Globe hockey columnist Eric Duhatschek's weekly NHL Notebook column returns to run on Fridays through the end of the season.
The Detroit Red Wings got a glimpse of what life after Nicklas Lidstrom would look like last March and it wasn't pretty. Not only was Lidstrom one of the most accomplished defencemen in NHL history during his 20-year Hall-Of-Fame career, but he was also one of its more durable.
That's why the 12 games Lidstrom missed with a foot problem last year were so unusual. Every Red Wings' coach – from Scotty Bowman to Mike Babcock – could count on rolling Lidstrom out for 25 to 30 minutes per night every night. Every Red Wings coach got smarter when one of the most efficient defencemen of all time – almost a coach himself on the ice – was at his disposal, to play every other shift.
In a year when forty-somethings from Jaromir Jagr and Teemu Selanne to Martin Brodeur, Daniel Alfredsson and Ray Whitney all decided to play again, Lidstrom chose to take the opposite route. Determining he couldn't continue at the same high level that saw him win seven Norris Trophies as the NHL's top defenceman, and earn 10 first-team all-star selections, Lidstrom called it quits in the summer. Forty is the new 35 in the NHL, thanks to conditioning strides that permit most of the NHL's most talented Methuselahs to continue playing well into their golden years.
It is why, when it became clear the lockout might be ending, the Red Wings made an overture to Lidstrom to see if he'd changed his mind and wanted to sign on for another half-season. Sadly, the answer was no.
So the day the Red Wings knew would eventually come is upon them now – and as good as general manager Ken Holland is at his job of keeping the team competitive year after year, players of Lidstrom's pedigree just don't come around every day.
"We're not going to replace him," said Holland, "so what do we do? Obviously we used to have a superstar on defence. In his prime, he'd play close to half the game. When you weren't sure, you threw Nick on the ice.
"Now, I think Nik Kronwall is a really, really good defenceman. There's no doubt he's the face of our defence. It's Nik Kronwall and then it's a committee."
The Red Wings have been a model of consistency during Holland's entire 16-year tenure as GM. He likes to talk about a story, written by a well-known Toronto reporter at the end of the last lockout, predicting the Red Wings' best days were behind them – and that in the new salary-cap era, where they couldn't simply outspend the opposition, they would fall back into the pack. Holland said in an interview this week he still keeps that article on his desk as a daily reminder of the fickleness of pro sports and its 'what-have-you-done-for-me-lately' nature.
Instead of faltering coming out of the last lockout, the Red Wings were their usual model of consistency. They won a Stanley Cup and were finalists a second time. In the past seven years, they never managed fewer than 102 points, averaged 110 points per season and finished atop the Western Conference three times. Predictions about how the Red Wings might fare in the post-Lidstrom era vary wildly. Some have them in the playoffs and some have them on the sidelines. Recently, Holland saw a forecast that picked them seventh in the conference, but he is like everyone else – completely unsure of how a 48-game season might unfold.
"Seventh could be four points from third," said Holland. "I looked at last year's standings. After 48 games, there were six teams within five points of each at the top of the Western Conference. There's going to be two or three teams that are comfortably in and then it's going to be a pack."
At the age of 42 last year, Lidstrom still played 23 minutes and 46 seconds per night for the Wings, and fellow blueliner Brad Stuart chipped in with 21:03. For family reasons, Stuart wanted to be back in California so he signed with the San Jose Sharks in the off-season. The Red Wings made one move – bringing in Carlo Coliacovo, the former Leaf, who was most recently with the St. Louis Blues – but the reality is, the engine that made the Red Wings tick, the glue that held them together, is now gone, off into retirement.
Holland noted that Jonathan Ericsson made great strides last year and this is a good opportunity for him to play on the top pair. They believe youngster Brendan Smith will eventually evolve into a top-four defencemen. Then they have what Holland calls some pros – Ian White, Kyle Quincey, Coliacovo – "who've been around the game and can play in the NHL and are obviously going to have to be members of our defence by committee. We really like our forwards. We think we can roll four lines. Even if we get injuries, we think we have players that can fit in and play. So we're really going to have to try and play a good team game and find a way to grind out wins."
Likely, the post-Lidstrom era is going to involve some of the same hardships that the Anaheim Ducks experienced a few years back when they lost both Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger within a two-year span. But Holland is hoping to ride it out and continue the Red Wings remarkable streak of making the playoffs in 21 consecutive years.
