Nicklas Lidstrom Retirement: Where Did He Rank Today and All Time?

MJ KasprzakSenior Writer IIMay 31, 2012

Nicklas Lidstrom Retirement: Where Did He Rank Today and All Time?

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    It is no wonder that Nicklas Lidstrom announced his retirement today.

    He has been slowing down for the last four years, the four worst of his career (since his first four). This past season saw his lowest point total outside of the 1995 season in which he played in just 43 games, largely due to the strike.

    Fortunately for him and for his Detroit Red Wings, he had a long way to fall.

    From 2000 through 2008, Lidstrom won seven of the eight Norris Trophies that were handed out. During that run, he averaged 80 games per season, was a goal short of 14 per and had 50.5 assists per season while posting a plus-minus of over 20 goals to the positive.

    Because he is not one of the three finalists this year, we now know that his last four years have produced only one Norris Trophy. During this time, he has dropped to an average of just 78 games, 13 goals, 38 assists and a plus-18.

    So Lidstrom went from the clear Norris winner to only a Norris contender. Last season, he dropped to simply one of the world's top 30 defencemen (as evidenced by top-30 rankings in goals, points and minutes per game).

    Thus, it makes sense to compare Lidstrom in the twilight of his career—past the age of 38—against the very best in the world. During Lidstrom's last four seasons, how did he compare to Duncan Keith, Zdeno Chara, Dan Boyle and Shea Weber?

    More importantly, is his full body of work make him the best ever? The last two slides compare him against the only players who controlled the Norris Trophy more in their time, Doug Harvey and Bobby Orr.

Dan Boyle

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    You could say Dan Boyle is the best of the rest.

    Boyle is the only player on the list who has not been a Norris Trophy finalist during the last four seasons. He is the leading NHL scorer on the blue line over that time (213 points to Lidstrom's 204 in two fewer games), but there is a perception that he is a one-way player.

    Boyle's lack of size certainly impacts his reach and hitting force. His offensive skill also leads to him pinching up a lot, especially this last season with his San Jose Sharks' drop in scoring.

    However, he plays that way because the Sharks want and need him to. They ask defencemen to attack in the offensive end when a scoring opportunity can be had, because they have very good defensive forwards who rotate back to cover the hole, and Boyle should not be downgraded for simply doing what he is asked to.

    Moreover, he has the speed to make up ground, and is at the very least able to catch up to the second or third attacker. He is also not afraid to mix it up, is at least willing to hit, is above average with the stick and is a good shot blocker.

    In other words, he has been better than Nicklas Lidstrom on the offensive end, better than people think on defence and was clearly the better player last season.

    But Lidstrom's edge on defence in the three seasons prior was far wider, making him the clear choice for a better player over the last four seasons.

Shea Weber

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    Last summer, Shea Weber signed a $7 million contract for the 2011-12 season. This year he put in a season that makes him the likely Norris Trophy winner, and he looks like a favourite for years to come.

    Weber is a nasty defender with a devastating shot and the ability to move the puck through outlet passes. His hockey IQ allows him to make plays, not mistakes.

    Weber is not new to the elite ranks, either. He was a Norris finalist in 2011, and had 53 points as far back as four years ago. Weber played in 11 more games than Nicklas Lidstrom did over that time, and scored 22 more goals, though giving 33 fewer assists.

    Goals have more impact than assists, and Weber is a grittier defender than Lidstrom; one who is more apt to deliver hits and blocked shots.

    But Lidstrom was the better scorer and defender until at least last season, when one could make a case that his Norris Trophy was awarded partially due to his reputation.

    If a team knew that they could only have either Weber or Lidstrom for the last four years, they could not have gone wrong with either player.

    However, when one considers the benefit of experience and reduced penalty minutes Lidstrom provides, he would still have been the better option.

Duncan Keith

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    Duncan Keith is one of only three defencemen not named Nicklas Lidstrom to win a Norris Trophy since 2000. He is in the prime of his career right now.

    Keith has played in three more games and registered 13 more assists than Lidstrom over the past four seasons, but has 19 fewer goals. But it was Keith's ability to play in his own end as a great defenceman that won him both the Norris and a Stanley Cup in 2010.

    Keith is poised, a great passer, and a good skater; which makes him vital at getting the puck out of his own end. He also can defend, and he uses his stick well. He is also more physical than his size would indicate.

    But Lidstrom is an even better passer with an even better stick. He rarely turns the puck over, and that enables him to make up for the fact that Keith is a better skater.

