No matter how much you think you're ready for something, once it happens it's always a shock.
After 20 NHL seasons, every single one of them in a Red Wing uniform, Nicklas Lidstrom decided that he could no longer play at the level he was accustomed to, and he retired as the greatest defenseman to ever don the Winged Wheel.
The list of accolades is insane: 1,000 points, 7 Norris Trophies, 4 Stanley Cups, 1 Conn Smythe. But none of those numbers truly capture what Lidstrom meant to the Wings.
After the jump, we'll look back at the man, the myth, the legend that was Nicklas Lidstrom.
Nicklas Lidstrom is not merely the best defenseman I have ever seen play for the Red Wings; he is the best defenseman I have ever seen play, and no one is a close second. He's The Perfect Human, a nickname that is as deserved as any in hockey.
Lidstrom was yet another pickup in the 1989 draft, and to illustrate how great that draft was for the Wings, consider that 2 are guaranteed Hall of Famers (Fedorov), and Konstantinov was headed there before his accident. What's scary for me is that every single team in the NHL had a shot at Lidstrom before the Wings got him; in fact, every single team passed on him twice. It's a fair bet that had scouts back then known how good Lidstrom was, he would not have lasted to the 53rd pick.
Lidstrom broke into the NHL in 1991-92 and was an immediate success, scoring 60 points as a defenseman while playing important minutes. He finished second in the Calder voting to some guy named Pavel Bure that year (yet another example of a Red Wing finishing 2nd in voting but going on to have a better career than the guy who won; bodes well for Jimmy Howard if you ask me). Over the early part of his career, Lidstrom could be counted on for 10-20 goals and 40-50 points. However, given that the Wings had Paul Coffey for 4 of those years, Lidstrom was not counted on to be the primary offensive threat on the blue line. This allowed him to do what he has done for his entire career: develop into the complete defenseman he is today.
I would talk more about his career, but we've all seen what he has done and how he has mattered to the team. Lidstrom's career has been marked by absolute consistency more than anything else. In a full 82 game season, his lowest point total was 34, this year when he missed 11 games due to a very bad bone bruise, and his highest is 80; he has scored between 7 and 20 goals; he has never had more than 50 PIM in any single season. I wish I could talk about him being flashy or bring up those "make you hold your breath" moments, but those are so few and far between with him. The only thing I can really say is that he does it all, and he does it better than anyone else, and did so for his entire career. He's the type of defenseman that you wanted out on the ice in all situations: down a goal late in the game trying to tie it up; up a goal late in the game trying to preserve a victory; on the power play or killing a penalty; against the other team's top line or against a specific player. And the best part about it is that as long as he is on the ice, we felt a sense of comfort and relief knowing that he would not make a mistake that would hurt the team. He may not have always made the best play, and he was occasionally beaten to the outside, but those instances were so few and far between that I would be more shocked than angry that he might have caused a goal against.
What says a lot about Lidstrom is that as far back as his 3rd and 4th seasons, Lidstrom was the anchor of the defense. On a team that was as star-studded and full of experience as the Wings were, for a young defenseman to come in and take control of the defense through his play and not due to his reputation or his outspokenness was impressive. And his play was the same throughout his career; steady. The only other word or phrase that I can think of that would describe him would be "rock solid". He maintained this level of play due to his style of play; he was never the biggest nor the toughest defenseman in the league, but there was never anyone smarter than he is. He was never the type to throw his body around or try and make a big hit; but I imagine there is absolutely very little chance anyone was going to cause him to be out of position. His on-ice intelligence was what separated him from the rest of the defensemen in the NHL and allowed him to stay as good as he was at an age when many defensemen start to break down.
