Globe hockey columnist Eric Duhatschek’s weekly NHL Notebook column returns to run on Fridays through the end of the season.
The Detroit Red Wings got a glimpse of what life after Nicklas Lidstrom would look like last March and it wasn’t pretty. Not only was Lidstrom one of the most accomplished defencemen in NHL history during his 20-year Hall-Of-Fame career, but he was also one of its more durable.
That’s why the 12 games Lidstrom missed with a foot problem last year were so unusual. Every Red Wings’ coach – from Scotty Bowman to Mike Babcock – could count on rolling Lidstrom out for 25 to 30 minutes per night every night. Every Red Wings coach got smarter when one of the most efficient defencemen of all time – almost a coach himself on the ice – was at his disposal, to play every other shift.
In a year when forty-somethings from Jaromir Jagr and Teemu Selanne to Martin Brodeur, Daniel Alfredsson and Ray Whitney all decided to play again, Lidstrom chose to take the opposite route. Determining he couldn’t continue at the same high level that saw him win seven Norris Trophies as the NHL’s top defenceman, and earn 10 first-team all-star selections, Lidstrom called it quits in the summer. Forty is the new 35 in the NHL, thanks to conditioning strides that permit most of the NHL’s most talented Methuselahs to continue playing well into their golden years.
It is why, when it became clear the lockout might be ending, the Red Wings made an overture to Lidstrom to see if he’d changed his mind and wanted to sign on for another half-season. Sadly, the answer was no.
So the day the Red Wings knew would eventually come is upon them now – and as good as general manager Ken Holland is at his job of keeping the team competitive year after year, players of Lidstrom’s pedigree just don’t come around every day.
“We’re not going to replace him,” said Holland, “so what do we do? Obviously we used to have a superstar on defence. In his prime, he’d play close to half the game. When you weren’t sure, you threw Nick on the ice.
“Now, I think Nik Kronwall is a really, really good defenceman. There’s no doubt he’s the face of our defence. It’s Nik Kronwall and then it’s a committee.”
The Red Wings have been a model of consistency during Holland’s entire 16-year tenure as GM. He likes to talk about a story, written by a well-known Toronto reporter at the end of the last lockout, predicting the Red Wings’ best days were behind them – and that in the new salary-cap era, where they couldn’t simply outspend the opposition, they would fall back into the pack. Holland said in an interview this week he still keeps that article on his desk as a daily reminder of the fickleness of pro sports and its ‘what-have-you-done-for-me-lately’ nature.
Instead of faltering coming out of the last lockout, the Red Wings were their usual model of consistency. They won a Stanley Cup and were finalists a second time. In the past seven years, they never managed fewer than 102 points, averaged 110 points per season and finished atop the Western Conference three times. Predictions about how the Red Wings might fare in the post-Lidstrom era vary wildly. Some have them in the playoffs and some have them on the sidelines. Recently, Holland saw a forecast that picked them seventh in the conference, but he is like everyone else – completely unsure of how a 48-game season might unfold.
“Seventh could be four points from third,” said Holland. “I looked at last year’s standings. After 48 games, there were six teams within five points of each at the top of the Western Conference. There’s going to be two or three teams that are comfortably in and then it’s going to be a pack.”
At the age of 42 last year, Lidstrom still played 23 minutes and 46 seconds per night for the Wings, and fellow blueliner Brad Stuart chipped in with 21:03. For family reasons, Stuart wanted to be back in California so he signed with the San Jose Sharks in the off-season. The Red Wings made one move – bringing in Carlo Coliacovo, the former Leaf, who was most recently with the St. Louis Blues – but the reality is, the engine that made the Red Wings tick, the glue that held them together, is now gone, off into retirement.