"After 48 games last year, we were first in the West," said Holland. "After 60 games, we were first overall. We've obviously lost two important pieces, but we have a lot of other players that we think are really good. Obviously, the question about the Detroit Red Wings, in a year where you lose two guys in the top four and a year after you lose Brian Rafalski is gonna be, 'how is the defence going to hold up?'
"There's no doubt we'll have a different look. We believe we have good goaltending. We believe we have good forwards. We believe the defence can play steady and solid, so … let's play some games and see."
THE KING AND I: Dave King, the Phoenix Coyotes' development coach, has a theory that will bear watching as the 48-game season unfolds – that NHL teams are going to have to pay closer attention to shootout preparation than ever before, because the margins between victory and defeat will be so close. King believes chances are good that a team's shootout may be the difference between making and missing the playoffs.
Certainly, there seems to be no consistent pattern to year-over-year shootout records. Two years ago, the Los Angeles Kings were the No. 1 team in the shootout, going 10-2. Last year, they were 6-9. If the Kings had been anywhere close to their previous shootout prowess, they could have easily made up the two-point gap that separated them from the first-place Coyotes in the Pacific Division (although Phoenix, at 6-10) was no better.
Two years ago, the Calgary Flames were 9-7 in the shootout; last year, they were 3-9 – a contributing factor to their playoff miss. The year they won the Stanley Cup, the Boston Bruins were 2-6 in the shootout; last year, they went 9-2.
There are a handful of teams that have been consistently good on the shootout. Colorado is a combined 15-3 over the past two years; and Pittsburgh is a sterling 19-6.
But for the most part, there is randomness to it, and coaches generally don't like things that they can't control. The last lockout begat the shootout and, according to King, the shootout could have a significant impact on who gets to play for a championship now that this year's lockout is over.
"Goalkeeping is going to be important in a 48-game season, special teams are going to be important, but I think the cruncher might be the penalty shots in the shootout," said King. "I really believe, in the shortened schedule, teams are going to have to seriously focus on practising shootouts. A lot of times, in an 82-game season, it's pretty nonchalant. This time, you're going to have to have guys bear down and just work with five or six shooters and get them focused on the importance of working on moves. Your scouting on goalies in shootouts is going to be really important."
Incidentally, year-over-year scoring declined the only other time the NHL played a shortened season, and the New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup that year by mugging and grinding their way through the playoffs. Pat Quinn, the former Canucks' coach, believes that the NHL fundamentally changed for the worse that year, just because of how increasingly lax the officiating became in the 1995 postseason.
There is a thought that the start of the new season will also feature a new crackdown on obstruction, to try and find a middle ground between the call-everything edict that came out of the last work stoppage and a perception that the league was letting too much go again. So will the hockey be fast and furious? Or as Hockey Night In Canada commentator Kelly Hrudey fears – maybe just the opposite. Hrudey's theory is that with limited preparation time, coaches will keep it simple to begin with.
"When you talk about the way the coaches are right now," said Hrudey, "it's a really a simple way to play – chip and chase and block shots, so … I hope they allow the skilled players to improvise a little more and maybe make a play at the blueline. That certainly would be welcome. It can be a pretty boring game at times. It's played by really, really skilled guys, but it is really stifled."
TEEMU'S BACK: Unlike Lidstrom, the Ducks' Teemu Selanne decided to play this year because things went so well a year ago. Selanne led the team with 66 points, no small feat considering he was playing with the previous year's MVP, Corey Perry, on a team that ultimately missed the playoffs because of its slow start. Selanne pointed that the lockout back in 2004-05 saved his career because it permitted him time for recover surgery that got his skating stride back. It would have been quite the irony if this year had been lost too, in which case likely he wouldn't have come back. Selanne played all 82 games last year, the oldest player in league history to ever do so (at 41 years, 279 days at the end of the season). Back for his 20th campaign, Selanne says: "Age is a funny thing. A lot of times, I don't really feel 42. It all depends on how good you feel, how healthy you are and how much passion you have for the game."
SHARK WATCH: The San Jose Sharks were one of only two NHL teams to make the playoffs in the seven seasons bookended by the last two lockouts, but they'll start the year Sunday in Calgary, missing a key piece - defenceman Brent Burns, who is out with a lower body injury that may or may not be related to off-season sports hernia surgery. Burns led Sharks rearguards with 11 goals last season and was a contributor, along with Dan Boyle, to the NHL's second-best power-play unit. San Jose didn't make many off-season personnel changes, apart from adding defenceman Brad Stuart and pesky forward Adam Burish, and maybe the most addition came on the coaching staff, where Larry Robinson left the Stanley Cup finalist New Jersey Devils to work with coach Todd McLellan's group.
