Top Shelf: Red Wings prepare for life without Lidstrom
Philadelphia, PA – With the lockout-shortened season only days away from beginning, there's hardly a shortage of storylines to consider.
Few of them, however, are as intriguing as the changes the Detroit Red Wings are faced with now that one of the greatest players of his generation has called it a career.
That player, of course, is Nicklas Lidstrom, a four-time Stanley Cup champion who is considered by many to be the greatest European player in the history of the NHL.
Despite being 42 years old, there is little doubt Lidstrom at least could've helped the Red Wings this season and more than likely he'd still be capable of logging serious minutes.
Yet, it's hard to argue with the timing of Lidstrom's decision. It's true he won the last of his seven Norris trophies as recently as 2010-11, but last season it was easy to see the end was near.
After posting 62 points in 82 games to win the top defenseman award two years ago, the Swedish star dropped to 34 points in 70 games in 2011-12. It marked the fewest games played by Lidstrom in a non-lockout season, and there's a good chance that factored into his decision to hang up the skates last spring.
Now, with Lidstrom settling into his post-playing life as a scout for the Red Wings, the club is faced with a level of uncertainty it hasn't faced since before Steve Yzerman entered the league in 1983-84. Detroit missed the postseason for five straight years before Yzerman's rookie season, but have qualified for 26 playoffs in 28 seasons since "Stevie Y" broke into the league.
The Red Wings didn't skip a beat when Yzerman called it quits following the 2005-06 season and that was due in large part to Lidstrom, who took over as captain and helped the club make a seamless transition from one legend to another.
The current group of Red Wings need a more concerted effort to get over Lidstrom's loss, but there is one player who'll be feeling the pressure on a more personal level and that's Henrik Zetterberg.
Word has leaked that Zetterberg will inherit the "C" from Lidstrom and the Red Wings are expected to make that news official this week. Not only is Zetterberg taking over for a local hero, he's also a countryman of Lidstrom and has a bit of national pride on the line in trying to replace a legend.
Of course, it's unfair to suggest Zetterberg could fill in perfectly for a future Hall of Famer, but certain things, like making the playoffs, has become expected in the Motor City. With a stretch of 21 straight postseason appearances on the line this season, Lidstrom or no Lidstrom, failing to qualify for the playoffs would be a bad way for Zetterberg's captaincy to begin.
It's not only Zetterberg who has added pressure without Lidstrom around. Fellow forward Pavel Datsyuk also will need to take on an increased leadership role in the absence of the man who has only half-jokingly been dubbed "The Perfect Human."
There's also the case of defenseman Niklas Kronwall, who has vaulted to the top of Detroit's defensive rotation in recent years. The year before Lidstrom retired, another standout Detroit defenseman -- Brian Rafalski -- also announced his retirement. A third Detroit blueliner Brad Stuart also departed this past offseason for free agency, meaning the once-vaunted Detroit defense is in a serious state of flux.
In light of all that movement, Kronwall needs to show he can be a No. 1 defenseman for Detroit even if reaching the lofty precedent set by Lidstrom is an impossibility.
The good news for Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Kronwall is the team has one of the league's top coaches in Mike Babcock and, hopefully, his presence can bring a measure of stability to Detroit in the post-Lidstrom era. Even though Babcock has a championship in three trips to the Stanley Cup Finals on his head coaching resume, that will be a tall order in what promises to be a sprint of a season.
Obviously, Lidstrom's retirement was inevitable, but even an organization that drafts as well as the Red Wings could never properly prepare to replace a player of his stature.
It's been a long time since the Red Wings have pondered mediocrity, but with Lidstrom gone, they may have to become reacquainted with the idea.