Wings' Lidstrom flirts with perfection

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

DETROIT – His teammates have called him “The Perfect Human,” but that’s questionable. Forget perfect. Is he human?

Nicklas Lidstrom(notes) is 40 now. But there is no gray in his hair – not even at the temples, not even in the scruff of beard that still doesn’t quite cover his face – and he is playing as well as he ever has for the Detroit Red Wings.

The joke is that if you were to cut him open, you would find oil instead of blood, wires instead of sinew.

“I don’t feel my age,” Lidstrom said. “I sat next to Cheli for 10 years. I’ve seen him over the years. I can’t complain.”

“Cheli” would be Chris Chelios(notes), the future Hall of Fame defenseman who finally retired in August at age 48. At his farewell news conference, Chelios said he thought Lidstrom could play to age 45 – and not just in a reduced role, as Chelios did in his later years, but at an elite level. Lidstrom just smiled.

[Photos: More photos of Lidstrom on the ice]

This is supposed to be the era of the young defenseman. Among the notables are the Buffalo SabresTyler Myers(notes), who won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year last season, and the Los Angeles KingsDrew Doughty(notes), widely touted as the favorite to win the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman this season. Myers and Doughty are 20, half Lidstrom’s age.

Yet here is Lidstrom with 17 points, tied with 23-year-old Kris Letang(notes) of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the scoring lead among NHL defensemen, even though he has played four fewer games than Letang and the Wings’ power play is only in the middle of the pack.

Here is Lidstrom on an 11-game point streak, the longest of his decorated career, even though historically he has been a slow starter offensively and teammate Mike Modano(notes), off to a slow start himself this season at age 40, said: “Usually it takes a while to get the engines warm for older guys.”

Lidstrom started slowly last season. It took him 40 games to reach the point total he has already this season, and for only the second time in 12 years he wasn’t a finalist for the Norris. But he finished strong and still finished fourth in the voting, and this is still the same player who has won the Norris six times and been runner-up for it three times. Only Bobby Orr (eight) and Doug Harvey (seven) have won the award more.

[Related: Top 5 NHL defensemen]

“They’ve been tired of writing his name on the ballot for the Norris,” Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “But he continues to set the standard.”

No wonder the Wings, labeled as too old for so long, are 11-3-1 and still a leading Stanley Cup contender. Despite the age of Lidstrom, this remains the Age of Lidstrom.

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What’s his secret?

A wacky diet?

“He eats a lot of rhubarb,” offered Daniel Alfredsson(notes), captain of the Ottawa Senators and a fellow Swedish Olympian. Uh, that was a joke. No rhubarb. Lidstrom laughed at that and said: “Just taking care of myself in the offseason, knowing what I have to do to get ready for a long year.”

So it’s an intense off-season regimen, then? Well, not really. Lidstrom spends a couple of months in Sweden every summer lifting weights, riding bikes, playing tennis – maybe doing some quick-feet drills, but nothing out of the ordinary for an elite athlete. “I do a mix of things to stay in shape, and that helps,” Lidstrom said.

Genetics? Lidstrom’s father worked for the road commission, dispatching trucks for snow removal and pothole repairs. His mother worked in a school kitchen. “My dad played hockey, but not at a high level at all,” Lidstrom said. “My mom wasn’t very athletic, either. Not sure where it came from.”

Magic? Lidstrom once invested in an energy drink called “Magic,” but he got out of that business years ago.

In the end, it’s genius, something that can’t be fully explained, only appreciated.

“It’s the way he sees the game,” said Anders Hedberg, the New York Rangers’ head pro scout in Europe and a former general manager of Team Sweden. “Have you ever seen him be in a rush? Did you ever see Wayne Gretzky be in a rush? Those are Einsteins. The rest of us, it’s like a bunch of ants running around on the ice, and it’s so damn fast. Their minds are up in the press box. They see everything, know everything, well in advance of everybody else. That’s Lidstrom and Gretzky.”

About 23 years ago, Hedberg was recruiting for a team in the Swedish Elite League. He called a coach in a hockey gymnasium about Leif Rohlin, a 19-year-old prospect whom the Vancouver Canucks would draft in the second round, 33rd overall, in 1988. The coach, Par Marts, now the head of the Swedish national junior program, gave him a tip.

