Pertinent Stats: 1412 GP, 237 G, 809 A, 1046 P, +431
Awards: Norris Trophy (6) - 2001, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2008; Conn Smythe - 2002
Stanley Cups: 4 - 1997, 1998, 2002, 2008
Nicklas Lidstrom is not merely the best defenseman I have ever seen play for the Red Wings; he is the best defenseman I have ever seen play, and no one is a close second.
Lidstrom was yet another pickup in the 1989 draft, and to illustrate how great that draft was for the Wings, consider that 3 of them made it to this illustrious list, 2 are guaranteed Hall of Famers, and Konstantinov was headed there before his accident. What's scary for me is that every single team in the NHL had a shot at Lidstrom before the Wings got him; in fact, every single team passed on him twice. It's a fair bet that had scouts back then known how good Lidstrom was, he would not have lasted to the 53rd pick.
Lidstrom broke into the NHL in 1991-92 and was an immediate success, scoring 60 points as a defenseman while playing important minutes. He finished second in the Calder voting to some guy named Pavel Bure that year (yet another example of a Red Wing finishing 2nd in voting but going on to have a better career than the guy who won; bodes well for Jimmy Howard if you ask me). Over the early part of his career, Lidstrom could be counted on for 10-20 goals and 40-50 points. However, given that the Wings had Paul Coffey for 4 of those years, Lidstrom was not counted on to be the primary offensive threat on the blue line. This allowed him to do what he has done for his entire career: develop into the complete defenseman he is today. I would talk more about his career, but we've all seen what he has done and how he has mattered to the team. Plus, read Malik's Mt Puckmore piece; that pretty much echoes what I feel about him. What I want to do today is talk about my own impressions of the man, and how I feel he has benefitted the team.
Lidstrom's career has been marked by absolute consistency more than anything else. In a full 82 game season, his lowest point total was 38, and his highest is 80; he has scored between 7 and 20 goals; he has never had more than 50 PIM in any single season. I wish I could talk about him being flashy or bring up those "make you hold your breath" moments, but those are so few and far between with him. The only thing I can really say is that he does it all, and he does it better than anyone else, and has done so for his entire career. He's the type of defenseman that you want out on the ice in all situations: down a goal late in the game trying to tie it up; up a goal late in the game trying to preserve a victory; on the power play or killing a penalty; against the other team's top line or against a specific player. And the best part about it is that as long as he is on the ice, I feel a sense of comfort and relief knowing that he will not make a mistake that will hurt the team. He may not always make the best play, and he can occasionally get beat, but those instances are so few and far between that I'm more shocked than angry that he might have caused a goal against.
What says a lot about Lidstrom is that as far back as his 3rd and 4th seasons, Lidstrom was the anchor of the defense. On a team that was as star-studded and full of experience as the Wings were, for a young defenseman to come in and take control of the defense through his play and not due to his reputation or his outspokenness was impressive. And his play has been the same throughout his career; steady. The only other word or phrase that I can think of that would describe him would be "rock solid". He has maintained this level of play due to his style of play; he's not the biggest nor the toughest defenseman in the league, but there's no one smarter than he is. He has never been the type to throw his body around or try and make a big hit; but I imagine there is absolutely very little chance you are going to cause him to be out of position. His on-ice intelligence is what has separated him from the rest of the defensemen in the NHL and has allowed him to stay as good as he is at an age when many defensemen are starting to break down.
There are so many stats that illustrate his greatness: the 1000 points scored in a time of the NHL's history where defensive schemes were more complex and effective (the trap); most games played by any player born in Europe; most games played by a defenseman with only 1 team; first European-born defenseman to score 1000 points; to say that he was a trailblazer for European-born players would be an understatement. However, the stat that always gets me is the fact that he has never been a minus player; not once in his entire career has he been on the ice for more goals against than goals for. This is not due to his offensive prowess making up for his defensive deficiencies (Mike Green); as noted earlier, Lidstrom has spent almost his entire career being matched up against his opponent's best players. It's this stat that in my opinion shows just how good Lidstrom really is, especially when you consider the many great players that he has been facing. The other remarkable stat about Lidstrom is his durability: in an age with bigger, stronger players and relaxed rules making defenseman more targeted, he has missed 28 out of a possible 1,440 regular season games, and 1 was due to a ridiculous suspension for not attending the pre-All-Star Game festivities in 2009.
Even noting his steady play, there have been some impressive moments in his career. One of the goals that I will always remember is the one he scored on Ron Hextall in Game 4 in 1997; a harmless looking shot that gave the Wings the lead and really settled them down in that game. The other goal that I remember is the long shot on Dan Cloutier in Game 3 in 2002 against Vancouver; pure luck or planned shot? I'm going to say it was planned, just because he is that awesome. But like I said earlier, those moments are few and far between. What I remember most about him is his lifting of the Conn Smythe in 2002, the first time a European-born player had done that; any one of his six Norris Trophies; being presented with the "C" after Stevie retired. But the image that I have in my head whenever I think of Lidstrom is the one from 2008 when he was lifting that beautiful silver trophy over his head. For me, it was so amazing to see that because it cemented his status as the greatest defenseman of his time, and maybe ever (I'm not going to get in to that debate, because it's just too much). More importantly, from a Wing perspective, it showed how much of a leader he was in that he was able to get the Wings to a Cup when all of the mainstays from the previous winners had left. After Yzerman retired and Shanahan left as a free agent, Lidstrom remained on the team as both a link to the glory days and the leader of the future. When the Wings won the Cup that year, it showed me that regardless of who is on the team, the Wings will always do what they can to contend; I've seen other franchises fall into mediocrity after a player of Yzerman's talent and importance retires or moves on. In a sense, I feel that Lidstrom retiring will be harder on the franchise than Yzerman was, although I can't pinpoint why that is.
I feel like I have so much more to say about Lidstrom but not enough time or space to say it in. I can't begin to describe just how freaking amazing he has been time and again throughout his entire career. Like I said at the beginning of this post, he's the best defenseman I've ever seen, Red Wing or otherwise. Whenever I watch him play, I just sit back and count my blessings that I was fortunate enough to have witnessed the entire career of one of the greatest defensemen in the history of the NHL, and that he spent that career playing for the team that I love. There's only one player that I feel was better and meant more to me than Lidstrom (any guesses on who that might be?), and if I do this list in 10 years, Lidstrom's spot won't change. There was never any question that when I made this list, Nicklas Lidstrom was going to be the second Greatest Red Wing of My Time.