Cross Checks: Brian Rafalski


Filling the hole left by Brian Rafalski's retirement announcement Wednesday will be big enough. Now, depending on Nicklas Lidstrom's decision, the Detroit Red Wings are hoping they won't have a chasm to fill.

"He's going to let me know before the draft," Red Wings GM Ken Holland told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "I think he wants to make sure that he feels comfortable about whatever decision he makes. Obviously, we're hoping he wants to come back. We're sitting here with our fingers crossed hoping he does come back."

Most people in and around the Wings believe Lidstrom will return, but it will be interesting to see how the 41-year-old future Hall of Fame defenseman views losing his longtime defensive partner, Rafalski. Does Lidstrom see it as a step backward for the organization, or does he trust one of the game's great GMs in Holland to fill that hole and keep the Wings' powerhouse intact?

While the hockey world awaits Lidstrom's decision, the Red Wings must deal with the loss of Rafalski. The 37-year-old Rafalski walks away from another year left on his deal at $6 million.

"It took me totally by surprise," Holland said. "He had 48 points in 63 games this year and was a plus-11. When you factor in how productive he was and had another year at $6 million, I was very surprised by his decision."

Brian Rafalski
Dave Reginek/NHLI/Getty ImagesBrian Rafalski had 79 goals and 515 points in 833 games over 11 seasons with New Jersey and Detroit.

Yes, there are major cap savings, but the Wings are losing a quality puck-mover in Rafalski.

"He was a tremendous signing for us," Holland said. "He was major factor in us winning the Cup in 2008. He played 11 years in the National Hockey League and made the Cup finals five times. He's been a real important player on good teams. He's a big loss."

On the positive side, Holland now has money to play with on July 1, which he hasn't had in a few years.

"We have lots of cap space," he said. "We've got some decisions to make. Obviously, July 1 is a big day for us now. We're going to explore the market. ... At the draft, we'll also look to see if teams are looking to move defensemen, but usually teams aren't looking to do that."

Internally, youngsters such as Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith are on the rise, but Holland will be aggressive in trying to add blue-line help this summer.

The Wings are pretty much set in terms of their impact forwards, and goalie Jimmy Howard was extended during the season. It's on defense where changes will come.

Depending on Lidstrom, it could be a massive overhaul, but the Wings are sure hoping it doesn't come to that.

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun debate the latest playoff races and wonder if the road is over for the New Jersey Devils:

Burnside: Good day, my friend. Three weeks from today, we'll be talking about the last weekend of the NHL's regular season. How many playoff spots will remain in play? Who knows. But after the past couple of days, it may be more significant to ask which players will be healthy enough to contribute when the playoffs do start in mid-April.

The Canucks look to be without Manny Malhotra, one of their top penalty-killing forwards, for the long haul after he had surgery (he took a puck to the eye earlier this week). Reports out of Vancouver indicate it may be some time before the full extent of Malhotra's scary injury is known.

Then, the Red Wings watched two top players get hurt in Thursday's game versus the Blue Jackets, as Pavel Datsyuk and Brian Rafalski left after rather innocent-looking plays. Both have been out of the lineup recently; Rafalski was playing in just his second game after missing time with back spasms. He had three assists in his first game back against Washington on Wednesday. No sense yet on the extent of those injuries, but it's hard to imagine the Wings making a long playoff run without either of them on hand.

GM Ken Holland and coach Mike Babcock will be ultra-cautious with their returns given that the Wings have pretty much locked up the second seed in the Western Conference.

Meanwhile, the Leafs' playoff hopes, slim as they may be, took a blow Thursday when they were shut out by lowly Florida, a game in which top netminder James Reimer did not even dress. No word on whether Reimer was injured, but if he wasn't, it ranks as a curious coaching decision from Ron Wilson since Jean-Sebastien Giguere did little to improve his free-agent market value in another soft performance.

LeBrun: Scotty, it appeared San Jose might join Vancouver and Detroit on the injury front when top blueliner Dan Boyle looked to be in incredible agony with what seemed to be some kind of leg injury, but miraculously returned to the game in Thursday's 3-2 home victory over Minnesota.