“Par actually said, ‘You know, Anders, Leif Rohlin is very talented. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s physically developed. But the real player, he’s a 17-year-old,’ ” Hedberg said. “And that was Nicklas Lidstrom.”

Lidstrom was just a skinny kid the Red Wings would draft in the third round, 53rd overall, in 1989. But as Hedberg said, “He’s still skinny,” listed at 6-foot-1, 190 pounds. Lidstrom’s game has always been about brains, not brawn; about consistency and efficiency, not through-the-boards hits or breathtaking end-to-end rushes; about picking pucks out of the air at the blue line or along the boards, not picking fights.

“He probably spends as much energy playing 30 minutes as I spend playing 15,” Alfredsson said. “He’s not flashy, and he doesn’t try to be. He sees the play and he makes it – 10 times out of 10, the right play.”

Lidstrom has been the ultimate low-maintenance, high-production player. Since the Wings plugged him into the lineup at age 21 in 1991-92, he has missed a grand total of 32 games in 18-plus regular seasons – and many of those were simply to rest before the playoffs.

Yes, his style has helped keep him out of harm’s way, but don’t underestimate his toughness. Few outside the dressing room realize he has played through injuries like a broken nose that limited his breathing, a broken thumb on his top hand that hurt every time he handled the puck.

“He’s had minor separated shoulders, he’s had abdominal strains, he’s had knee soreness … everything,” Wings trainer Piet Van Zant said. “He’s – knock on wood – one of the guys that just plays.”

Not only has Lidstrom played virtually every game since he entered the NHL, he has played one-third to a one-half of virtually every game. From 1998-99 (when the league started recording ice time) through last season, he averaged 27:28. He’s averaging 24:10 this season. He has played in all situations – power play, penalty kill, against the opponents’ top offensive threats – and he’s a plus-436. He has 1,063 points, sixth-most all-time among NHL defensemen.

“I think he’s the best defenseman in the world,” Holland said.

Note that Holland said “is,” not “was” or “has been.”

“I think,” Holland added for emphasis, “we’ve got the best defenseman in the world for 2010-11.”

* * * * * *

How much longer will the Wings have Lidstrom? Perhaps as long as he feels he’s the best defenseman in the world – or at least among the best – and the Wings can win.

Coach Mike Babcock has said the Wings have a two-year window to win with this group, with Lidstrom being a big part of that. Holland would disagree, because whenever Lidstrom does leave, the Wings will have the cap space to sign a top free agent. But he knows no one could replace Lidstrom, and he wants to keep him as long as he can. He got Lidstrom to sign a one-year, $6.2-million deal for this season.

Asked if he could play until age 48, like Chelios did, Lidstrom said: “Uh, I haven’t thought that far. I don’t think I’m going to be playing when I’m 48 or 47.”

He laughed.

“I don’t see myself playing at that age,” he continued. “Right now I’m just taking it year by year. That’s why I just signed a one-year deal to go in and have a good season this year and see what happens next summer.”

Chelios played so long because, even as a three-time Norris winner, he was willing to swallow his pride, to accept less ice time, to go to the minors for almost a full season and resurface for seven games with the Atlanta Thrashers.

Lidstrom probably could play past 50 if he wanted to. But he has a high standard for himself, and that might be the quiet key to his hot start.

For years, he was underrated, his talents too subtle for many to fully appreciate. He was runner-up for the Norris three years in a row behind guys who took bigger shots (Rob Blake(notes), 1998; Al MacInnis, 1999) or threw bigger hits (Chris Pronger(notes), 2000). He never complained.

But then he finally received his due, winning the Norris six times in seven seasons, plus the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player in 2002. (If not for the lockout of 2004-05, he might be tied with Harvey and chasing Orr in the Norris department.) Just because he won’t come out and say so, don’t assume it didn’t bother him the way he slipped last season.

The week before this season started, Lidstrom said: “I know I have to have a better season than I did last year, but I think I’m capable of it.” After all these years and all he had accomplished, he sounded like he still had something to prove.

“I haven’t talked to Nick about it,” Holland said, “but Nick is a very competitive, proud athlete.”

He’s only human after all.

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