For the first time in more than two decades, the Red Wings will begin the hockey season without their cornerstone defenseman, Nicklas Lidstrom. The seven-time Norris Trophy winner and four-time Stanley Cup champion was given captaincy in the 2006-2007 season and only added to his mantra as "The Perfect Human".
So when Red Wings fans faced the announcement they feared for so many years on May 31, a glaring hole opened up in Detroit's defensive group.
Some fans might think that the end of the Red Wings' illustrious era has arrived. And they have every right to believe this after losing what many call the greatest defenseman of his generation to retirement.
Yet, the greatest piece to Detroit's stability last season was the play of the six defensemen that coach Mike Babcock dressed for 82 games.
Lidstrom went into his 20th NHL season with a new defensive partner after losing friend and defensive pairmate Brian Rafalski to retirement. The team countered that blow by signing then-Shark Ian White to a two-year, $5.75 million contract.
White arrived in Hockeytown and flourished from the beginning, leading to a career high in points (32) and shots (196) (via NHL.com). He also proved to Wings fans that he can run the point on the power play and be a viable option on the penalty kill.
Meanwhile, Lidstrom was also serving the role as a teacher and mentor.
When the Red Wings became dissipated with injuries late in the season, the team called up young phenom Brendan Smith to get him crucial NHL game time. In 14 games, Smith scored a goal and had six assists.
He would have played in more games had it not been for his blindside hit to Chicago center Ben Smith's head in the preseason (Smith was suspended eight games). Fans could also see during that time Smith acting as a sponge around Lidstrom, learning the ins and outs of the game from the elite defenseman. He will be expected to burden some of the load left behind by the retirement.
Most of that load, however, may fall on the shoulders of fellow Swede Niklas Kronwall.
Kronwall, who is entering this season with a new seven-year, $33.25 million extension, arguably has the most NHL experience out of the young group. He is coming off of a season where he put up 36 points in 82 games for the Red Wings. He also finished 10th in the league with 177 blocked shots during the 2011-2012 campaign.
Kronwall will take a larger leadership role in the locker room as well. He will most likely be named as an assistant captain this season. And don't be surprised to hear his name thrown around for the vacant captain's post.
The team begins a new chapter in its life come October 12. It is hopeful that Jonathan Ericsson can evolve into a premier defensive specialist in the back end. Kyle Quincey will be turned to for his dynamic two-way game while also providing a jolt of offensive power. And Jakub Kindl is expected to grow more as the season wanes.
Losing a player like Nicklas Lidstrom is insurmountable to a team's success. As fans look at the short-term, however, they should look towards the future growth of this young and promising group of players to propel the Red Wings to their 12th Stanley Cup in franchise history.
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