The Detroit Red Wings jumped right into the mix Sunday, the first day NHL free agents could sign contracts.
While they made offers to both Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Suter and New Jersey Devils forward Zach Parise, they had plenty of company in that department.
“I’m told they’re not making any decisions today, so we’ll see what tomorrow brings,” Wings general manager Ken Holland said Sunday.
That didn’t mean the Wings were done for the day.
In their first move, they signed goaltender Jonas Gustavsson to a two-year deal.
Jimmy Howard is the starting netminder, and Joey MacDonald filled in nicely last season when Howard was injured and Ty Conklin faltered. But MacDonald went down with a back injury late in the season and, although he is expected to be ready to play, the Wings had to protect themselves in case he was not.
“He’s 6-foot-4 and we’ve had good success with good-sized goalies,” Holland said of the 27-year-old Gustavsson. “Jimmy Howard is a big guy. We’re hoping Gustavsson can take his career to another level here. We’re hoping that Jimmy pushes Gustavsson and Gustavsson pushes Jimmy and we’ll have a good one-two punch.”
Gustavsson, speaking via conference call with Detroit reporters, said he was glad to land in Detroit after spending the past three seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I heard Detroit wanted me; I was happy about that,” Gustavsson said. “It’s a great team with a lot of history, and they always have a good roster.”
For his career, Gustavsson is 39-45 with a 2.98 goals-against average and .900 save percentage. This past season, the 27-year-old was 17-17 with a 2.92 goals-against average, .902 save percentage and four shutouts.
With Howard, who made the All-Star team for the first time last season, already established as Detroit’s top goaltender, Gustavsson is aware he will be the backup.
“I’m here to help the team, and it doesn’t matter how that is,” Gustavsson said. “If that’s being the backup goalie that pushes the other goalie and helps push my teammates, then that’s the role I’m going to take.
“For me, it’s all about trying to become a better goalie every day and maybe one day I’ll be the guy that plays all the games.”
The goaltender, nicknamed The Monster, has had health scares because of a heart condition. Gustavsson has had three minor heart ablation surgeries, the most recent in February 2011, but said he is completely healthy.
“Last year, I felt great,” Gustavsson said. “I didn’t feel anything with my heart problems, like I had before. Overall, the only small minor issue that I had was that game that I missed I took a shot on my knee. My health I would say is 100 percent.”
Gustavsson said he doesn’t even think about the heart issues anymore.
“Of course, when it comes to heart issues you don’t want to deal with that, but from what I’ve been told it’s nothing that’s going to affect me or nothing that’s real serious so it’s a relief for me and I can put it behind me and move on,” he said.
Although the native of Danderyd, Sweden, knows the Red Wings are known for their large Swedish contingent, that was not the main reason he signed with them.
“I’ve played with all of them I think except (Tomas) Holmstrom in the World Championships, the Olympics and so on,” Gustavsson said. “When you know someone there on a new team that helps, but in the end the biggest reason for me coming to Detroit I feel that was the right move for me to keep my development going in the right direction and that’s the most important thing for me.”
OLD FRIEND AND A FORMER ENEMY
The Wings also signed two forwards who will be familiar to fans for different reasons.
The first, Mikael Samuelsson, rejoins the Wings after spending two-plus seasons with the Vancouver Canucks and almost a full season with the Florida Panthers. Samuelsson, 35, played in Detroit from 2005-09 and was a member of the 2008 Stanley Cup championship team.
Samuelsson’s contract is for two years and $6 million and has a full no-trade clause, according to TSN’s Bob McKenzie.
“We know him. We like him,” Holland said. “He can skate. He’s got some range. He can play the right point on the power play. He’s got a shot. We’ve had him and he played well for us.”
Samuelsson was limited to 54 games last season because of injury. He had 14 goals and 17 assists.
The former enemy is forward Jordin Tootoo, who signed with the Wings for three years at $1.9 million per season, according to TSN’s Darren Dreger.
“It’s definitely a great honor to be able to have that opportunity to put on a Red Wings jersey, Original Six team,” Tootoo said in a conference call. “There’s a lot of history with the Red Wings. I obviously played against them the last nine years. It’s always been a great rivalry. I know a lot about the team. It was a great fit for me.”
Tootoo had spent his entire career with the Nashville Predators after they selected him in the fourth round of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft.
“We wanted to get some physical play into our game,” Holland said. “We think he’ll provide an element of an edge to our team on the bottom six. We played against Nashville, we know him, he’s physical, he gets under your skin of our players. It’s an ingredient we’ve always talked about.”
The 29-year-old right wing is known to be somewhat of a “disturber” to opponents, but Tootoo expects to bring more to the table.
“Obviously, I’ve really grown as a player over the last couple of years,” Tootoo said. “My foundation is being a physical presence, but at the same time I know I can contribute offensively. I’ve proven that over the last couple of years, but at the same time I still have a lot to work on.”
In 486 games with the Predators, Tootoo has 46 goals and 79 assists to go along with 725 penalty minutes. Last season, he had six goals, 24 assists and 92 penalty minutes in 77 games.
Tootoo said several other teams were interested, but a phone call from Holland sealed the deal.
“It was a pretty spontaneous decision,” Tootoo said. “A few teams were interested and Mr. Holland made a quick phone call. I thought this was the best opportunity for me to win a Stanley Cup. Ultimately, that’s my goal and I feel the Red Wings are right there.”
The Red Wings also signed Damien Brunner of Switzerland to a one-year, two-way contract. The deal allows the Wings to send the forward to the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins if he doesn’t earn a spot on the team’s roster.
“We’re real happy with the young kid Damien Brunner, who Mike Babcock and I saw at the World Championships,” Holland said. “He led the Swiss league in scoring. He’s got speed; now we’ll see how he adjusts from the big rink to a small rink and with more physical play. But we certainly like his speed.”
Brunner, 26, was the Forward of the Year in Switzerland’s National League A after leading the league in scoring with 24 goals and 36 assists in 45 games.
He has played for EV Zug the last four seasons, recording 190 points in 167 games (78 goals, 112 assists).
He has also played for Team Switzerland in two of the past three IIHF World Championships, recording four goals and eight assists in 14 games.
The four signings wound down the first day for the Wings in their free-agent pursuits. What happens next also will determine what current Wings might not return.
“We’re going to talk to (Tomas Holmstrom) in a couple of weeks,” Holland said. “Obviously, we’re probably not going to do anything more until we know what’s going on with those two big guys. We’re sort of sitting on a cap situation where if they want to come to us we can’t keep adding. In order to have a possibility of being involved in deals for Suter or Parise, if we lose some people we lose some people.”