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NEAT NICK
Michael Farber
June 13, 2008
THE RED WINGS' LOW-KEY CAPTAIN IS ABOUT AS PERFECT A DEFENSEMAN AS THE NHL HAS EVER SEEN
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June 13, 2008

Neat Nick

THE RED WINGS' LOW-KEY CAPTAIN IS ABOUT AS PERFECT A DEFENSEMAN AS THE NHL HAS EVER SEEN

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WITH HIS SEEMINGLY EFFORTLESS approach Lidstrom can seem invisible. Even in Sweden. He scored the gold-medal-winning goal in the 2006 Olympics, but perpetually injured Peter Forsberg and Toronto Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin, both forwards with less subtle on-ice skill, have higher profiles at home. Still, the sheer weight of Lidstrom's accomplishments will eventually define his place among the greats. In addition to finishing first or second in Norris Trophy balloting in eight of the past nine seasons, he is a staggering +378 in his career. Potvin calls Lidstrom the ultimate chess player on ice.

"When you really watch a game and see all the things that he does that are so well thought out, it's unreal," Minnesota Wild coach Jacques Lemaire says. "If I could have one player to help us win a Cup this year, it would be Lidstrom."

"If you could rattle him, you might get him off his game," Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett says. "Except I've never seen him rattled. He anticipates defensively the way [Wayne] Gretzky and [Mario] Lemieux anticipated offensively."

"In pregame meetings we would remind our players that because he logs so much ice time, you always want to finish your checks on him," says former St. Louis Blues coach Mike Kitchen, now a Florida assistant. "But you couldn't start your check on him because you couldn't even [find a way to] hit him. That's a credit to his positioning and to his intelligence."

Lidstrom began to develop the intricacies of his game—head up like Orr, puck on a string, mastery of the blue line geometry, deceiving pass-shot option from the left point on the power play, surgical passes that effectively enhance team speed—as a teenager in his hometown of Vasteras. Over time, Lidstrom blended those complicated elements into something disarmingly simple. As part of one of the best drafts in any sport (Detroit not only selected Lidstrom 53rd overall in 1989 but also took center Sergei Fedorov, defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov, forwards Dallas Drake and Mike Sillinger and recently retired defenseman Bob Boughner), Lidstrom entered the NHL two seasons later playing that understated style, and he surely will leave the league playing the same way. On Dec. 26 he agreed to a two-year, $14.9 million contract extension that will pay him until he is nearly 40; given his enthusiasm and sensational good health, Lidstrom could sign another deal. "I always tell people," Holland says, "you'll only miss Nick after he's gone."

IF THERE IS A VALID CRITICISM of Lidstrom, it is this: Despite his Conn Smythe, Lidstrom hasn't noticeably raised his game in the playoffs. A typical Lidstrom match on May 10 looks like a typical Lidstrom match on Jan. 10; flatlining at an elite level is fine, but the caveat is that almost everyone on the other team has lifted his game.

"You have to be a little meaner, a little tougher, a little more disciplined in the playoffs," Potvin says. "It could be a fact of his character that Lidstrom plays at one level, and it's been great. But whether that's enough to lead a team in a critical game or a critical moment, well, we haven't seen him win his Cup yet the way we saw [Mark] Messier win a Cup without Gretzky [in Edmonton in 1990]. His other Cups were on Steve Yzerman's teams."

So the defining issue for Detroit is whether Mr. (Almost) Perfect can take a Swede-heavy roster to the Red Wings' 11th championship and become the first player born and trained in Europe to captain a Stanley Cup winner. It would go down in history as the bland leading the blonds.

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