With Brian Rafalski already gone and 41-year-old Nicklas Lidstrom inching ever so slowly toward the door, Detroit Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland knows he has two very important contract negotiations he'll have to tackle during the next several months.
Top-four defensemen Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart each come into the 2011-12 season in the final year of their respective contracts. Can you imagine the Detroit blue line without those players in the fall of 2012?
Neither can Holland.
"We'll probably start conversations with their agents in training camp," Holland said. "It will probably take some time from there."
Fortunately, this is far from Holland's first rodeo when it comes to signing key players.
"If you look at our recent history, we signed Pav (Pavel Datsyuk) late in the season back in '07 and we got Z (Henrik Zetterberg) and (Johan) Franzen done in the second half of the '08-09 season," Holland said. "It's a process."
It might take time, but Holland simply has to keep those two -- particularly Kronwall -- in the fold if the Wings are going to continue to their long run as a championship-caliber team. As Holland and his top-notch management group understand, you can't be a real Cup contender with a sub-par group on defense.
And there's one other thing. Let's face it -- if Lidstrom has any desire to play past this season, he isn't going to do it unless the team has a chance to win a Cup. So that presents a worst-case scenario in Detroit where Lidstrom, Kronwall and Stuart all could be gone next fall.
That is a nightmare no Wings fan even wants to entertain.
The Swedish-born Kronwall, 30, is the more important of the two defenders to re-sign. He has spent his entire NHL career with the Wings, who grabbed him with the No. 29 pick in the 2000 Entry Draft. Thought to be a shade too small by some scouts during his draft year, the 5-foot-11 Kronwall has developed into a terrific two-way defender who possesses solid puck skills and has the ability to light up an opposing forward with a devastating open-ice hit. (Keep your head up, brother!)
This season, Kronwall likely will figure more prominently into offensive situations for coach Mike Babcock, who will be looking for ways to offset Rafalski's departure. That should mean extra minutes for a player who finished second on the team to Lidstrom last season with an average ice time of 22:52 per game in the regular season. In the playoffs, Kronwall upped the ante, averaging a team-high 23:04 per game.
Stuart, meanwhile, has found a home in Detroit after bouncing from San Jose to Boston to Calgary to Los Angeles in the three seasons after the lockout. Selected No. 3 by the Sharks in 1998, Stuart was acquired by the Red Wings from the Kings at the trade deadline in 2008. He proved to be among the final pieces to the Wings' Cup-winning puzzle that June.
Since then, Stuart has carved a spot as a physical defender who can handle big minutes and work against an opponent's top players. Stuart ranked third on the team in ice time, averaging 21:31 per game during the regular season. And like Kronwall, Stuart can deliver a punishing blow.
The Wings might be able to replace Stuart if he departed, but there's no guarantee they could do that. Keeping him is the preferable option.
After watching some of the free-agent deals signed by quality defensemen earlier in the month, I have to figure Kronwall could get a significant raise off his current $3 million cap hit -- he'll make $3.75 million in real dollars this year -- if he were to test the market.
Stuart, who carries a cap number of $3.75 million, also could be in a position to get a boost in pay on an open market where credible top-four defenders with winning experience are very hard to find.
Between September and next summer, Holland is going to do what he can to keep both defensemen in red and white. He should have the cap space and real dollars to make it happen unless one or both decides he wants a change of scenery. To this point, there have been no such rumblings.
Holland certainly realizes that while Kronwall and Stuart aren't the sexiest names to wear a Wings sweater during his tenure, they're extremely important to club's immediate future and eventual transition into the -- dare I say it -- post-Lidstrom era.
Kronwall and Stuart no doubt will be expected to help mentor talented prospects like AHL standout Brendan Smith, as well as still-learning young pro Jonathan Ericsson.
Because of Holland's terrific track record, I have to believe he will get his D-men. If for some reason that pursuit goes off the rails, the Wings' long-term future will take a major hit.
The clock already is ticking.