- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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DETROIT -- The passes are tape to tape, right in the middle of the stick blade, timed just right for the player taking them in stride. One after the other -- zip, zip, zip -- Nicklas Lidstrom seemingly can't miss.
It's a Thursday morning practice at Joe Louis Arena, one just like any other of the 3,000 or so practices he's skated in the past 20 years. And just like those other times, Lidstrom is dead-on every single time he makes a play.
The Perfect Human is 40 years old. Not that you can tell while watching him on the ice this season. After failing to get nominated for the Norris Trophy in 2009-10, Lidstrom is back stronger than ever, and if the season ended today, it says here he'd be picking up his seventh award as the NHL's top defenseman.
"There's no better defenseman in the league right now, all-around, than him," former teammate Chris Chelios, a future Hall of Famer himself on defense, told ESPN.com last week.
The question is, where does he rank all time? As Lidstrom's career draws to a close, whether that's next season or five years from now, his body of work is complete enough now to make proper comparisons.
Bobby Orr remains No. 1 for most, including this writer, but you get a pretty good argument after him between Lidstrom and seven-time Norris winner Doug Harvey. There's no question that Denis Potvin, Larry Robinson, Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey and Scott Niedermayer are among the others who have a pretty good case, but when you talk to people in the game, they usually go with either Lidstrom or Harvey at No. 2.
That's rarified air.
"I don't think there's any question he's in that conversation, no question," Orr told ESPN.com last week. "I mean, you talk about longevity, he's 40, and putting the numbers that he puts up. The success that team has had is mainly because of his play; it's been incredible. He's a class individual. Never heard a bad word about the man. And he plays the way he plays. What else can you ask for?"
The beginning of greatness
Somehow, 52 players were taken ahead of Lidstrom in the 1989 NHL draft. Just over two years later, the native of Vasteras, Sweden, made his NHL debut, collecting 60 points (11 goals, 49 assists) in 80 games for the Wings in the 1991-92 season.
He was a very good player in his early years, but a defining moment in his career came out of tragedy. When Vladimir Konstantinov suffered a career-ending injury in a limo accident following the Wings' 1997 Stanley Cup championship, stripping Detroit of a star defenseman at the peak of his career, it left a huge hole in the Wings' lineup.
Lidstrom -- perhaps out of necessity -- came of age at that very moment.
"That's accurate. As soon as Vladimir couldn't play anymore, Nick definitely took charge," legendary coach Scotty Bowman, who was at the helm in Detroit at the time, told ESPN.com.
"Nick was a really good player already," Wings GM Ken Holland added. "But it was almost like he knew with Konstantinov not there in '97-98, he just took his game to another level."
Looking back now, Lidstrom agrees.
"I got more responsibilities from Scotty," Lidstrom told ESPN.com last week. "I got a lot of minutes before that, too, but I think after Vladdy's accident, my ice time went even higher. I was relied upon even more. And Vladdy was such a terrific player when it happened. In a way, I think I felt that I needed to step it up."
That season, Lidstrom was runner-up for the Norris Trophy, flirting with the award for the first time in his career. He'd be runner-up three straight years before winning six Norris Trophies in seven seasons from 2001-02 through 2007-08.
What makes him so great?
To the average fan, it's not always obvious just why Lidstrom is considered the greatest defenseman of his generation. In fact, we have always found that to truly appreciate Lidstrom, you have to watch him play in person. You have to watch him away from the puck just as much as with the puck.
TV doesn't do him justice.
"What makes Nick great is he's very good to great at everything. He doesn't have any wow factor," Holland said. "You'll see a guy like [Mike] Green in Washington jumping into the high slot, zipping the puck into the top corner. That's not really Nick's game. He doesn't dangle. The wow factor is, he does it every day, day after day after day, after game, after year. Big games, small games. The wow factor is the constant that you just know. It's the body of work."
It's all the little things that add up to one great player. For example, picture two forecheckers bearing down on Lidstrom in the defensive zone. Lidstrom has the uncanny ability, almost like he has eyes in the back of his head, to deftly put the puck in the right spot and away from danger, most often right on a teammate's stick to start a counterattack.
During a practice drill last week, Lidstrom had a player draped all over him as goalie Chris Osgood passed him the puck in the corner. Without even looking behind him, or slowing down for one moment, or stopping Osgood's pass, Lidstrom redirected the puck with a quick stick and it landed right on the winger's stick along the side boards, and the play was out of his zone. Not a sexy play, but one only a few can pull off with regularity. Lidstrom does it in his sleep.
Another example: Sometimes a winger will try to "soft chip" a puck past him. Lidstrom will use his incredible hand-eye coordination skills and bat the puck out of midair. Next thing you know, he's whipping the puck right back up ice to a teammate and the Wings are back on the attack.
