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 WINGS FREE AGENCY PREVIEW 
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WINGS FREE AGENCY PREVIEW: Re-signing Schneider could be tough; odds better with Bertuzzi

June 24, 2007

HELENE ST. JAMES

INSIDE THE WINGS

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- When the Red Wings secured Pavel Datsyuk to a seven-year extension in April, they significantly reduced their summer stress.

Datsyuk could've been the team's most prominent free agent starting July 1, a sure bet to draw seductive offers from rival NHL clubs. Had Datsyuk bit on such a deal, it would have sent the Wings reeling.

"I expect the first two or three days in July to be pretty wild," general manager Ken Holland said Saturday. "Ultimately, if you have a player that four or five teams are after ... you have no idea what's going to happen. The league is very tight, and if you think you've got a player that can make a difference, you try to find ways to get creative.

"If Pavel was on the open market in a week, I think there would be tremendous interest. Once you start getting a number of teams in a bidding war, who knows where it's going to end. We made a decision last September to sign Niklas Kronwall to a long-term deal, to sign Datsyuk, and we also got Tomas Holmstrom done at three more years -- that's a lot of our work that we've chipped away at."

Datsyuk is now one of 10 forwards under contract for the coming season, along with five defensemen and goaltender Chris Osgood.

Factor in Dominik Hasek agreeing to return for another season, and the Wings have only a few holes to plug.

"I'm confident we're going to get Dom signed, then we've got Dom and Osgood -- I feel good about our goaltending," Holland said. "There's no doubt we need to get one more defenseman for sure, and Mathieu Schneider is a big part of our team because of his points and playing on the power play."

Schneider, whose value on the power play was made clear in the playoffs after he was sidelined with a broken wrist, could be the most difficult to re-sign. He made $3.3 million last season, and his numbers over the past two years -- 52 points last season, 59 the previous -- demonstrate he's still one of the premier offensive blueliners in the NHL. He's not going to get the kind of money franchise defenseman Kimmo Timonen will from the Flyers -- an average of $6.3 million a year -- but Schneider definitely has an argument for a raise.

That's not the case with Todd Bertuzzi, the big forward acquired at the trade deadline whom Holland also is trying to re-sign. Bertuzzi made $5.3 million this past season, but that stems from a contract signed when he was considered an elite power forward. Now he has to be evaluated as a 6-foot-3, 245-pound behemoth who is coming off back surgery, and it would take a foolhardy general manager to risk offering a multiyear deal in the same pay range.

It would make sense for the Wings to sign Bertuzzi, who is 32, to a short-term deal in the $3-million range, and unless a rogue team fields a much better offer, odds are Bertuzzi will be back. He certainly seems like he'd prefer to remain a Wing -- he told teammates and management he loved coming to the rink in Detroit -- and after going three rounds with a team that, barring injuries, might well have gone four, Bertuzzi undoubtedly realizes he'd be coming back to a great situation in Detroit.

If Holland gets the impression he can't reach a deal with Bertuzzi, there are several intriguing names on the market, including Ryan Smyth, Daniel Briere and Chris Drury -- but all of those are likely to require salaries around $6 million to $7 million, placing them out of reach for Detroit. Peter Forsberg is a more realistic possibility, given that his injury-plagued past would temper salary demands, but rumors persist that if he continues to play, he wants to return to Colorado.

The Wings will re-sign restricted free agent Jiri Hudler, so essentially they have 11 forward spots already claimed. Holland has informed the agents for unrestricted free agents Robert Lang and Kyle Calder they won't receive offers.

The risk for the Wings, especially in the unlikely case they don't get Schneider signed within a week, is then they'll be bidding against other teams. Schneider's value in particular is going to go up if elite defenseman Scott Niedermayer retires, because it would leave the Ducks scrambling to find a replacement. Both Schneider and Sheldon Souray are prime options.

The new salary cap won't be released until Saturday, but it'll be at least $48 million, possibly as high as $50 million. The Wings have around $32 million to $33 million committed already, and would like to leave a $1-million cushion in case of emergencies.

That leaves $10 million to $12 million free, money that will go toward Hasek, two defensemen and at least one forward.

On defense, there is also interest in retaining Danny Markov, who proved a good, gritty fit as Nicklas Lidstrom's even-strength partner. Right now the only returns from last season's core are Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall, and none of the others under contract -- Chris Chelios, Andreas Lilja and Brett Lebda -- fit the bill of a top-four defenseman. If not Markov, look for the Wings to add another defensive defenseman, in addition to Schneider or someone like him. Youngsters like Derek Meech and Kyle Quincey would only be considered as depth players if no other avenues work out.

Up front, the Wings need at least Bertuzzi to return, or to acquire another top-six forward. It was clear last season Valtteri Filppula is capable of playing on the second line, and the team also expects to get a boost from Igor Grigorenko, the highly touted 2001 Russian pick who's ready to debut in North America.

All in all, this summer figures to be among the quieter ones in recent years for the Wings, and that has everything to do with having taken care of Datsyuk.

Contact HELENE ST. JAMES at 1-313-222-2295 or hstjames@freepress.com.

Copyright © 2007 Detroit Free Press Inc.

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June 29th, 2007, 6:35 pm
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