Over the past several seasons, when the number of games left on the calendar start to dwindle, the hockey faithful of Detroit tend to start wondering about Nicklas Lidstrom. He will be 42 years old before this season ends and his retirement has weighed heavily on the minds of fans and the organization for several years.
He is easily the greatest defensemen of his generation and is on the very short list for the greatest-of-all-time discussion.
His credentials are beyond impressive.
—Stanley Cup Winner, four times
—Norris Trophy Winner, seven times
—Conn Smythe Trophy
—All-Star, 12 times (He would have made it this season as well but asked to be written off the roster.)
—Olympic Gold Medal and World Championship, which makes him one of only 25 members of the Triple Gold Club (World, Olympic and Stanley Cup Champ)
He is still playing at an amazing level. He won his seventh Norris Trophy last season and will likely be a finalist again this year. He still plays over 23 minutes a game and is third in the league in plus-minus. On the offensive side, he is tied for third in the league in goals by a defender and is in the top ten in points.
There is no slowing down this ageless wonder. Still, if not next season then sometime soon, the Red Wings will be forced to replace Lidstrom when he retires. There won't be one player that replaces him. But it is inevitable that the Red Wings need to prepare for life without Nick.
Lidstrom will not be the first great player to retire.
While some teams do fall apart when such greatness retires, the Red Wings have been through one recently and know what to do. When Steve Yzerman retired, many worried where the leadership would come from and how the team would respond without their captain of twenty seasons. Two years later, they won the Stanley Cup under Lidstrom.
Several of the players who were younger when Yzerman retired will also be there when Lidstrom retires. Now they are veterans and in leadership roles. They will understand the enormity of the position that needs to be filled but also will not let the weight of it crush the team.
Although the nickname is not used as much as it once was, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk will share the load once Lidstrom retires.
It is pretty amazing when looking back when these two were drafted, 171 for Datsyuk and 210 for Zetterberg, to see where they are now. They are two of the better players in the league. Zetterberg has won a Conn Smythe while Datsyuk has three Selke awards and is in the running for a Hart Trophy this year.
They went from a couple of players that many scouts in the league undervalued to what will be the new leaders of the team once Lidstrom retires. They both are alternate captains now and one of them will be given the Captain title.
Regardless of which one gets the title, they have learned from Lidstrom and Yzerman how to lead a team both on and off the ice. As both of them have matured and gotten better, the team has given them more responsibility and role in team leadership in preparation for the day when one of them would become the captain.
Niklas Kronwall has been prepped to be the next great Detroit defensemen. He made great strides last year, and once the playoffs started he led the team in minutes showing what faith the Red Wings have in him.
This season, Kronwall was named as one of the alternate captains on the team. This is just one more move into what will be Kronwall' accession to being the leader of the defensive unit.
He has already matched his career-high in goals this year and is proving to be a real asset on the power play. His next goal should be to soak in every bit on knowledge he can from Lidstrom for as long as the two will play together.
Brandon Smith has long been dubbed the next great thing. Ideally the team is able to give him a true shot at some point this season. With neither Mike Commodore nor Jakub Kindl truly taking control of the sixth defender role, then Smith might be an option.
The benefits go beyond just getting playing time and experience at the NHL level. Being mentored by Lidstrom would be invaluable. If he truly can be as great as many scouts believe he can be then the sooner he can get here the better.
No one player will replace Lidstrom. Often when great players near their retirement, their game has lost a step. As great as Yzerman was, he was not anywhere near his best in his last season.
Lidstrom, though, is still a dominant force on the ice. Losing an active and integral part of the team will be a big blow. While the hope is that players like Kronwall and Smith will be able to fill the void, they will still need more help.
Brad Stuart will be a free agent this year. It is hard to imagine the team not trying to re-sign him. While Stuart does like Detroit, his family is still in California, and San Jose is interested in signing him.
The team does have cap space available so it would not be a surprise if they went after one of the more high-profile defensive players on the trade rumor circuit. If they decide to wait, then they will be looking at the free agent market.
While the dream is that Lidstrom will keep on playing, we all know that is not going to happen. Enjoy every game he plays in as greatness like that does not come along very often.