A Lidstrom-less Future


By Rhys Richards (@RREsq)

The visiting Detroit Red Wings lost 2-1 in overtime to the New York Rangers on Wednesday night, but played well enough to win.

The Red Wings are in the midst of a six-game losing streak, which is Detroit’s longest since a six-game losing streak at the beginning of October. Detroit is a feeble 3-6-2 in its last 11 games and is only in fourth in the Western Conference by virtue of the point from Wednesday’s overtime loss.

While Detroit has welcomed back sniper and puck handling magician Pavel Datsyuk as well as veteran forward Todd Bertuzzi, top defenseman and captain Nicklas Lidstrom has remained sidelined for those 11 games. The Red Wings also added Johan Franzen and Darren Helm to its list of injuries on the recent West Coast trip. Jimmy Howard, who tweaked his groin recently, missed Wednesday night’s game but could return Saturday.

For the seven-time Norris Trophy winner Lidstrom, 11 games represents the most consecutive games he has missed in his entire career. He continues to recover from a bone bruise in his right ankle. He is skating every day, but his absence has left Detroit’s defensive corps in disarray.

While Jonathan Ericsson, a young regular, and Jakub Kindl, a young seventh or eighth defenseman, have also been out of the lineup due to injuries, Detroit’s defense has been exposed on several occasions in recent games.

Prospect Brendan Smith has looked very good at times, but he certainly cannot replace Lidstrom at this point in his career. His inexperience has led to several untimely turnovers and bad passes.

Career minor leaguer Doug Janik has proven at times why the organization relies on him to help mature its prospects in Grand Rapids as opposed to playing regularly in Detroit.

Since Lidstrom last played against Coloradoon February 25th, Detroit has scored 28 goals but allowed 32 goals. While Detroit is still tied for sixth in the league having only allowed 181 goals, the recent ratio favoring goals against is significant in an eleven-game snapshot.

Detroit’s current play and relatively porous defense has prompted many commentators and fans to question whether this Lidstrom-less Detroit team is what can be expected from the Red Wings when its surefire first-ballot Hall-of-Fame captain retires.

No one defenseman can possibly bring to Detroit’s future what Lidstrom has done for the organization in his 20 seasons. Lidstrom is deservingly mentioned in any conversation about the top five defensemen of all time.

Even at 41 years old, Lidstrom has contributed a remarkable 10 goals and 21 assists in 62 games played, which ties him for 16th in scoring among NHL defensemen. While Lidstrom will never hit his career-high of 80 points again, he could play another season and be counted on for more than 30 points and excellent defense.

Lidstrom has helped make a long line of defensemen better from Mathieu Schneider to Brian Rafalski to early season surprise Ian White. The longtime heir apparent, Nicklas Kronwall, has matured into a very good defenseman, but even he will not be able to make consecutive partners reach career-year point totals consistently.

Nevertheless, those who believe that this injured Red Wings team is showing the hockey world a glimpse of Detroit in the post-Lidstrom era are making a huge mistake.

Detroit had played 62 games when Lidstrom blocked that shot in the February 25th game at home versus Colorado. Detroit was just coming off of its record-setting 23-game home winning streak, which was snapped in a shootout by Vancouver literally the game before the November 23rd battle with the Avalanche.

To use an analogy fitting for the Motor City, in order to accomplish such an awesome feat at home, Detroit had to be as finely-tuned as any high performance automobile. When Lidstrom went down with the ankle injury, that engine lost an important cog in its works. With the subsequent injuries to so many regulars, Head Coach Mike Babcock was forced to maneuver the equivalent of a low end sedan being held together by gum and duct tape.

An injured Lidstrom certainly does not account for the precipitous slide of Detroit’s power play and penalty kill. While Lidstrom is an important member of the top power play and penalty kill units, to say that he alone makes the difference between elite units and relatively poor ones is unfair to power play and penalty kill specialist Datsyuk and does not recognize the importance of a healthy Howard and role players like Ericsson and Helm on the kill.

Going into Wednesday night’s game, Detroit ranked 23rd in power play success converting 15.8 percent of the time. The Red Wings ranked 21st in the NHL on the penalty kill with an 80.7 success rate.

Before the game against the Rangers, Detroit had only scored three power play goals in 43 opportunities with the man advantage, just under a seven percent success rate. At the same time, the Red Wings had allowed nine goals in 34 penalty kills, a pedestrian 73.5 percent kill rate. Notably, both success rates are well below Detroit’s season averages. Adding insult to a multitude of injuries, Detroit allowed three shorthanded goals in that time.

Detroit did not change the trend against New York as it allowed Brad Richards to score on one of the Rangers three power plays. The Red Wings did not convert on their only power play, the eighth time in the past 11 games that the team failed to score with the man advantage.

At the same time, the beleaguered Detroit defensive corps has only allowed its team to be outshot five times in those 11 games. While a higher than normal rate for the Red Wings, who are second in the league in shots against per game, the injury-riddled back end has prevented Detroit goalies from being shelled regularly.

Detroit’s future without Lidstrom is more than a little unnerving, but those future Detroit teams will have an entire preseason and season to adapt to that loss. Lidstrom’s offensive contributions will likely have to come from two or three defenseman and cannot be replicated on the defensive end, but that can be expected since defensemen of Lidstrom’s caliber are so rare.

In the meantime, look for Lidstrom to return as early as Saturday and cherish every second this legend plays.

Statistics, schedules, and other information obtained at www.tsn.ca and www.nhl.com.     

Share your thoughts about the NHL, the Detroit Red Wings, and hockey in general with Rhys at Twitter: @RREsq.  He can be reached via email at RhysJRichards@gmail.com.  Join the many fans of The Hockey Guys on Facebook and Twitter @TheHockeyGuys.

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