When The Hockey News published its definitive The Top 100 NHL Players Of All-Time back in 1997, Nicklas Lidstrom was nowhere to be found.
At the time, Lidstrom was a 27-year-old defenseman playing in his sixth NHL season with the Detroit Red Wings. He didn’t own a Stanley Cup ring. He had never won the Norris Trophy. He did appear in the 1996 NHL All-Star Game, but he had never been named a first- or second-team all-star.
A lot has changed in the past dozen years.
Lidstrom has since collected four Cup rings, six Norris Trophies and nine first-team all-star selections (as well as one second-team berth). He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in 2002. Most recently, he became the first European defenseman – and just the eighth in league history – to collect 1,000 NHL points.
So, maybe it’s time to rewrite history a bit and find a spot for Lidstrom among the game’s all-time greats. At least, let’s see where the smooth Swedish blueliner fits among the best rearguards the NHL has ever seen.
(Note: The voters for The Top 100 book represented a who’s who of the hockey world, including players, coaches, GMs, journalists and hockey historians, along with experts on the past and present NHL.)
Bobby Orr ranked No. 2 in The Top 100 behind Wayne Gretzky and Orr forerunner Doug Harvey was next (among D-men) at No. 6.
Orr (eight) and Harvey (seven) are the only two rearguards to win more Norris Trophies than Lidstrom. And while it’s nigh on impossible to truly compare players from such drastically different eras, it would be difficult to argue that Lidstrom has had a similar impact on the way the game is played as did those two revolutionary defensemen, so let’s move on.
Eddie Shore, who starred for the Bruins in the 1930s, was rated the No. 10 NHLer of all-time. No other defenseman has won as many as Shore’s four Hart Trophies, not even Orr (three). Again, we’re comparing different eras, but Shore’s four MVP baubles indicate that he was a more dominant force in his day than Lidstrom has been in his.
It’s the next cut of elite defensemen where Lidstrom likely fits in, somewhere among the Ray Bourques (No. 14), Denis Potvins (No. 19), Larry Robinsons (No. 24) and Paul Coffeys (No. 28).
Bourque is a good comparison; the longtime Bruin (and Stanley Cup-winning Av) played a similar style to Lidstrom. That is, they’re both smart, two-way defensemen with impeccable positioning, great passing and the ability to lend a calming influence no matter how intense the circumstances.
They do all the little things that go unnoticed, from blocking shots to breaking up plays to firing perfect outlet passes.
The offensive side of the game was second nature to both players and few in history have been their match as quarterbacks on the power play.
In fact, they’re both so good offensively that their defensive acumen probably has been underrated; yet, they’re always out there in the final minutes of a close contest, protecting leads and taking care of their own-zone business.
Neither Bourque nor Lidstrom has a weak point in their game; they might not have been physical forces, but they certainly never wilted when the going got rough. They didn’t revolutionize the game, but they were revelations; they’re about as close to all-around perfect as you’re going to see in an NHL defenseman. (I know what you’re thinking: “So what does that mean, that Orr was better than perfect?!” Yes, that’s exactly what it means. Any arguments? Didn’t think so.)
Lidstrom, with his six Norris Trophies, has to be considered the best defenseman of his generation. Fans of Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger and Zdeno Chara may disagree, but Lidstrom’s body of work speaks for itself.
And, as the best blueliner the league has seen in the past 20 years, the Red Wings great deserves to be slotted somewhere in the No. 15-20 range, among the very best NHLers of all-time.
One final note: Lidstrom, who turns 40 in April, is in the final year of his contract. Wings observers believe he’ll return for another season or two, but Lidstrom himself has been quiet on the subject.
As usual, he’s letting his elite action on the ice do his speaking for him.
Sam McCaig is The Hockey News' senior copy editor and a contributor to THN.com. His blog appears every weekend and his column, From The Point, appears regularly.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.