); Darren Helm (Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images North America); Chris Conner (Getty Images); Fabian Brunnstrom (AP File Photo); Jamie Johnson (Bobby Pulte Visual Media); Chris Minard (Grand Rapids Griffins); Brooks Macek (Al Charest, Calgary Sun, QMI Agency); Julien Cayer (Clarkson Athletics)

1 thought on “2012 Free Agents — Up Front”

  1. So with Riggy getting such a big contract last year, does Helm owe the Wings the hometown discount?  I’m sure if he wanted to, he could talk a GM into signing him for a $1.5M contract. That would give the Wings a third-rounder if they don’t match (which they would).  I have to think there’s a GM out there who would pull that if Helm’s agent tried it.

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