"There are players that will draw your attention because they'll go end to end or run a guy over. For Nick, it's like every shift is the same," Hall of Fame blueliner Larry Murphy, a former teammate of Lidstrom's, told ESPN.com. "There's no highs or lows. His level of performance is just so consistent. It took a while, I think, for people to realize just how good he was. Just for the fact that you have to watch him every day to understand."
Mistakes? Forget about it. He may not be flashy, but he also rarely makes a mistake.
"In my 14 years here, I can count on my two hands mistakes I've seen him make," said the Wings' TV play-by-play man, Ken Daniels.
During Mike Babcock's first season behind the Wings' bench in 2005-06, he said he had to wait until 50-odd games into the season before Lidstrom finally made a blunder during a drill at practice.
"And then I got all over him," Babcock laughed as he recalled the story. "I couldn't believe he made a bad pass."
Consistency, attention to detail, day after day, year after year. That's the greatness of Lidstrom.
"His biggest strength is his positioning and not overexerting himself," said Murphy, who was Lidstrom's defense partner for a few years. "He's very effective from the start to the finish of the game because he never takes an unnecessary step. He's always in the right position. His timing is always impeccable. He's not going to assert himself offensively unless it's a glaring opportunity or the team is behind. He just conserves energy. Because he's so efficient out there, the game comes easy to him."
It's uncanny how often people used the words "not flashy" when they spoke about Lidstrom to ESPN.com.
"But he sure puts numbers up," said Orr. "He does it differently than the way I did with the end-to-end [play]. I've seen replays recently of his shots from the point -- he gets them through, always on the net. He's not trying to put it through the end boards."
Just another example of the little things Lidstrom does so well. In an era when teams more than ever collapse in front of the net and block shots, few players in this league can get a shot through like Lidstrom.
"He never misses the net," said Babcock. "That's an interesting concept, isn't it?" By getting his shots through, Lidstrom helps the Wings stay on the attack and keep the pressure on.
"You watch him shoot -- pucks get through. It's not a fluke," said Chelios. "The systems today, guys get in shooting lanes. But Nick has his head up when he's shooting. Guys like me and others, we'd just bury our heads when we shot. He's got a knack of facing up, looking at the net, looking at players and shooting at the same time. It's a skill, it's an art, and he's got it down to a science."
On the defensive side, Lidstrom has been shutting down the game's top offensive players for years. But he's not doing it with Chris Pronger's physical strength or Scott Stevens' game-changing bodychecks or Niedermayer's breathtaking, gap-narrowing speed.
"He's not flashy, and in some ways maybe he frustrates you because of that," Niedermayer told ESPN.com. "He doesn't use his physical strength to shut you down, or his speed, or things like that that really stand out -- but you're just shut down by him. He's a very smart player."
And so, you're rarely going to see Lidstrom make the highlight shows. But you can be sure he almost surely was the best player on the ice in the NHL that night.
"He's not a 'SportsCenter' guy," said Holland. "He's a guy that you win with."
"I don't get bored watching him," Holland said with a chuckle.
The smartest player in hockey
Niedermayer touched on it above: the hockey IQ of Lidstrom.
"Probably one of the smartest to ever play the position," said Niedermayer.
"He doesn't overpower you, he's just so smart, great hockey sense," said Orr. "Intelligence, anticipation -- he does it all. He really does it all."
When you're at a game and you're focused on Lidstrom, notice how he seems to know where the puck is going next. Notice how he angles himself ahead of certain plays and closes down any gap the opposing player might have had. It's like watching a master chess player, always one move ahead.
"I still think his greatest gift is that he's smarter than anyone in the game," said Babcock. "He's flat-out smarter. He knows what you're doing before you even do it."
"He thinks the game as a defenseman maybe better than anybody in the history of the game," added Holland.
A humble man
For a player of his stature, it's actually quite amazing Lidstrom has remained somewhat out of the national spotlight. If he's stayed under the radar, at least by his superstar standards, it's by design.
"Yeah, I've always kept a low profile," Lidstrom said. "I've done that on purpose, too. It's just the kind of guy I am."
He's quiet. He doesn't want to draw attention to himself.
"Nick has no ego," said Babcock. "So you become an egoless team that's only about winning. No one else on the team is allowed to have an ego, either."
It's true. Red Wings players like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, for example, should on merit have bigger profiles around the league. But like their soft-spoken captain, they keep their heads down, focus on the task at hand and leave the spotlight for other NHL stars.
That attitude, one could argue, started with former Wings captain and superstar Steve Yzerman. It's a culture that breeds hard work, teamwork and, of course, winning. A lot of it.
