DETROIT -- The group of reporters and TV cameramen huddled around Nicklas Lidstrom's locker on Saturday had to be thinking the same basic thing: After posing for the team photo at Joe Louis Arena to cap the 2011 season, was the Detroit Red Wings' captain and legendary 41-year old defenseman peeling off his winged wheel uniform for the last time?
The answer will come in the next few weeks -- "before July 1," he said -- after Lidstrom mulls over whether to retire or sign another one-year contract with the only NHL team he's ever played for.
"I'm sure it's going to be the same process as last year, I don't think it'll be that big of a difference," said Lidstrom, who finished the regular season as a finalist to win his seventh Norris Trophy with 16 goals and 62 points before scoring 4 goals and 8 points in two playoff series. "You take everything into account. How you feel. Motivation. Family situation. Take everything into account before you make a decision."
If he takes his teammates' thoughts into account, that's got to be good news for those hoping Lidstrom comes back for another season.
"He'll do what's best for his situation, but he definitely has more hockey in him," forward Henrik Zetterberg said. "You want to give him time to decide that, but we all (want) him to stay. He's such a big part of this team, this organization and this city. You don't want to see him leave."
Fans hate to see stars hang on too long, but based on Lidstrom's performance in both the regular season and playoffs that's not likely to be the case should he play next season. Lidstrom keeps himself in great physical shape, is still smooth on the ice and rarely takes a big hit because of his knowledge of the game and positioning.
He doesn't look or play like he's 41, but that's not all that will factor into his decision. Lidstrom must also weigh how tough it would be to not see his family as much as he'd like for another season.
His oldest son, who's 16, attended a hockey academy in Lidstrom's native Sweden for the first time this past season, and Lidstrom made sure there was a support network of family and friends in place there before deciding to come back for 2010-11.
That's the kind of off-ice situation that makes deciding whether to play one another season so tough -- not necessarily the pain of the Game 7 loss in the Western Conference Semifinals to the San Jose Sharks or how Detroit is positioned for success next season.
"I don't think it'll have a whole lot to do with my decision," he said of the stinging loss to the Sharks in Game 7 on Thursday. "It's more how I feel -- if I feel I can do it again and if I'm motivated to do it. It'll be the same process I went through last year. I'm going to have my sit-down with (GM) Kenny (Holland), as all players do at the end of the year. I'll have a discussion with him and go from there. I'm sure he wants to know before July 1 what my thinking is."
That's the day free agency begins for the 2012 season, and the Red Wings will surely be looking to make some tweaks to the roster on the open market. If Lidstrom opts not to return, that would give the Red Wings about $6 million more under the salary cap for Holland to find a replacement.
There are some who would be very surprised if Lidstrom retired. Detroit coach Mike Babcock is one of them.
"If our team was no good, I don't think Nick would even consider coming back," Babcock said. "But I think having the kind of year he did, the kind of playoffs he did and the kind of playoff our team did, it makes me pretty confident he'll be back."
Veteran center Mike Modano thinks so, too -- or, at least, knows what his own answer would be in that situation.
"If I was Nick I'd come back," said Modano, the highest-scoring U.S.-born player in NHL history, who said he's leaning about 75 percent toward retiring himself. "I'd keep coming back. It's a rare mystique. If he gets the Norris (this year), he has a chance at history the following year catching Bobby Orr, (or) passing him. There's a mystique there. Here, a centerman and forward is a lot of work. Defensemen have a different work load. For him, he's always been heads and shoulders intelligence-wise above the game."
Now, once again, he'll use that keen thinking to decide whether to stay or go.
"I felt I played better than I did last season, and that's something I wanted to do," Lidstrom said. "I wanted to have a stronger year than I did last year. I thought I did that. Me aside, looking at this team, there is great potential here. We have star players; we have the support group that I think are one of the best in the league. I believe this team is going to be strong for years to come. I like the team even without me in the lineup."
Most, however, would like it better with him in it.
The Wings could also see some other changes in the fall. Modano, who missed most of the season with a wrist injury and saw little time in the playoffs, is likely to call it a career. Free agents Kris Draper, 39, and Chris Osgood, 38 and coming off sports hernia surgery that kept him out after Jan. 4, want to play next season for the Red Wings but may not receive contract offers when they meet with Holland. Both indicated they might retire rather than sign with another team.