Imagine if Nicklas Lidstrom had left Detroit. Imagine if he had
spurned millions of U.S. dollars and the glitz of the NHL for
the safety, the school systems and the silver snowfalls of his
native Sweden. Imagine how we would feel about the Red Wings
now, how old and vulnerable they would seem.
Lidstrom is among the finest defensemen in the world, and for
more than a year Detroit lived in fear that once his contact
expired after the 1998-99 season he would go home, where his
heart is, and play in the Swedish Elite League. Lidstrom had
hinted as much after rejecting the Red Wings' offer of a
long-term deal in the summer of '98. He and his wife, Annika,
want their sons, Kevin, 5, and Adam, 3, to get Swedish
educations and soak up the country's culture, but the lure of
financial security must have proved too difficult to pass up. In
August, Lidstrom, 29, signed a three-year, $22 million contract
to stay in Detroit.
With Lidstrom in the fold, the Red Wings, still deep and
dazzling up front, still guided by the incomparable Scotty
Bowman, have the defensive strength to make another run at the
Stanley Cup. This is the team of the '90s, and the fact that its
attempt to threepeat ended with a second-round loss to the
Avalanche last year doesn't mean Detroit is dead. The defending
champion Stars are favored to win again, but they'll do so only
if they can clip the Wings. "I found myself very envious," says
Detroit captain Steve Yzerman of watching last year's Cup
finals. "I thought, We should be out there."
The value of Lidstrom goes beyond his ability as a defensive
pillar who averages more than 50 points per season. By playing
nearly half the game and covering huge swaths of ice, he will
enable aging blueliners Larry Murphy, 38, and Chris Chelios, 37,
to conserve their strength and thus be more effective. The Red
Wings' defense still has question marks--Will Aaron Ward, with
his big slapshot and big checks, become more consistent? Can
free-agent signee Steve Duchesne, who was cut from the Kings
last season, provide the offensive punch he did earlier in his
career?--but with Lidstrom, Murphy and Chelios on the ice late
in games, Detroit can control crucial shifts.
Of course, no one controls the Red Wings more than Bowman. At
66, and 14 months removed from angioplasty, the man can't seem
to give up hockey as long as there's a Cup to chase. (He's won
eight so far.) This year Bowman is talking about implementing
new defensive systems; expanding the role of his most dynamic
forward, Sergei Fedorov; and getting veterans such as Brendan
Shanahan and Igor Larionov energized from the opening face-off.
In June, Bowman sent a pointed letter to his players telling
them to get in shape. Think his words have weight? Ward dropped
15 pounds, forward Martin Lapointe shed 25, and lithe
forward-defenseman Mathieu Dandenault, whom Detroit will need on
the blue line this year, added 10 pounds of muscle. By training
camp, players had T-shirts made that read TRAIN TO REGAIN and
AIM TO RECLAIM.
The motivation supplied by Bowman and the sting of losing to
Colorado could inspire Detroit to dethrone Dallas. The Wings
would have no chance, however, had the Lidstroms gone home.
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
OFFENSE 3 Depth down the middle; pure scorers on the wings
DEFENSE 3 Lidstrom and Chelios lead deep and talented corps
GOALTENDING 10 Addition of backup Wregget takes load off Osgood
SPECIAL TEAMS 1 Power play explosive; penalty killers also
COACHING 1 Bowman adjusts faster than any coach in hockey
Last season, the Red Wings led the NHL with 2,622 shots on goal.
Detroit converted just 9.3% of those shots, the 16th-best
percentage in the league, but its 245 goals were third best.