End in sight for Lidstrom, other Wings’ vets?

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

DETROIT – He laughed. He took a breath.

“It’s tough to answer,” Nicklas Lidstrom(notes) said. “I’d hope not. I want to continue to play this playoffs and just keep going with this team.”

We’re not about to see Lidstrom play for the last time at Joe Louis Arena, are we? The Detroit Red Wings hope not. They hope they can rally to beat the San Jose Sharks in this second-round series, and they hope that whatever happens their captain will decide to come back next season.

I don’t want to count out the Wings. I don’t want to read too much into anything, either. But listen to the way Lidstrom said “this playoffs with this team.” Maybe he put it that way because he’s focusing only on the present. But when he spoke about the Wings’ future, he said: “Looking at the depth we have and the core group of guys we have in our prime right now, I have no doubt that they’re going to be a successful team.” Is it “we” or “they”?

Unless the Wings become only the fourth team in NHL history to overcome a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven series, they’re about to be eliminated. Unless they win the next two against a team that has beaten them seven out of the past eight times they have met in the playoffs, Friday night will be their finale at the Joe.

That at least sets up the possibility of a farewell to one of the greatest defenseman in NHL history. What’s more, it could mark an inglorious exit for one of the greatest American players in NHL history, Mike Modano(notes), who now wonders whether he should have retired after last season. It also could be the end for two long-time Wings who want to return but don’t know if they will be able to: Chris Osgood(notes) and Kris Draper(notes).

Just the possibility hurts. However long these venerable veterans have left – one more game, one more season, maybe a little more – it isn’t much. They know they have only so many chances left to win the Stanley Cup. Draper thought about that after the Wings lost Game 3 in overtime, 4-3. One bounce the other way, and they’re still very much alive as serious contenders. Instead, they’re on the brink in more ways than one.

“I’ll be honest with you,” Draper said Thursday. “When I drove home, until I got off [Interstate] 75, the drive was a blur. Just realizing we were right there. It very easily could be 2-1. And then you wake up this morning, and you realize we’ve got a ton of work to do.”

Lidstrom has been going year to year for years, waiting until the off-season to make a decision. He’s quiet and classy, but he’s proud, and there is some thought that he came back this season with something to prove after not being named a Norris Trophy finalist for only the second time in 12 years.

If he had something to prove, he proved it. He is a Norris finalist again at age 40. If he wins his seventh Norris, he will tie Doug Harvey for the second-most behind Bobby Orr (eight).

He has said he doesn’t see himself playing until age 48, like former teammate Chris Chelios(notes) did, even though he almost certainly could. If he wins the Norris, will he go out on top? Will he be satisfied to retire as a Norris finalist if he doesn’t win? Or will he come back in any event because he knows he can still play at the highest level and the Wings can still compete?

“I have no idea what Nick is doing,” Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “I’ve had no conversations, for obvious reasons.”

Lidstrom teammates don’t know and don’t talk about it, either.

“It’s kind of a taboo question,” Osgood said, comparing it to when another Wings icon, Steve Yzerman, was near the end of his playing career. “We don’t ask. I don’t know if it’s because guys are scared to ask or what. It’s out of respect. We’re not going to go up to him and say, ‘Are you done?’ ”

It’s a hard question for player to ask even himself.

Modano thought he was done in Dallas last season after a long, accomplished career with the Stars organization. The Wings talked him out of retiring and into signing with his hometown team. He had grown up playing for Wings owner Mike Ilitch’s Little Caesars youth program. He had gone on to become the leading American scorer in NHL history. They hoped he could take at least one more crack at the Cup.

But Modano missed much of the season after an errant skate sliced his right wrist in November, and though he worked hard to return, the 40-year-old struggled to get up to speed and has been a healthy scratch for all but one playoff game. He doesn’t know if he will dress Friday night in what could be his last chance to play in the NHL.

“It certainly crossed my mind after the game last night and today that this could be it,” Modano said. “A knee-jerk reaction is to kind of say that’s it and be done with it, because the frustration level is fairly high at this point. … Right now if you ask me, I’d probably say no, I wouldn’t entertain anything at this moment.”

Modano said he isn’t sure if he would announce his retirement right away or wait to see if he got the itch and opportunity to play again, like he did last summer. But he knows some of the people who are trying to buy the Stars. He might have a future doing something in Dallas, and that might be the way to go. This attempt at playing one more season didn’t work out the way he envisioned, to say the least.

“Your initial thought is a little regret, because of what you went through, but no one could ever predict what happened, the severity of the injury and what all took place,” Modano said. “It’s just … Maybe it was a sign that I should have stayed away.”

Draper and Osgood want to stay here. They have spent most of their NHL careers in Detroit – certainly the best years – and have put down roots. Draper became a fan favorite as a member of the Grind Line with Darren McCarty(notes) and Kirk Maltby(notes), and won a Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. Osgood became only the 10th goaltender to reach 400 NHL wins. They feel good physically, and their value goes beyond what they contribute on the ice. They have been valuable mentors for the Wings’ next generation of players.

But they’re getting up there – Draper almost 40, Osgood 38 – and their roles have been reduced as that next generation has taken over. Draper has been in and out of the lineup, and Osgood has been out since having hernia surgery in January.

“If you were to say that it’s over, I’d tell you it’s not because of the way that I feel,” Draper said. “But I’m going to obviously have to sit down with Kenny Holland and see what the plans are for me.”

Said Osgood: “For me, either way is good. If I don’t play, it’ll be good. If I do, it’ll be great.”

Holland is looking ahead only to Friday night. But he said: “At some point in time, this season’s going to be over. Then we’ll obviously start to plan for ’11-12. I think the nature of the industry, there’s change. There has to be change. Nobody just brings the entire team back. … I’m aware we’ve got some veteran guys. Some probably will be back. Some probably won’t.”

These four have done so much in their careers. One of the few things they haven’t done is come back from a 3-0 series deficit.

“That’s something …” Draper said.

He paused.

“If we could somehow …”

He paused again.

“That would be pretty cool,” Draper said. “With that said, we can’t control anything but winning one game. Win Game 4, and then from there we gain a little momentum, and you never know.”

Athletes always talk about taking it one game at a time. But it’s hard when you’re talking about staying alive in a playoff series. It might be the hardest when you could be talking about your career.

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