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Monday, July 6, 2009
Wonder why Red Wings are so quiet this July? It was all part of Detroit's plan

It just doesn't seem right to have the first week of July near its close and have the Detroit Red Wings still sitting idly by, the checkbook largely unused.

From Brian Rafalski in July 2007 to Marian Hossa in July 2008, not to mention all the past marquee signings in July from Hockeytown, one gets used to seeing the NHL's most successful modern-day franchise dip into the free-agent pool.

This year? Crickets.

"Obviously, people who have followed our team over the years have probably been accustomed to us being active early in July," Wings GM Ken Holland told on Monday. "We certainly were in the old CBA, and obviously last year with us landing Hossa on July 2, it kind of got the buzz back that the Red Wings were doing their thing.

"But the system is designed to competitive balance and parity."

The salary-cap era means the Wings can't always keep all their toys. Holland tried his best to keep Hossa and Mikael Samuelsson, but they both found bigger paydays elsewhere.

None of this was surprising or unplanned from the Detroit brain trust. Last season at camp in September, the Wings entered 2008-09 with Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Hossa, Samuelsson and Tomas Kopecky all UFA-bound after the year and Jiri Hudler slated for restricted free agency.

Holland was quoted early and often last fall, stressing the fact there was no way he could keep all of them. He would try, but, in the end, was pretty sure he couldn't. Zetterberg was the first priority and he was taken care of. Then Franzen. It was the logical approach.

"At the end of the day, we identified in Franzen and Zetterberg two people that we feel are part of the core of this team in the prime of their careers," Holland said. "We signed them long-term and their cap number went up significantly, but we have no problem with it. We feel good about their cap number and their contracts, which were really lifetime contracts. So, because of that, it really meant that we were going to be on the sidelines come July 1."

The Wings have nine core players under contract for just under $43 million next season (Zetterberg, Franzen, Daniel Cleary, Pavel Datsyuk, Valtteri Filppula, Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall, Rafalski, Brad Stuart).

"And we're still going to try to get Jiri Hudler done and you can add in a significant number for him," said Holland, who hopes to settle on an agreement with Hudler before the forward's salary arbitration case. "Then the rest of the team has to be either kids or low-salaried players. The money just goes."

Before we get the violins out, we should note the Red Wings' replacements aren't too shabby. Ville Leino (re-signed Monday for two years and $1.6 million in total), Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader now get a full-time shot up front; defenseman Jonathan Ericsson will be a mainstay on the blue line; and Jimmy Howard gets to back up Chris Osgood with Ty Conklin leaving via free agency.

"We've got a wave here for 4-5 younger guys that we're moving in," Holland said. "Other than Howard, we saw all of them play in the playoffs. They all handled themselves very well. We think they're ready to play. And it's the system; this is what is supposed to happen."

Helm and Ericsson were particularly impressive in the playoffs, while Abdelkader showed promise and Leino proved himself a reliable player. This is how the Wings are going to continue to thrive in this system: by plugging in players they've drafted and developed. Adding a marquee player on July 1 is nice, but you can't overspend in free agency to fill four or five spots. The math doesn't add up.

"We'll look at the unrestricted free-agent market later in the summer and see if there's a player or two there, cheaper guys that can maybe give us a little bit of depth," Holland said.

Either way, as much as it might be a little boring to sit back and watch other teams get busy in the opening days of July, Holland isn't dealing with any bouts of anxiety.

"Our core is locked in," Holland said. "No matter what happens with the cap next year, we've got over $10 million in expiring contracts. We're positioned going forward that no matter what happens with the economy and no matter what happens with the cap ... I believe we're OK."

But Holland is also realistic. He's not going to pretend that losing a star like Hossa and a valuable two-way guy like Samuelsson isn't going to hurt.

"On paper, I don't know that we're as good as last year," Holland said. "I don't believe we're going to score as much next season, but I'd like to think we'll be better defensively. We had that Stanley Cup hangover last season. Chris Osgood, it was a learning experience for him; it was a struggle for him to find his game until February. I would expect him to be better. We're moving in Jonathan Ericsson. I think we're as deep as we've ever been on defense."

A year from now? Perhaps the old Wings will be back in action in free agency.

"Possibly in July 2010 we can be active on July 1 because we've got some money coming off the cap," Holland said. "But we'll see."