"We've never missed the playoffs with Nicklas Lidstrom in our lineup," observed Holland.
The GM pointed to Lidstrom, Niedermayer and Pronger as three top blueliners from this generation and noted the one constant that teams associated with those three studs have had in common: winning. And when you have the best of those three great defensemen, the victories really pile up.
"We've had the premier defenseman of this era," said Holland. "That's why we've had 100 points-plus for 10 consecutive years. That's why we've won four Stanley Cups. We've been in the final four eight times since Nick has been here."
Six Norris Trophies. Only Orr (eight) and Harvey (seven) won more. Niedermayer is the only defenseman to sneak one in right in the middle of Lidstrom's Norris run from 2001-02 to 2007-08.
"It was tough and rightly so, he deserved it," said Niedermayer. "He's a great player and great defenseman. He deserved every award he got."
And yet, Holland has longed argued that Lidstrom has wrongly been passed over for the biggest individual award of all.
"I think if you picked the Hart Trophy for the decade, 2000 to 2010, I think Nick Lidstrom wins it," Holland said. "I really feel Nick Lidstrom should have won a Hart sometime along that road. And my frustration for him is that he's never even been a finalist. As important as he's been to our team's success, and as successful as our team was over the last 10-12 years, a period in which he won six Norris Trophies and was nominated three other times, it's hard to believe that the best defenseman in the game was never considered as a Hart candidate."
Last season, Lidstrom wasn't even nominated for the Norris, finishing fourth in voting by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association behind winner Duncan Keith and fellow youngsters Mike Green and Drew Doughty.
"I've always looked at that as a bonus," Lidstrom said of the Norris. "If you played well and had a strong season, you'll be rewarded. And I don't think last season I felt that I was up to where I'd been the few years before that."
"People say he slipped last year," said Babcock. "Who was he supposed to pass the puck to? He didn't have anybody, the whole team was hurt. I don't think he slipped."
The Wings were hammered by injuries for the first three quarters of the season, which made them simplify their system and grind out some wins in order to survive. That affected Lidstrom's statistics, as his 49 points were the lowest tally for him in six seasons.
Once the team got healthier and went on a massive run late in the season, Lidstrom was able to do his thing again.
"I think our team was so challenged offensively because of what we lost in the summer and the injuries that we had, we had to win 2-1 and 3-2," said Holland. "We didn't have the weapons for a while. We did what we had to do to stay in the hunt. His points were down in relation to his peers, in his relation to his past, and people looked at his birth certificate and said he was 39 years old, so he must be on the downside. That's a normal assumption. But all he was doing was adjusting his game to what we needed."
Lidstrom was especially dynamite in the playoffs, a sight that made PHWA voters (including this one) wishing they hadn't put him fourth or fifth on their Norris ballots at the end of the regular season. We won't soon forget sitting in the press box in Glendale, Ariz., in April and watching Lidstrom single-handedly take over Game 7 of a first-round playoff series against the Phoenix Coyotes. If there had been any thoughts that Lidstrom slowed down last season, they were erased that night.
With four Stanley Cups, an Olympic gold medal, six Norris Trophies and a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, it is pretty hard to find any low moments in Lidstrom's career. But two particular events jump out for him when asked of the most disappointing moments of his incredible career.
First, a 2002 Olympic quarterfinal loss for his star-studded Swedish team against hockey minnow Belarus. To this day, it's one of the most shocking Olympic hockey upsets in history.
"Yeah, that Belarus game comes to mind all the time, because you're there representing your country and you want to do well," said Lidstrom. "You feel like you're a team that should beat Belarus. It wasn't that we underestimated them, but they played well and we couldn't figure it out. That's one of the most disappointing moments."
And second, the 2009 Stanley Cup finals.
"We're up 3-2 in the series, lose Game 6 in Pittsburgh and still have a chance to win it at home in Game 7 and lose," said Lidstrom, pursing his lips. "That was disappointing, too."
Swedish scare/Retirement talk, Part I
Lidstrom recalled how he toyed with the idea of leaving the NHL in 1999 and moving home to Sweden to raise his family. Can you imagine? That's before he won any of his six Norris Trophies.
"My oldest one was about to start school," said Lidstrom. "My wife and I were figuring out what we wanted to do. After talking to some Swedish friends who had kids here and then moved back later, their kids didn't have any problems adjusting to school over there. So that's when we decided to stay. We always want to make sure we make a decision that's the right one for us."
Holland remembers fretting about it.
"When you think back to [former Calgary Flames star] Hakan Loob still being a premier player when he left and went home to raise a family, I think it was a legitimate concern that [Nick] would go home," said Holland. "But I also believe there's always been a fire burning down [in his gut]. That's still the case today. So it was hard for me to imagine a player that is so good would leave in his prime. Maybe part of it was that I was praying and hoping, because how do you replace this guy?"
