Whew. That’s a lucky bounce. Nick Lidstrom is coming back for one more season, and Red Wings fans can exhale knowing 19 seasons of the best defenseman in hockey will now be 20.
But don’t count on this again. I think it was the last bullet dodged. Had Brian Rafalski not retired, had Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg not been in their prime, had the Red Wings somehow won this year’s Stanley Cup – instead of being bounced in the playoffs’ second round – I think Lidstrom would have hung it up.
Next year, we won’t be so lucky.
So the Wings had better make this season count. They had better get the pieces and the passion and go get the prize. Because while Lidstrom is a once-a-decade player, he’s in his third decade.
“I want to make sure I’m still motivated,” Lidstrom, 41, said Monday in a conference call. “That’s why I’m taking it year by year. At my age, I have to be motivated to play.”
What does that mean – motivated to play? It means you no longer finish one season and immediately say, “See you guys in the fall.” It means you no longer pencil in September through May as months the wife and kids will have to deal with you being gone.
It means training camp begins, and a voice inside you says, “Do I really want to do this again?”
And you’re not sure how to answer.
Timing not right to leave now
Lidstrom has been going through this soul-searching for at least the last few summers. Wings fans thought they lost him last year and were worried the two years before. This year, he didn’t want to leave a good Wings team high and dry on defense. And he was coming off a great year.
But one of these summers, he will say actually good-bye, and it will be like losing the fence around your property or the carpet over your bare floors.
It is hard to explain how good Nick Lidstrom is, and that is part of why Nick Lidstrom is so good. He doesn’t play defenseman like a jackhammer or a hammerhead. He doesn’t wallop or wail. His stick is as deft as a painter’s brushstroke – and equally precise. His footwork and balance grant him the position to make hard plays look easy and easy plays look expected.
There is no measuring how many opposing goals didn’t happen because Lidstrom was out there. And there’ll be no telling how many more won’t happen this season.
But there’s a reason Lidstrom’s middle name could be “Norris Trophy.” You don’t just replace a guy like that.
“It would have been devastating,” Wings general manager Ken Holland admitted, had Lidstrom retired on the heels of Rafalski. “You’re talking two of the elite.”
All the salary-cap space in the world won’t buy you back what you’d lose.
And we haven’t mentioned the locker room.
Captain able to do more than contribute
Lidstrom is the Red Wings’ captain, the man who inherited Steve Yzerman’s stripes. I must say, when he first took over, I wondered if he was too passive, too humble, too quiet for the role.
But two years after donning the “C,” Lidstrom led the Wings to the 2008 Stanley Cup in a six-game battle with Pittsburgh. The following year, it was a seven-game Cup final, that one ending in defeat.
Lidstrom clearly has the respect of the locker room, while allowing stars like Datsyuk and Zetterberg to have their due influence. No one’s ever been jealous of Nick. How many players can you say that about?
So the Wings are lucky on a lot of levels today. But Lidstrom admitted he is not Chris Chelios, he doesn’t want to go on forever, doesn’t want to play “15 or 20 minutes a night.” He wants to be productive, top notch and have fun – and for him, having fun is being productive and top notch. He wants to stay at the crest of the wave.
He has done it longer than most, but no one does it forever. So enjoy the news. Enjoy the year. But if I’m the Wings, I’m prepping my best replacement right now. Or next summer could well be a bummer.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. His new play, “Ernie,” runs through July at City Theatre in downtown Detroit. It was inspired by the story of legendary Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell. For information, go to ernietheplay.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).