Nicklas Lidstrom does not need an introduction. If anything, people are likely running out of superlatives to describe him with.
Put together on one sheet of paper, everything he’s achieved is nothing short of remarkable. Four Stanley Cups, seven Norris Memorial Trophies, one Conne Smythe award, 12 All-Star Game inductions and one Olympic gold medal place him amongst the legends of the sport.
The Calder Trophy was one of the few awards he failed to claim, but that was because his competition was one of the most electrifying players of all time in Pavel Bure. In a dual between a natural scorer and an unflappable defenseman, the scorer was voted as top rookie. It just goes to show you, even a performer with the pedigree of Lidstrom can’t win them all.
Steve Yzerman’s introduction signaled the start of something special in Detroit and Lidstrom is a huge factor in its continuity. Two decades have flown by since the veteran was first positioned into the line-up, during which the Red Wings are yet to come up short of reaching the postseason. Few matters are automatic in this day and age, like someone being fairly suspended by Brendan Shanahan for intolerable violations. One thing you can count on though is that Lidstrom’s name is synonymous with success.
Much has been made and written of Nashville’s stunning five-game closure over the Red Wings, as it presents a changing of the guard. As powerful and well-structured as the Predators are, who would’ve imagined that they would be the first club to secure progression in the playoffs? Postseason mettle is something Detroit embodies and even in defeat, they will force their opponents to expand energy. San Jose thought their series was wrapped up heading into Game Four last year, only to have Detroit push back, force a deciding seventh contest and see the Sharks move on by one goal.
That fight, uncharacteristically, was missing in the match-up with Nashville. While they did outshoot the Predators 160-116 when it was all said and done, Pekka Rinne stood strong in goal. Jimmy Howard could be held culpable for his suspect netminding, but the other players didn’t escape with much credit either.
It turned out to be Detroit’s most abrupt playoff defeat since they were swept by the Anaheim (Mighty) Ducks in 2003.
A large question is beckoning now and that is attributed to Lidstrom’s future. Has he played his final National Hockey League game or will he place his signature on the dotted line of another one-year contact, which will be worth roughly $6 million?
This year didn’t have the makings of a traditional one for Lidstrom, as he exhibited some signs of being human. The 12 games he missed, 11 with an ankle problem and one due to the flu, formed the Swede’s longest unavailability in his career. And his offensive acumen dipped drastically and one would have to go all the way back to the shortened 1994-1995 campaign to find him with less points.
According to Lidstrom, it’ll be a few weeks before his decision is confirmed and despite some of his struggles in 2012, he will see incentives to return. A player as classy as the soon-to-be 42-year-old will want to retire on a high note and he’ll have a point to prove next season.
In 2013, the Winter Classic will be held at Michigan Stadium, pitting together two Original Six clubs in Detroit and the Toronto Maple Leafs. With the largest stadium in North America and the prospect of more than 100,000 fans in attendance, not to mention the hatred between the organizations, Lidstrom will see it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The last reason behind a possible re-signing is that Lidstrom hasn’t lost what brought him to where he is–the brains to thwart forwards, the leadership, the calm head that never panics and the shot that always seems to infuriate blockers. One mediocre campaign hardly suggests that retirement is looming and as head coach Mike Babcock said, “He’s too good to quit.”
But even if Lidstrom chooses to retire, the Detroit Red Wings don’t necessarily have to fret too badly. Replacing him is impossible, but there is a player in place who is prepared and suited for leading the defensive charges.
Niklas Kronwall, so often the subject of scrutiny or praise for his famous hits, has it in him to be the No.1 rearguard for Detroit. Years of cleanly checking others with awesome force have shaped him into a physical presence that puts fear into forwards. For proof, speak to any of his victims because the list is as long as his left arm.
There is more to the 31-year-old’s game than his penchant for dazing opponents though.
Skating with deceptive speed, Kronwall is consistently in the right position to prevent a goal-scoring chance and really, his great movement explains half of the reason why he’s able to crush opponents. Seeing time on the penalty kill and powerplay, Babcock knows he can handle the extended responsibilities, but Kronwall’s an exceeding weapon on the latter of the two. Packing a hard shot and linking up with teammates dexterously, there is no concern about his usage on the man-advantage (rightfully so).
When Babcock devised his defensive partnerships, he matched Lidstrom with Ian White–for even strength shifts and on the powerplay–while Kronwall often worked with Brad Stuart. For all intents and purposes, the coach wanted to spread out the talent, not being swayed by the image of loading up his two strongest defensemen on one pairing. This is a testament to Babcock’s methods and his dependability on Kronwall.
Forced to play mainly on the second powerplay, Kronwall’s 15 goals and 36 points are a handsome return. He averaged 2:41 in these events, which was bettered by 48 rearguards around the league, and still cracked the top 30 point producers among defenders. More chances, primarily on the powerplay, should elevate him back to the 51-points he piled up only three years ago.
Allowing his ankle to heal, Lidstrom watched his club perform without him for 11 games. During that span, Kronwall exploded with nine points and wasn’t fazed by the circumstances, but Detroit went on a 3-6-2 downward spiral.
Maybe it was a combined collapse. Maybe it was proof of Lidstrom’s indispensable figure. Either way, Kronwall shouldn’t be expected to do what Lidstrom does because he brings his own qualities to the table and they’ll propel him far.
Nicklas Lidstrom’s last day in Detroit, if it’s his wish to finish a brilliant career this summer, will create a gap in quality on the Red Wings’ blue line.
Were it not for Niklas Kronwall, the prospect of that retirement would produce an even wider gap.