There are so many stats that illustrate his greatness: the 1000 points scored in a time of the NHL's history where defensive schemes were more complex and effective (the trap); most games played by any player born in Europe; most games played by a defenseman with only 1 team; first European-born defenseman to score 1000 points; to say that he was a trailblazer for European-born players would be an understatement. Lidstrom spent almost his entire career being matched up against his opponent's best players, and despite the state of disrepute that plus/minus has fallen into, he was a minus player exactly once in his career. It's this stat that in my opinion shows just how good Lidstrom really is, especially when you consider the many great players that he has been facing.
The other remarkable stat about Lidstrom was his durability: in an age where bigger, stronger players and relaxed rules made defenseman more targeted, he never missed more than 6 games in a regular season up until this season, and 1 was due to a ridiculous suspension for not attending the pre-All-Star Game festivities in 2009. There's no question in my mind that the foot injury this season really made him think about his hockey mortality, and the inability to recover quickly no doubt factored into his decision.
His stature as a great defenseman wasn't limited to his on-ice play. The man embodied class off the ice, and never did you hear a negative thing about something he said or did. Opponents were quick to heap praise on him for the way he conducted himself as a person, the greatest compliment you can give a player.
Even noting his steady play, there were some impressive moments in his career. One of the goals that I will always remember is the one he scored on Ron Hextall in Game 4 in 1997; a harmless looking shot that gave the Wings the lead and really settled them down in that game. The other goal that I remember is the long shot on Dan Cloutier in Game 3 in 2002 against Vancouver; pure luck or planned shot? I'm going to say it was planned, just because he is that awesome. But like I said earlier, those moments are few and far between.
What I remember most about him is his lifting of the Conn Smythe in 2002, the first time a European-born player had done that; any one of his six Norris Trophies; being presented with the "C" after Stevie retired. But the image that I have in my head whenever I think of Lidstrom is the one from 2008 when he was lifting that beautiful silver trophy over his head. For me, it was so amazing to see that because it cemented his status as the greatest defenseman of his time, and maybe ever (I'm not going to get in to that debate, because it's just too much). More importantly, from a Wing perspective, it showed how much of a leader he was in that he was able to get the Wings to a Cup when all of the mainstays from the previous winners had left. After Yzerman retired and Shanahan left as a free agent, Lidstrom remained on the team as both a link to the glory days and the leader of the future. When the Wings won the Cup that year, it showed me that regardless of who is on the team, the Wings will always do what they can to contend; I've seen other franchises fall into mediocrity after a player of Yzerman's talent and importance retires or moves on. In a sense, I feel that Lidstrom retiring will be harder on the franchise than Yzerman was, although I can't pinpoint why that is.
And that's where we stand now. It's starting to feel like 2006 all over again, but the defense-equivalent of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are not walking through the dressing room door. This loss, combined with the expected retirement of Tomas Holmstrom, means that there are no longer any connections to the 1997/98 Wings. It's a sad day for all of us, and a scary time because of the uncertainty surrounding the Wings' future. There's no question a Red Wing team without Lidstrom is not as good as one with him. What remains to be seen is what the drop-off looks like. Is it the 7-2 pasting at the hands of the Canadiens right before the All-Star Game? (No). Is it the team that was strong down the stretch as they fought for playoff positioning? (Closer). Ultimately I think that unless the Wings can find a defenseman to step in as the anchor, someone I don't believe exists on the roster at the moment, the Wings are going to have to either score a lot more goals or develop a more cohesive defensive system that emphasizes a total commitment to preventing chances.
There's a lot to think about in the coming days. What will the Wings do in response to this move? Does this mean they court Ryan Suter the way I courted my wife (desperately and by buying many flashy things)? Who will be the next captain of the Wings?
I don't want to talk too much about that right now. I just want to celebrate the career of the greatest defenseman one of the greatest people I ever had the privilege to watch. Nick, it was an honour to witness your career, and I hope that retirement serves you well. We'll see you back in October for the jersey retirement.
Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go to Target. I seem to have run out of tissues, and it's gotten awfully dusty in here.
[Edit: You can watch the presser here]