There are hard games to play and there are hard games to play. You could try your hand at a game of Where’s Waldo while blindfolded, or maybe Sudoku against a bank of supercomputers is your thing. However, the hardest game in the world has come to an end. And that contest – “Try and Find a Flaw in Nicklas Lidstrom’s Game” – has finished with only one winner: the Swedish defenseman and his Detroit Red Wings organization.
Lidstrom is retiring after 20 glorious NHL seasons with not a damn thing left to prove to anybody. He has four Stanley Cup championships, seven Norris Trophies, one Conn Smythe Trophy and an Olympic gold medal to show for it. And the way he handled the success and spotlight so smoothly made it seem as if he’d been carved from a block of solid class.
In 2010, a panel of experts convened for THN’s Best of Everything special edition magazine ranked Lidstrom the fifth-best defenseman in hockey history behind Bobby Orr, Doug Harvey, Eddie Shore and Ray Bourque. But for my money, Lidstrom is the second-best of all-time, behind Orr only because the Bruins legend revolutionized the blueliner position in a way no player has done at any other spot on the ice.
With that said, it’s clear to me Lidstrom more or less perfected the role. I could spend the rest of this column simply listing all his achievements, but let’s just zero in on a few:
– As Canadian Press reporter Chris Johnston noted, the super Swede finished his career with a staggering plus-450 mark; the next-best NHLer in that regard in the past two decades is Jaromir Jagr (plus-280).
– For 14 of his final 16 seasons, Lidstrom posted at least 49 points, including a 62-point season in 2010-11 when he was 40 years old.
– Prior to the 2011-12 campaign (where he still managed to play 70 games), Lidstrom had never missed more than six games in a single year and played at least 78 games in all but two of his 20 seasons (one of which was the lockout-shortened 1994-95 campaign).
– He made the playoffs every season in which he played – tying with Canadiens Hall of Famer Larry Robinson as the greatest ever in that regard – and his 263 career playoff games are second only in NHL history to former Wings teammate Chris Chelios (266 playoff GP), who played until he was 48.
– Lidstrom recorded his first hat trick at age 40 and won his final Norris at age 41.
Again, that’s just a sampling of the incredible legacy Lidstrom leaves. What isn’t apparent in the numbers, though, is how graceful he was on the ice – despite being the focal point of aggressive forwards and opposition coaches who studied his every breath like the Shroud of Turin in hopes of finding his weakness – and how his ego (if indeed he does have one; we’re still not sure) never inflated with so much as a quarter-ounce of hot air.
Lidstrom was the ultimate low-maintenance, high-performance superstar. Not even blindly devotional fans of other teams could accuse him of whining to the officials or underhanded play. In fact, when you look at his penalty numbers over the years – including a two-year span from 1999-2001 when he had a combined 36 penalty minutes (and 144 points) in 163 games – you see a calm and focused superstar in complete control every time he jumped over the boards.
That’s a large part of why Lidstrom is my pick as the greatest post-Orr defenseman. Sure, he played for an incredibly successful franchise that surrounded him with Hall of Fame talent, but it was the cool-blooded efficiency he displayed as a constant target and in the face of incredible pressure that made him the best at what he did. He set the tone for the entire organization and is irreplaceable in the Red Wings’ lineup.
Moreover, he was a pioneer of sorts – the first European player to captain a team to a Cup championship and the first European player to win the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP – but never once bristled or buckled because of the demands placed on his time.
There was a reason every NHL coach of the past two decades would have chosen Lidstrom as the defenseman he wanted on the ice in the last minute of a game with everything on the line: every time he was out there, you only had to worry about four other skaters.
We won’t have Lidstrom to not worry about anymore – and the hockey world is far poorer for it. He is a first-ballot, no-brainer lock for the Hall of Fame, the best European player who ever set foot in the NHL and a living billboard for the greatness that Sweden and Swedish hockey has added to the sport.
Lidstrom was a legend before he retired. Now, it’s up to the rest of us to accurately grow that legend and ensure future generations understand just how astonishing he was in the craft he chose.
There is no such thing as a perfect hockey player. But nobody ever came closer to being one than Nicklas Lidstrom. We’ll miss him terribly, but the game will miss him most of all.
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