Detroit General Manager Ken Holland was already sweating out a decision about whether 41-year old Red Wings captain and future Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom would play another season. Now, without Rafalski, Holland could have two gaping holes in the top four of his blue line next season if Lidstrom retires.
Lidstrom has informed Holland that he will make a decision on his playing future before the Entry Draft at the end of June.
No wonder Holland is crossing his fingers and toes before going to sleep each night -- not to mention giving hopeful "thumbs-up" signs almost every time he mentioned Lidstrom on Wednesday afternoon at Joe Louis Arena, following Rafalski's retirement ceremony.
"We need great news on Nick Lidstrom," Holland said. "If we get great news on Nick Lidstrom, we need a defenseman or two (in free agency), depending on where their salary is at. We're kind of done up front. Our top three lines, for the most part, are in place. Our No.1 goal is defense and we've got to rebuild a little bit now. We're hoping on Nick Lidstrom (returning)."
If he does, then Detroit can go forward with the plan of slowly working some younger defensemen into the mix. Detroit has 31-year old Doug Janik under contract and hopes youngsters Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith are ready for increased roles.
Both are former first-round picks.
Kindl (selected No.19 overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft) spent the 2011 season with the Red Wings in a limited role and didn't play in the playoffs. Smith (taken No.27 overall in 2007) played in Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League and was one of Detroit's Black Aces practice players during the playoffs.
"Is Jakub Kindl ready for a bigger role? Is Brendan Smith ready to play in the NHL?" Holland said. "These are things we're going to have to find out. Certainly we need one or two more veterans signed this summer. We're going to sign somebody. It's a matter of how much and who and how big of a role. Obviously, Nick's decision is going to factor into how active we are on July 1 (the first day of NHL free agency)."
Detroit also has unrestricted free-agent defensemen Jonathan Ericsson and Ruslan Salei that Holland could re-sign, while a backup goalie might be needed to replace 38-year old veteran Chris Osgood if he retires.
Veteran forward Kris Draper, 40, would like to keep playing -- but Holland might have a tough decision if he thinks there's no room on the roster.
It's all part of a delicate tightrope the Red Wings are walking as they try to reload rather than rebuild from scratch. A complete rebuild isn't an option in Holland's mind and he credits that attitude for Detroit's string of 20-straight playoff appearances.
"We're trying to figure out a way to not have to go through a rebuild," Holland said. "Maybe you're going to dip for a year or two, but a rebuild to me is where you're bad for four or five years and you empty out the building. We don't want to go through that. So, we have to make decisions in the short term and long term that we think are going to give us the best chance to win."
That means sticking to the plan that helped get them to this point following the work stoppage in 2005 that brought about the League's hard salary cap.
Rafalski's unexpected retirement frees up $6 million in cap space that Holland didn't think he'd have and if Lidstrom retires there would be another $6.2 million on top of that to utilize. Even removing Lidstrom from the equation, the Red Wings have eight unrestricted free agents who made just under $15 million combined last season, according to capgeek.com.
Finding space under the cap will not be an issue, but Holland said that's not the only solution -- especially considering that he and other GMs feel the upcoming free-agent class isn't quite as strong as recent classes. Fans will inevitably want the Red Wings to chase every big name free agent that's available, but Holland said free agency is only one aspect of improving this team.
"We're not going to just throw a bunch of money at people on July 1 and wake up (Dec. 1) and now spend four months trying to figure out how we can get rid of those people," Holland said. "That doesn't sound like a great plan to me. We're going to methodically go through it. Otherwise, we're inevitably going towards a major rebuild."
Instead, he said the Red Wings will look to rebuild their blue line -- not the entire team -- by trusting their player-development staff, making wise decisions in free agency and exploring trade options. Wheeling and dealing usually heats up around the approaching NHL Entry Draft in June, and this year the Red Wings could be among those searching for puzzle pieces.
They will definitely be active in free agency, but they won't go crazy.
"Do you go a touch higher (in contract negotiations) than you want to?" Holland said. "Yeah, but we're not going to go drastically higher than what we think makes sense. Ultimately, if you go that path -- given that we pick in the 20s and given that we traded eight first-round picks from 1995 to 2005 -- then a rebuild is in inevitable if you look at the age of some of our players."
It wouldn't be wise, however, to simply write off the Red Wings as a team that needs to sink to the bottom to get younger and ultimately better. They've proven that theory wrong a couple of times before and aim to do it again.
"This organization has never had a problem filling holes and to find the players that fit what they want to do," said Rafalski, who was one of those fillers when he signed as a free agent in 2007 to replace Mathieu Schneider on the Detroit blue line. "That won't change, because they're so deep in the front office and coaching. Everything will work itself out. I don't have any doubt about that. I don't have any worries about the future for this organization."