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Wings prepare for life after Lidstrom

by Brian Hedger

DETROIT -- Ken Holland did everything he could to persuade legendary defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom to give it one more season with the Detroit Red Wings.

It just didn't work.

After Lidstrom informed him a week ago that he was set to retire after 20 NHL seasons, Holland told him to take the long holiday weekend to think it over. After Lidstrom said he was sure about retirement this past Tuesday, Holland had legendary former Red Wings defenseman Chris Chelios -- now part of Detroit's front office -- take Lidstrom paddleboarding for a chat, just to make sure.

When that didn't work, Holland knew the day he'd been dreading for several years was finally at hand. Lidstrom announced on Thursday morning at Joe Louis Arena that he is indeed retiring; now it's time for Holland, his coaches and front office staff to do the previously unthinkable -- keep the Red Wings in contention for the Stanley Cup Playoffs without their captain, one of the top-five defensemen of all time.


Seven-time Norris winner Lidstrom retires

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It was hard to believe, even with Nicklas Lidstrom speaking the words himself. The guy the Red Wings nicknamed "The Perfect Human" – their captain for the past six seasons and a sure lock for Hall of Fame status – is officially hanging up his winged-wheel sweater and retiring after 20 years in Detroit. READ MORE ›

"It's hard to talk contingency plans when you're talking Nick Lidstrom," Holland said. "He's just so great. We've had a lot of great players here, but he's one of the two or three special ones at a position of defense that really controls the game. We've had a lot of real good defensemen or great defensemen here for a long time, and he's been the greatest of them all. So there aren't any contingency plans."

Not in the literal sense, anyway. There isn't another Nicklas Lidstrom out there who will be available come the July 1 start of free agency.

However, that doesn't mean Holland is just throwing his hands in the air and giving up.

"You look around the National Hockey League and there's different ways to win," Holland said. "Obviously, we're not going to have that star power on the back end with Nick walking away, but we've got some cap space and I feel real comfortable with our scouts, pro and amateur -- and our coaching staff. And we'll find a way to make some moves here over the next four, five or six weeks to put together a team that we think can be competitive."

Holland could have upwards of $20 million in salary-cap space freed up with the departure of Lidstrom and the likely departures of Tomas Holmstrom, Brad Stuart and possibly Jiri Hudler. That could allow him to go after the two biggest names that could become unrestricted free agents on July 1 -- Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter and New Jersey forward Zach Parise.

Holland said the Wings will definitely be players in free agency again -- just as they were last season, when signing Ian White and Mike Commodore helped to offset the loss of defenseman Brian Rafalski, who retired unexpectedly.

Holland said he sees free agency as one piece to the "staying competitive" puzzle instead of the entire puzzle by itself.

"We're going to get somebody," Holland said. "I mean, we're going to sign somebody. Everybody always looks on July 1 and they think about the big name, but a lot of times it's not the big, sexy name. It's the right pieces. It's a team sport. It's about a team. We have lots of pieces in place. In my opinion, we've got a goalie in his prime. We've got a lot of defensemen in their 20s."

The Wings aren't exactly devoid of talent -- they have stars like centers Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, forwards Johan Franzen and Valtteri Filppula and defenseman Niklas Kronwall. There's also Danny Cleary, who's looking to rebound from a frustrating knee injury that hindered him all season, or young forwards Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader -- now solid third- and fourth-line grinders.

However, Holland did seem to concede that his team might have to take a slightly different and more defense-oriented approach in the near term to stay competitive.

"It’s hard to talk contingency plans when you’re talking Nick Lidstrom. He's just so great. We've had a lot of great players here, but he's one of the two or three special ones at a position of defense that really controls the game. We've had a lot of real good defensemen or great defensemen here for a long time, and he’s been the greatest of them all. So there aren't any contingency plans.." -- Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland

"We've built our team a certain way for a long time, and we've had a lot of success with it," Holland said. "What's the certain way? It's been skill. The skill has been Nick Lidstrom and Zetterberg and Datsyuk and [Steve Yzerman] and you think back to the 2002 team. We don't pick in the top five. We're hoping we're going to get lucky with one of these kids on our board, but to think you're going to churn out those types [every year]. In a cap world it's got to be about a plan."

Free agency is one tool for the Wings -- one coach Mike Babcock thinks will be crucial as the team enters life without Lidstrom.

"You have to embrace change, and that's what we're going to do," Babcock said. "It's important to embrace change -- [but] we have to add more to the room. There's no question about that."

The faces may change, Holland said, but the organization's goals won't.

"I've been here long enough to understand the passion of a whole lot of people," Holland said. "The passion of our ownership, the passion of our fan base, the passion of the people in this organization, the passion of the players -- we all want the same thing. We all want to be a Cup-contending team. Beyond that, there are no guarantees."

For his part, Lidstrom feels his former team and his now-former teammates will do just fine -- and said he, like everyone in the organization, has high expectations.

"There's going to be some openings with the roster the way it is now, but Kenny's going to do whatever he can to put a competitive team on the ice again," Lidstrom said. "I'm not worried about that. I like the core group that we have."

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