    There is no doubt that Keith was the better player in 2011-12, but if you wanted the best player over the last four years, he was not even Lidstrom's equal.

Zdeno Chara

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    Zdeno Chara should have beat out Lidstrom for the Norris Trophy in 2011. In 2009 he became one of three players other than Lidstrom to win the award since 2001, and he is a finalist for it again in 2012.

    Chara is the better defenceman over the last four years. He has played in eight more games and scored just 14 fewer points (both have 52 goals). Lidstrom may be a great defender, but even before Lidstrom's decline in production last season, Chara was a better defender.

    Chara's mammoth size makes him an intimidating hitter, and gives him a long reach and long stick for attackers to try to circumvent. He is more likely to get in the way of shots and less likely to be out-muscled for rebounds.

    He also proved he could lead a team to a title, even with the added pressure of the last one coming before the lifetime of almost any player in the league...except Lidstrom, of course. His leadership still does not match Lidstrom'sm and he will spend more time in the box, but the trade-off is worth it.

     

    Thus, even though the last four years of his career extend beyond his 42nd birthday, Lidstrom remained comparable to any other defenceman in the world, and was probably second-best overall.

    But how does his 20-year career stand up against the only two defencemen with more Norris Trophies?

Doug Harvey

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    Doug Harvey played in an era so long ago that this was literally the only picture of him available through Getty Images.

    Harvey lost out to Red Kelly for the very first Norris Trophy in 1954, but won the next four in a row, and matched Nicklas Lidstrom's total of seven in an eight season span. He was already an annual All-Star by 1951, and may have won more trophies in the seasons before the first Norris Trophy was awarded.

    Over his career, Harvey played in 451 fewer games, scored 176 fewer goals and gave 426 fewer assists.

    That would mean he would have needed to play over five more seasons and  average nearly 100 points just to match Lidstrom's point production. Lidstrom also played in 126 more playoff games with 46 more goals and 65 more assists.

    Of course, comparing numbers in eras this far apart is almost useless. It is almost as foolish as comparing Stanley Cups (Harvey had six to Lidstrom's four)—a team accomplishment in the first place—when there were fewer teams competing for them in Harvey's day.

    The best way to compare these players is to look at how they dominated their era, and how long they played at a high level.

    Harvey stood out more than Lidstrom as the best offensive defenceman in his time, and that showed in his higher concentration of Norris Trophies.

    Their careers covered nearly the same number of years and All-Star appearances, and Harvey's production held almost as well as Lidstrom's.

    But in 1998, Harvey (who all players are indebted to, by the way, for helping to unionize a league that paid its best players about three percent of what they make now—even after adjusting for inflation) was ranked the sixth-best player (not just defenceman) of all-time.

    Lidstrom might not even be the sixth-best of the expansion era, so the nod has to go to Harvey.

Bobby Orr

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    Given his bigoted attitude regarding European players, Canadian buffoon Don Cherry must certainly be thankful that the first "Euro" to captain a Stanley Cup champion is retiring. Nicklas Lidstrom was a dinosaur by NHL standards, but he made Cherry look like one by cultural standards for years.

    Still, Lidstrom would be able to say that Bobby Orr is better. Often considered the greatest player the NHL has ever known, Orr was ranked second on the list of all-time players (behind Wayne Gretzky) in 1998.

    Orr won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 1967. Over the next eight years, he won the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenceman every year.

    He did play in an era when scoring was higher compared to most of the time that Lidstrom has played, but defencemen were less involved during Orr's time. Yet over his entire career, Orr scored more points per game than Lidstrom's did at his peak in 2005-06.

    In other words, there is no comparison of how the two dominated their eras. Orr played with a self-sacrificing style, and used his skating to not only produce like never seen before (or since) offensively, but to be a standout defender.

    But that style of play caught up with him. Once Orr's run as Norris winner was over, so was his career. He played just 36 games over his last three seasons, and was out of the league at the age of 30, while Lidstrom had yet to win his first Norris at that age.

    Orr played in 907 fewer games than Lidstrom, and still managed to score six more goals and only 133 fewer assists. He had a plus-minus ranking 147 points higher than Lidstrom's, and his scoring dropped off less in the tougher competition of the playoffs, even though he won only two Stanley Cups.

    If you were going to draft a player, would you rather have the best of all-time around for just nine years, or would you rather have the best of his time for 20?

    I'll take the longevity.