Rounding out the preview of the Detroit defensive pairings, today we take a look at the top two in Motown. Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski have been a solid pairing since Rafalski joined the Red Wings for the 2007-2008 season, shutting down the opposing team's top lines on a nightly basis. The pair works excellently together in both the offensive and defensive ends of the ice and have solidified themselves as one of the top units in the NHL.
Last season, Lidstrom and Rafalski were called on heavily to bolster the defense as Niklas Kronwall went down with a knee injury and Andreas Lilja was still out with post-concussion issues, both playing 24+ minutes a game to ease some of the pressure on guys like Brett Lebda and Jonathan Ericsson as the third line pairing. The duo was effective in the regular season but the scrapping for the playoffs paired with the Olympics took its toll on them as the season closed down and the playoffs started.
How will the Red Wings' top pair fair in the 2010-2011 season? Follow us after the jump to discuss.
Nick Lidstrom is returning for his 19th season in the NHL, all of them with the team that drafted him in 1989. The Swedish-born defenseman has won 6 Norris Trophy Awards, 4 Stanley Cups, an Olympic Gold Medal and a Conn Smythe Award during his playing career and has been dubbed by nearly every analyst or writer as the best defenseman of the modern era, if not of all time. Lidstrom has had numerous defensive partners over the years but his play has stayed consistently good over that time. He's deservedly garnered every accolade you can think of and you've read/heard them all before so I can probably stop here.
Strengths: Lidstrom is the most complete defender in the league, even at age 40. He has an impeccable knowledge of the game and reads plays very well. He's great at pressuring the puck carrier and forcing turnovers or early shots/passes. Lidstrom distributes the puck very, very well and often sets up scoring chances with excellent outlet passes to forwards rushing the other way. He's smart with making those decisions to pass though and would rather create the safe, possession-conscious decision over a risky pass. On the power play, he uses that great passing skill to set up his teammates and when he gets the puck to take his own shot, I don't know if there's a shot from the point as accurate as the one he possesses. In addition, he's an exceptional leader for the team on and off the ice and great PR image for the team.
Weaknesses: None. Okay, so he has a few but they are very minimal and don't really effect the level of play that he maintains. Lidstrom has lost a bit of his speed on the ice but, as a result, he has adjusted his game to compensate for that either by way of getting back to cover earlier than he used to or by adjusting the angles he takes in pursuit.
Expectations: In 2009-2010, Lidstrom was called on to do a lot of work that he normally wouldn't have had to do due to injuries and it impacted his offensive and defensive game. With what all Red Wings fans hope will be a healthy year, Lidstrom should have a bounce back year and I expect him to be in contention for his 7th Norris Trophy. I think he'll be a big contributor to the offense as he will likely be on the ice a lot with Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and his defensive partner Rafalski.
Rafalski came to the Red Wings after 7 seasons and two Stanley Cups in New Jersey. Rafalski immediately bolstered the Red Wings defensive corps and scored a career high 13 goals during the 2007-2008 season and won his third Stanley Cup during that season. In 2009-2010, Rafalski was again solid and although his production was the lowest since joining the Red Wings, he played very well during the Olympics in Vancouver. At age 36, Rafalski has the potential to be the top defenseman on the Wings when Lidstrom retires...unless he retires first.
Strengths: Rafalski, like Lidstrom, is great at playing the puck in a non-physical way. He's great at stick checking and poking the puck away from puck carriers. He's not physical but can hit if necessary and play along the boards. He's a smart player that knows how to play situations well at both ends of the ice. He's a good passer and shooter in the offensive end and is a huge plus on the power play.
Weaknesses: Again, like Lidstrom, Rafalski doesn't have all that many flaws in his game. He's occasionally out of position or making a bad pass in the offensive or neutral zone but for the most part he's responsible with the puck and with his positioning. He's had some injury problems in the past so that may limit his play but let's hope that doesn't happen.
Expectations: I think Rafalski will pick up from last season on the offensive side of things because I think the team as a whole will pick it up offensively. There's too much talent out there for him not to pick up assists and goals on the powerplay (5 of his 8 came that way). I'm thinking about 11-14 goals out of him while maintaining (and probably) improving +/-.
Tomorrow, J.J. will talk about a trio of players so check back.