DETROIT - Should the Detroit Red Wings lose Game 4 and get swept out of the playoffs by the San Jose Sharks Friday night, it will almost certainly signal the end of an era in Hockeytown. It could also spell the end of two Hall of Fame careers, one by choice and the other by having the choice made for him.
Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom wasn’t about to say what lies in the future for him one way or another, but logic would dictate the prospect of retirement would have to be on his mind. On the one hand, he had 62 points and is a Norris Trophy finalist. On the other, Lidstrom has accomplished everything and earned every accolade possible in the game, so what would be gained by him returning to Detroit if it is indeed true that the Red Wings have fallen into the second tier of a very strong Western Conference?
The Wings have made the playoffs 20 straight seasons and finished third in the conference with 104 points, but can they still hang with the likes of the San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks, or has their time passed? Can they appreciably improve their roster? The answers to those questions will likely determine whether or not the greatest defenseman of his generation returns, regardless of whether or not he wins the Norris.
For Mike Modano, the highest scoring American-born player of all-time and another shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, it’s looking more and more like a slow fade to black for his career. Modano came to Detroit this season looking for rejuvenation and instead has experienced injury and frustration, now enduring the humiliation of being a healthy scratch in the playoffs. It’s certainly not the way Modano would want to end his career, but he likely won’t have a choice.
“A knee-jerk reaction is to kind of say, ‘That’s it’ and be done with it because the frustration level is fairly high at this point,” Modano said. “You don’t want to make any quick judgments without thinking it through. I’ll let the dust settle a little and make a decision on it.”
In a perfect world, Detroit would win the Stanley Cup and both Lidstrom and Modano would ride off into the sunset on the highest notes of their careers. But with the Red Wings down 3-0 against the Sharks and having lost Game 3 despite playing their best game of the series, it will require a miracle even bigger than the one the Philadelphia Flyers pulled off last season to advance.
It’s a hugely frustrating way for Modano to go out of the game if that indeed transpires. He’s a proud player, but the reality is he’s a shell of his former self, much the way Jari Kurri was in the last couple of years of his career.
“There were days in November where I was pretty excited about it and thought there would maybe be something beyond this year,” Modano said. “Then March comes and the feeling changed pretty quick. I’ve been saying that I want to leave on a better note for the last three years, but they’ve all turned out the same – frustration, not making the playoffs, obviously being here and not being able to be a part of it. There’s been a little bit of disappointment the last three years.”
Lidstrom and Modano aren’t the only stalwarts who face uncertain futures in Detroit. Both Kris Draper and veteran goaltender Chris Osgood want to come back next season and it will be up to the Red Wings to decide whether or not they want them back as players.
The thinking in Detroit is Draper will likely be extended the same opportunity that Kirk Maltby had this season, meaning he’ll come to camp either on a two-way or tryout contract and have to earn his spot in the lineup. As far as Osgood is concerned, Jimmy Howard has indisputably taken over as the No. 1 goalie and whether the Wings go outside the organization to fill the backup role, they will almost certainly only be willing to pay the league minimum for it.
Defensemen Ruslan Salei and Jonathan Ericsson are also unrestricted free agents. Salei likely won’t return and the Red Wings must certainly be growing weary of living with Ericsson’s many miscues and bad decisions in the defensive zone.
With $46.8 million in cap space already committed for next season, the Red Wings will have just $13 million to fill out their roster. That amount will be cut by almost half if they sign Lidstrom to another one-year deal, so it’s doubtful Detroit will be terribly active in the free agent market this summer.