After an unexpectedly busy month of May which saw the Red Wings bid adieu to two assistant coaches and one Brian Rafalski, the largest question looming over Hockeytown has been answered—Nicklas Lidstrom will return for the 2011-12 season.
The reasons why Lidstrom's return is a very good thing for his hockey team are obvious considering what he can (still) do on the ice.
At 41, he still thinks and plays the game better than most competitors half his age.
His offensive instincts are alive and kicking as he still boasts one of the most deflectable shots from the blue line and can set up his teammates with uncanny accuracy.
Defensively, Lidstrom's reputation took a slight hit last season as he finished on the stinky side of the plus/minus column (minus-two) for the first time in his legendary career.
Still, his diminished ice time and the team-wide decline in defensive commitment has as much more to do with that stat than Lidstrom's defensive abilities.
He's still one of the toughest players to beat one-on-one and uses his seemingly omnipresent stick better than anyone in the defensive zone.
Even 20 years into his career, the Red Wings are still a far better team with Lidstrom on the ice.
However, Lidstrom is quite obviously not going to play forever and this season may indeed prove to be his last.
Replacing him entirely is impossible, but, the Red Wings are going to have to think about finding someone to fill his slot sooner rather than later.
To this end, Lidstrom announcing his return to the team next season might actually help bring in a player who could help take over some of his duties once he does decide to hang up the skates for good.
When all is said and done, Lidstrom's return to Detroit this season could improve the team's chances of one or two free agents this summer.
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As a team, your identity is perhaps the most important part of your success.
Championship teams know who they are, they know what they are and what they are not.
While it is the collective of players, coaches and management that help define a team, certain players have a bigger impact on that identity than others.
Such is the case with Nicklas Lidstrom.
While names like "Gordie Howe" and "Steve Yzerman" will always be synonymous with "Detroit Red Wings," Lidstrom, more than any other current player, embodies what the Red Wings are about in 2011.
Intelligent, talented, dynamic and patient.
Take Lidstrom out of the Red Wings future and, suddenly, the definition of "Red Wings hockey" starts to become a bit more loose.
As they have been for the better part of the last decade, the Red Wings are attempting to rebuild their franchise on the fly.
For every Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan or Steve Yzerman that leave the organization one year, they need to bring in a Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen or Henrik Zetterberg the next.
The fact that they have been able to keep their team identity intact during this time has helped guide who and how to develop into Red Wings of the future.
With Lidstrom on board, the Red Wings know exactly what type of team they will be and thus, what type of players they need to target via free-agency.
Like the whole of his team, Kevin Bieksa is likely still reeling from Vancouver's Game 7 loss to the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins.
When asked about his future (Bieksa is an unrestricted free-agent as of July 1st), the defenseman who turned the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs into his coming out party expressed his confidence that he and the Canucks would work out a deal to keep him in Vancouver long-term.
While this may be his true desire, the fact that he will return to a team nearly devoid of Stanley Cup experience (former Wing Mikael Samuelsson is the only Canuck with a Stanley Cup ring), in a city that'd rather destroy itself than accept defeat gracefully should have to factor into his decision-making process at some point.
Whether or not Vancouver can win one more playoff game next year than it did this year is anyone's guess.
However, the pressure and expectations on the team, particularly goalie Roberto Luongo are going to be extraordinary.
If Bieksa truly believes the Canucks are bound for a Cup next season, he should sign on with the team immediately.
However, if he, and others like him, are looking for the opportunity to not only play for a Cup-contending franchise but, one of the classiest teams in all of sports, alongside one of the most legendary players of all time, well, they couldn't do much better than the Detroit Red Wings.
Mark my words, be it Bieksa or another high-profile free-agent defenseman, whoever signs with Detroit will mention "Nicklas Lidstrom" as a reason why they did.
Detroit's cap situation has grown significantly better in just a few short weeks.
Though losing his talent and experience is a tough blow, Brian Rafalski's $6 million salary clearing the books is an expected boon for a team that did figure to have much scratch for new players this summer.
Additionally, as the NHL has informed all 30 teams that the salary cap will be raised to a hard ceiling of $64 million next season.
Even with Lidstrom's salary ($6.2 million) renewed for another year, the Red Wings still have over $15 million in cap space to work with.
Now, in addition to another top four defender, the Wings also need to shore up a few key slots at forward (most likely by re-signing Drew Miller and Patrick Eaves) and a solid backup goaltender.
How much they'll need to earmark for non-defense positions is unclear.
However, what is now crystal clear is that no Red Wings defenseman will make more than $6.2 million.
Lidstrom's salary has long been a pseudo-salary cap in Detroit inasmuch as the team refused to pay any player more than the level set by No. 5's rate of pay.
Though Pavel Datsyuk is now, officially, Detroit's highest paid player (at only $6.7 million...yes, only), it's safe to say no blue-line player will make beyond what Lidstrom does.
How does this help bring in free agents?
Well, first of all, the team, and the world, knows exactly how much it is not willing to spend on a new defenseman (Ruslan Salei and Jonathan Ericsson are destined for free-agency at this point).
Should the aforementioned Bieksa or other UFA player expect a salary north of $6 million (such demands are bound to come in given the increase in the salary cap), they now know they won't get it in Detroit.
Related to this, any player or agent who seeks an offer from Wings GM Ken Holland is doing so knowing how high is too high when it comes to an asking price.
This may all seem like inconsequential subtleties, however, establishing the reality of what to pay and what to ask for is always a plus in any business transaction.
So, for the sake of argument, let's say the Wings are going to target Christian Ehrhoff instead of his current teammate Kevin Bieksa as a Grade A option on defense.
Despite a lackluster playoffs, Ehrhoff is going to have his share of suitors this summer should he elect to hang out a "for hire" shingle and look for employment outside of Vancouver.
How many of those teams would have a player of Nicklas Lidstrom's stature available to call up Ehrhoff on his cell phone and say, "Hi, this is Nick Lidstrom, I'd like you to play in Detroit next year, are you interested?"
Now, Ehrhoff may or may not be on Detroit's radar, but, the point is anyone they target is not going to ignore a call from a guy like Lidstrom, and that can be used to great advantage in what should be a very competitive summer for teams looking to add blue-line talent.
Beyond the aforementioned Christian Ehrhoff and Kevin Bieksa, there is a glut of NHL defenders set to enter free-agency in a couple of weeks.
James Wisniewski, Ed Jovonaski, Brian McCabe, Tomas Kaberle and Joni Pitkanen are but a few of the rearguards who will be in the market for new contracts.
The intriguing thing about all of these players is that none of them are bona fide superstars, but are good enough to be considered solid No. 2, if not top four players.
The Red Wings must land one of these guys this summer.
Well, looking at next year's crop of UFA defenders make this year's look largely superb by comparison.
In fact, the top names floating around next summer may actually be current Wings' Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart.
With names like Sheldon Souray, John-Michael Liles and Barrett Jackman on the 2012 UFA list of defenders, you can bet that Kronwall and Stuart are going to get more looks than a hot blonde in a bar with an "I'm easy" sign around her neck.
While seeing either of these two leave would be tough, having to replace them with subpar talent would be even tougher.
No, the Red Wings would do well to make a strong push for the best player they can get today.
Given their needs and cap space, this is no doubt their plan moving forward.
But, with Lidstrom secured for another season, the team has a very unique asset with which to attract a top defender looking to win a Cup alongside one of the best players in the history of the game.