The Red Wings learned something very important this season: There is life after Nick Lidstrom.
That life is not as calm, nor as perfect as it was before, but in the salary cap era, it’s still pretty good.
There’s a reason that general manager Ken Holland’s long-running joke was that when Lidstrom retired, so would he.
But Holland didn’t retire and neither did the Wings.
In fact, without Lidstrom, the Wings advanced to overtime of the seventh game of the second round against the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks.
Although losing that series after being up 3-1 is a bitter pill to swallow, the veteran Wings were still proud of their teammates.
“Nick left, Homer (Tomas Holmstrom) left, Stewie (Brad Stuart) left, we had some challenges early in the year, week left in the season we won four in a row to get in,” Daniel Cleary said in the somber visitors’ dressing room after Game 7. “Seven games with Anaheim, 3-1 lead against Chicago, losing in OT in Game 7, I think our team showed a lot of heart, showed a lot of character. I’m proud of our team, I thought we worked hard all season.”
Said goaltender Jimmy Howard: “(I) just thank the guys here for never giving up, constantly being resilient. There were people that counted us down and out, saying you can’t do it because we lost Nick. We lost a lot of guys. We had a lot of guys step up this year.”
First among those who stepped up was new captain Henrik Zetterberg.
There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Zetterberg was the right choice to follow Lidstrom as captain.
Zetterberg, 32, was second on the team to Pavel Datsyuk in regular-season scoring, with 48 points (11 goals, 37 assists) to Datsyuk’s 49 (15 goals, 34 assists).
In the playoffs, Zetterberg led the way with 12 points (4 goals, 8 assists) in 14 hard-fought games with the Anaheim Ducks and Blackhawks.
It was Zetterberg who scored the tying goal 26 seconds into the third period of Game 7 to give the Wings a chance. It was also Zetterberg who frustrated Chicago captain Jonathan Toews with his suffocating defense.
“He’s been a great leader for us all year,” Howard said. “I can’t really say enough good things about the guy. He’s really a class act.”
Others who stepped up were the young kids thrust into the lineup due to injuries or departures.
Those included the third line of Joakim Andersson, Damien Brunner and Gustav Nyquist.
Brunner led the Wings with five goals in the playoffs and was second to Datsyuk and Zetterberg in the regular season with 12.
Andersson won 59.2 percent of his face-offs against the Blackhawks and 55.9 percent overall in the playoffs.
Nyquist had two goals, including an overtime game-winner in the Anaheim series, and three assists, including the first assist on Zetterberg’s Game 7 goal against the Blackhawks.
“If you give Gus a chance he’s going to make something happen, that’s how good he is, how talented he is,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “He’s proven that the last few months, he’s taken his game and elevated it to the next level. That whole line had been good.”
Defensemen Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith stepped into the lineup and accepted large roles.
Despite his oft-criticized mistakes, Smith gained invaluable experience in the regular season and postseason.
“I got a lot of criticism and a lot of praise,” the 24-year-old Smith said. “I got both spectrums. It was an interesting playoffs for myself. I think I grew up a lot and matured and learned how to put things behind me and just go out and try to play the task at hand.”
Before he got hurt in the third period of Game 2 against the Ducks, rookie defenseman Danny DeKeyser was a godsend. Coach Mike Babcock said the Wings would not have made the playoffs without his steady 11-game contribution.
“I thought our guys played hard and really competed,” Babcock said. “I’ve said life is about maximizing what you got and I thought our group did that. I’d like to see a healthy DeKeyser, a healthy (Darren) Helm if he’s playing again and we could be a way better team. We need to be better if we want to be in this position consistently and not just by working, by being good enough to be in this position. We have some work to do as a group this summer.”
That work will not only require the current players to get better and the injured players to get healthy, it will also require the efforts of the front office.
Tough decisions will need to be made on unrestricted free agents Valtteri Filppula, Cleary, Brunner, Drew Miller and Ian White.
Andersson, Nyquist, Kindl and Smith are all restricted free agents.
The Wings will also have to decide which free agents from other teams, if any, they want to pursue.
While the post-Lidstrom Wings will be different, now they know they can still compete with the best of them and perhaps soon will beat the best with a few changes.
“It’s huge to see how well our team did,” Smith said. “How well we played just shows all the people who wrote us off and thought we wouldn’t even make the playoffs, let alone make it this far and almost beat the No. 1 and No 2 seeds. It’s impressive to see how well our staff, how good they are and how many people they bring in. Great to see our young team has done this well and we’re just going to build on it.”