The Sharks were 195-92-41 in the past four seasons under the very able McLellan, which is the best overall record in the NHL during that span, but they were absolutely dismal killing penalties last year (even worse than the Toronto Maple Leafs, if such a thing can be believed). The thinking is that Robinson will help improve that in a meaningful way. New Jersey was, after all, No. 1 in penalty-killing efficiency last year at a sterling 89.6 per cent success rate. Speculation is that a 25-year-old rookie defenceman, Matt Irwin of Brentwood Bay, B.C., will make his NHL debut for the Sharks against Calgary.
A RARE KING-SIZED BLUNDER: The Kings get credit for doing a lot of things correctly in building their Stanley Cup championship team, but one clear-cut miss was exposed this week when they lost defenceman Thomas Hickey to the New York Islanders on waivers. The Kings went way off the charts to take Hickey fourth overall in 2007, (Central Scouting had him rated at the end of the first round). Kings GM Dean Lombardi acknowledged that it was an all-or-nothing sort of gamble – and that has proven to be true. Among the defencemen selected after Hickey that year: NHL regulars Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk and P.K. Subban.
L.A. will start the season without Willie Mitchell on the blueline, following off-season knee surgery, but Hickey – small and skilled – is the antithesis of Mitchell and what he brings, which is why they didn't try harder to keep him on their 23-man NHL roster. In Mitchell's absence, Alec Martinez moves temporarily into a top-four role. Meanwhile, Kings centre Anze Kopitar, who hurt his knee in his final game playing in Sweden before the lockout ended, is back skating and right now, he is questionable for their opener against Chicago Saturday, which will also feature the banner-raising from their Stanley Cup championship.
THE DEVIL MADE HIM DO IT: Trying to figure out the new normal in NHL contract discussions will take some time, but wow, what a stunner earlier this week when the New Jersey Devils signed Travis Zajac to an eight-year, $46-million extension. Eight years is the maximum contract length allowed in the new collective bargaining agreement and it is only an option for teams signing their own free agents. The Devils clearly still feel the sting of losing Zach Parise as an unrestricted free agent to the Minnesota Wild in the off-season, but this looks like massive overcompensation.
Zajac has been a good – not great - player for them for six years (although he missed a big chunk of last year recovering from Achilles tendon surgery), but a $5.75-million average for a player that has never topped 25 goals or 67 points in a single season seems high. It will be interesting to see how the Devils survive Parise's departure, given that they also lost Alexei Ponikarovsky to the Winnipeg Jets in the off-season and will start the year without Adam Henrique, last year's Calder Trophy candidate, who has a thumb issue. Somehow, the acquisitions of Krys Barch and Bobby Butler don't figure to balance the scales against the players who left via free agency.
AND FINALLY: To manage a team on a comparative shoestring, the Coyotes generally need to be one step ahead of everyone else just to stay competitive. That's why, for example, they were prepared to absorb the Matthew Lombardi contract from Toronto earlier this week, a deal in which they need to pay him only $2-million of the $3.5-million that he'll earn this year, with the Leafs picking up the rest of the tab. Lombardi had his last good full year playing for the Coyotes in back in 2009-10 (53 points in 78 games) before joining the Nashville Predators as a free agent and then having his career derailed by a concussion. Phoenix has won at the repatriation game before – with right winger Radim Vrbata, who came back from Tampa three years ago and scored 35 goals for them last year; and also with defenceman Zbynek Michalek, who returns this year, after two seasons in Pittsburgh. Michalek led the Coyotes in ice time the last time he played in Phoenix and is a player coach Dave Tippett trusts implicitly.
Tippett also does a good job of surrounding himself with key advisors. Sean Burke's work with goalies as diverse as Ilya Bryzgalov and Mike Smith is a key to their success. King, Tippett's mentor, spent part of the lockout watching games in Germany, where his son Scott plays. Beyond his theory on the shootout, King also wondered aloud how much of an advantage playing overseas is really going to be for returning NHLers.
"They were playing hard, but the game was so different," said King. "There was so much more time and space because of the size of the ice,. Conditioning-wise, I think for sure they'll have an early advantage. But you've got to recognize that when you get back to a North American rink, where defences are so disciplined on those smaller ice surfaces, the game gets a little tougher to play."