"I'm not supposed to bend that way, but I'm happy with the way it came out," Boyle told Mark Emmons of the San Jose Mercury News. "I thought I was done there for a moment, but after a couple of punches on the ice and some deep breaths, the pain dropped."

He's a guy the Sharks absolutely cannot lose if they have any chance of winning the Stanley Cup. He is the Nicklas Lidstrom of San Jose.

Coupled with a loss by Los Angeles, the Sharks' win gave them a little more breathing room in the Pacific Division race. The Phoenix Coyotes are now second in the division after winning their fourth straight Thursday night. The Goldwater Institute may be able to scare off investors, but it can't distract the players. By the way, if the playoffs started today, it would be Detroit-Chicago and Vancouver-Calgary in the first round.

Burnside: Ha! You and your Western Conference matchups. Calgary posted a big win against Colorado on Thursday night; although, frankly, if you and I grabbed three buddies, we would have an even chance of beating the Avs, who have just one win in their past 21 games. Wow. Talk about a fall from grace given their Cinderella run to the playoffs last season.

The Flames, meanwhile, have an uphill battle to stay within the top eight. They've played more games than their competition and have too many shootout wins to count on them in any tiebreaker scenarios.

Turning to the East for a moment ... a big, big game for the Atlanta Thrashers on Saturday in Buffalo as they have a chance to pull within two points of eighth place if they can pull off a win. They are coming off a clutch shootout win over Philadelphia on Thursday, the second time they beat the Flyers in less than a week. But you can count on a lot of other teams who will be rooting for the Thrashers, including Toronto, Carolina and New Jersey (all those teams are going to need help to sneak into the top eight).

By the way, Holland just dropped me a note saying Rafalski is hoping to play Saturday, while Datsyuk isn't sure. Holland referred to him as being day-to-day.

LeBrun: Wow, that's a huge break with Rafalski. He looked worse off than that.

Speaking of worse off, Patric Hornqvist has a hearing today with the NHL for his elbow to the head on Bruins rookie Tyler Seguin. Hornqvist got a five-minute major and a game misconduct on the play. Vincent Lecavalier, meanwhile, won't face any more league discipline for the two-handed slash to Montreal's P.K. Subban that got the Tampa star kicked out of Thursday night's 3-2 shootout loss in Montreal. These days it seems like the NHL has something to review every night.

Minus nearly half their lineup Thursday, including leading scorer Tomas Plekanec, the Habs gutted one out against the Lightning and face the Rangers at MSG on Friday night. Carey Price was outstanding again. He's going to find his way among the five names I put on my official Hart Trophy ballot next month.

Burnside: Yes, I didn't like the Hornqvist elbow, and the Preds were lucky it didn't cost them the game as they hung on to beat Boston in overtime to keep their playoff hopes alive. Given the paltry two-game suspensions handed out to Dany Heatley and Brad Marchand this week for other dirty elbows, we can't wait for next season when the NHL has promised to get tough on blows to the head.

As for the weekend, as I mentioned, I am pumped for the Thrashers' visit to Buffalo on Saturday. I am predicting a Thrashers victory, although they never win in regulation, so it'll be in extra time. And then, I'm looking forward to the Anaheim Ducks-Los Angeles Kings clash. Will Ray Emery keep the magic going for the Ducks? I say yes.

LeBrun: Ducks-Kings is definitely the game of the weekend -- two SoCal rivals playing a big game with a lot on the line. But before we go, I wanted to touch on the New Jersey Devils, who lost 3-1 Thursday night in Ottawa. It is most puzzling that the Devils have now lost twice to the lowly Senators this month. Is this revenge by the Senators for the 2003 Eastern Conference finals? Despite putting together the most impressive second-half run this season, if the Devils miss the playoffs, they will wonder what the heck they were doing losing two games in March to a Senators team ranked 28th in the league. Have a great weekend, my friend.

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