Lidstrom: Sweden ices NHL’s best defenceman

Four-time Olympian Sweden's Nicklas Lidstrom will be watching the 2014 Games from afar: "We know Canada’s going to be good, a lot of teams will, but Sweden will have high expectations.”

If fans of the Detroit Red Wings – which became a playoff bubble team on May 31, 2012, the day their best defenceman retired – are still getting used to life after Lidstrom, supporters of Team Sweden might be a touch nervous next month when Mr. Perfect isn’t there to quarterback his nation’s assault on the world.

Four years ago in Vancouver, slam-dunk Hockey Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom captained Sweden during his fourth and final Olympics. He was named to the tournament’s all-star team but announced his Olympic retirement following his country’s upset loss to Slovakia.

When the puck drops in Sochi, Sweden will take to the ice without Lidstrom for the first Olympic tournament since NHLers were invited to the party. Lidstrom scored six points at Torino 2006 en route to a gold medal and membership in the exclusive Triple Gold Club (world championships, Stanley Cup, Olympic glory).

If Petr Nedved can play for the Czech Republic at 42, surely Lidstrom is capable of lacing them up at 43. Spry, crisp and smiling, the four-time Cup winner looked like he should’ve been playing in the Winter Classic and not the Alumni Showdown a few weeks ago, when he flew cross-seas for a rare return to Detroit.

“It was fun to come back and play for one day. I don’t think I could do this every day, but I did enjoy myself,” says the retiree. In place of point shots, he’s now driving his kids to school and their extracurricular activities. “It’s great having all that free time.”

So Lidstrom will be content to kick back with his seven Norris trophies, his four children and watch the big-ice poetry at home.

“The gold would mean a lot,” Lidstrom says of his country. “Talk in Sweden began to pick up when they were about to pick the teams. We know Canada’s going to be good, a lot of teams will, but Sweden will have high expectations.”

The Swedes will be led by a veteran core consisting of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, the Sedin twins and current Red Wings Henrik Zetterberg and Daniel Alfredsson, a man only two years Lidstrom’s junior. And if you think Canada’s Crosby-Kunitz duo have an upper hand because they play on the same club team, an impressive six of Sweden’s national players are already practising with each other in Detroit. Having been through the drill several times – a fortnight of must-win games piled on top of just a couple days of practise — Lidstrom sees this familiarity as an advantage only compounded by the coach-ability of his countrymen.

“One thing with the Swedes is, they do a good job of adapting to different systems,” Lidstrom says. “It’s going to be great hockey.”

Another thing they do well is generate offence from the back end. It’s a message Lidstrom drilled home time and again during his 1,142-point NHL career. Of all the blue-liners in the NHL today, we ask Lidstrom whom he believes is the best. The first two names out of his mouth will represent Sweden as first-time Olympians.

“Erik Karlsson,” Lidstrom says immediately. “He’s a top-notch defenceman. He can join the rush; he can play 30 minutes a night. He’s the top guy. I also like [Oliver] Ekman-Larsson in Phoenix; he’s another guy that’s playing really well. Then you got the [Zdeno] Charas and [Shea] Webers that play real solid hockey, and there’s some solid defencemen coming up as well.”

Sweden is favoured to emerge as the top seed from Pool C, but both the Czech Republic and Switzerland, a hockey nation on the rise, could play spoilers. Lidstrom, of course, will be forced to root against his own former coach, Detroit’s Mike Babcock. Ironically, Team Canada bench boss Babcock is sending 10 of his Wings to Sochi and coaching none of them.

Lidstrom explains his former mentor’s key to success, giving a hint as to what the Canadian men’s squad can expect.

“He demands a lot out of his players, and as long as you’re working hard and doing your job, you’re going to get your ice time. He’ll treat you fairly,” Lidstrom says. “He’ll study videos or talk to players to get to know all the little things that can make a team better.”

Surely there were no aspects of Lidstrom’s game Babcock could have nitpicked, though.

“He didn’t just let me do my thing,” Lidstrom laughs. “We’d look at clips, and he would help me as we’re watching: ‘What do you think? Could you have done things differently?’ Just breaking things down. It’s little things that people won’t see when they’re watching a game, but when you slow things down, you can pick up all the details—and he’s very good at that.”

Yet even if he’s executed all of his teaching moments perfectly, Babcock’s Red Wings are a team on the brink this season, something few expected with Detroit’s shift to the weaker Eastern Conference under realignment. Injuries have taken a dramatic toll, leaving the Wings with a tentative grip on sixth place in the Atlantic Division. Only two players on the roster, Drew Miller and Kyle Quincey, have played all of Detroit’s first 50 games. Forwards Pavel Datsyuk, Mikael Samuelsson, Johan Franzen, Stephen Weiss, Zetterberg and Alfredsson have missed a minimum of 11 games each. And starting goaltender Jimmy Howard, currently sidelined with an injured left knee but hopeful for Sochi, has played in just 29 contests.

The model franchise now sees its mind-boggling 21-season playoff streak in jeopardy.

Lidstrom sees the problem.

“Consistency. It’s hard when you have a lot of guys hurt, and you have new guys coming in. They have to know the system and know the players they’re playing with—and that takes time,” the alumnus says. “When you have guys coming in and out, it ruptures your lineup. But that consistency is something that can get better.”

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