Two years ago, coach Mike Babcock told me early in the season that he felt making the playoffs was going to be a challenge for his Red Wings. I thought it was merely so much cautious early-season coachspeak, but it turned out that the sage bench boss knew what kind of season his squad was in for.
The Red Wings had been to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in back-to-back campaigns and the team was showing signs of the toll that feat had exacted. Captain Nick Lidstrom typified Detroit's season-long malaise -- returning to form late, finishing strong and moving on to the playoffs.
Last season, Lidstrom and company started strong, reinvigorated by the challenge of taking control of their season from the outset. The nonpareil defenseman led the way by playing at the very high level to which we've become accustomed, and eventually winning his seventh Norris Trophy for his efforts. He ranked fourth among all NHL defensemen in scoring (62 points), becoming the oldest blueliner ever to amass at least 60.
More inspiring to me is that Lidstrom played in every game for the second straight season and led the Wings in time on ice (23:28) again, all as he was turning 41 years old. However, I also see this as a dilemma for the Red Wings.
As Lidstrom enters his 20th season, Detroit's success cannot continue to flow thorough him. Yet, it does, still. Obviously, long-term, it can't. After all, Lidstrom was a minus player (-2) for the first time in his career despite his robust offensive numbers (16 goals, 46 assists) and Norris hardware. Even now that Brian Rafalski has retired with one year remaining on his contract, this seems like the appropriate time for the Red Wings to move away from Lidstrom as their linchpin.
Look, it is no easy task. Nick Lidstrom is one of a handful of the greatest defensemen to ever grace the game. I look forward to seeing him patrol the blueline with precision yet again. Still, I'm equally anxious to see to what degree Detroit's coaches give quality minutes to their other defensemen in key situations. Can they transition Lidstrom from invaluable to merely valuable? I believe that question is central to Detroit's 2011-12 season and beyond.
This season is the perfect opportunity, too -- and not just because of Father Time's hand on the great defenseman. New assistant coaches Bill Peters and Jeff Blashill have come aboard to run the Red Wings' special teams, and according to Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg both, the team's style of play will be tweaked a little bit.
As the captain put it, "We will still be a puck possession team, but with a little more puck pursuit built in. I think it's a good thing we're going to camp without knowing exactly what's going to happen."
Zetterberg chimed in with, "Some things needed improvement. That's the goal -- to get better. The thought of some new ideas is exciting."
So, change is clearly afoot. GM Ken Holland knows it's needed. He has infused this roster the last couple of seasons with more youthful legs and a twenty-something starting goaltender in Jimmy Howard. It's still an ongoing process because the core veterans -- Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall, Pavel Datsyuk, Tomas Holmstrom, Dan Cleary, Johan Franzen and Todd Bertuzzi -- still put the Red Wings in the elite-team conversation. To stay there long-term means introducing some new faces in expanded roles as well as some new ways of playing.
The trick is in the transition... winning while not defaulting to calling for #5 in every critical situation. Easy for me to say and much harder to do, I know. But it is yet another reason why I'll be watching the Red Wings with interest this season.