Retirement talk, Part II
This past January, Holland approached Lidstrom and asked him about his playing future.
"We were on a road trip and I asked him about this season and he said to me, 'I'm going to be honest with you, there is a chance I might go home, but I won't make the final decision until after the season,"' Holland said.
Again, family concerns were at play.
"The reason why I wasn't sure last year was because my oldest son wanted to go to school in Sweden," Lidstrom said. "We wondered if we should move back with him or not. He's over there now. It's worked out well. But that's why I wanted to wait and decide after the season. He really wanted to do it and my wife and I weren't sure what we wanted to do. But after working out the family situation and where he would stay, I made my decision."
His 16-year-old son is staying with a relative in Sweden and all is good. Lidstrom met with Holland this past summer and gave him the good news. He signed a one-year, $6.2 million deal for 2010-11.
"I asked him about a two-year deal, but he said, 'Let's just do it year by year,'" said Holland. "I would sleep better if I could have done a two-year deal."
Lidstrom laughed when he heard Holland's comment.
"He did actually throw that out there, if I wanted to sign a two-year deal," chuckled Lidstrom. "But I said, 'I'll sign a one-year deal and we'll sit down next year and see what I want to do.'"
Babcock already has the scoop on next season.
"I believe as long as we're good, and Nick's playing well, he'll keep playing. And I believe he'll play next year," he said. "He's too good to retire, and the team's too good."
Lidstrom smirked when told of the coach's comment.
"You know what? I haven't thought much about what's going to happen next year," he said. "Right now, I'm just enjoying playing where we're at right now. We're playing well as a team. I'm just enjoying that. I'll sit down again after the season. I don't want to make a decision now when I don't have to."
The motivation to continue
Sitting at his stall in the Wings' dressing room at Joe Louis Arena, Lidstrom paused during his interview with ESPN.com and pointed to the Stanley Cup replica pictures hanging side by side at the top of the wall facing him across the room.
"You look up there and you see all the Cups, I want to hoist another one," said Lidstrom. "That's part of my motivation, to be able to win again. That is what's driving me. I still enjoy the game, I enjoy the competitiveness."
If the Wings weren't a contender, we're not sure Lidstrom would still be playing. Knowing that the Wings have a chance, that's what keeps bringing him back.
"Nick's not interested in being part of a bad team," said Babcock.
Another motivation? "I just enjoy playing the game," said Lidstrom.
Whether it's a game, a practice or a pregame skate, he loves it all. Every single day.
"Nick hardly ever misses a skate, he hardly ever takes a day off," said Babcock. "I made him take one day off this year. He loves hockey. You need that to be great. Look at [Sidney] Crosby. He's gotten better every year. You don't get better unless you absolutely love it. Lots of guys are good, but if you want to be great you have to love it, otherwise you won't put in the work. Nick works. He's just a worker."
Because of his laid-back and quiet demeanor, Lidstrom isn't perceived as the type of player with the same kind of hunger for winning as the likes of, say, a Mark Messier, a Type A personality whose desire to prevail was apparent for all to see.
But don't make the mistake of underestimating that same will in Lidstrom.
"He's been the best of the best for 10 to 15 years, and something is burning down there that drives him," said Holland. "That's why he's back this year and that's why I think he'll be back beyond."
'The Perfect Human'
Lidstrom's family -- wife Annika and sons Kevin, 16, Adam, 14, Samuel, 10 and Lucas, 7 -- mean the world to him. And they have provided important balance in his life.
Away from the rink, Lidstrom is just a hockey dad and a regular Joe.
"I try to treat people with respect," said Lidstrom. "When people come up to me, for example at the rink when my kids play, I'll always sign an autograph and talk to them. I feel like I'm just a regular guy that's got a great job. I've got one of the best jobs in the world and I've been doing it for a long time. When I'm away from the rink, I enjoy my family and being with my friends."
Lidstrom is beloved in the Detroit area for his class off the ice. He's approachable, he's normal.
"I came to the rink the other day and a fan had a Santa hat that said 'St. Nick' on it for him," said Babcock. "It's interesting to me to see someone be that talented and that good, and also be that talented and that good off the ice; to have that good of a family and do everything right. We've built up other people around sports into being something like that and they haven't delivered. Well, he's delivered."
"The Perfect Human" carries a meaning both on and off the ice.
"Absolutely," said Kronwall. "He's that perfect guy that everyone tries to be."
Before hanging up the phone with ESPN.com, Orr asked us to pass on a message to Lidstrom.
"Do me a favor and tell him how much I love to watch him," said Orr. "He's represented us so darn well."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.