I underrated Nicklas Lidstrom. I ranked him only as my #19 player of the decade of the 2000s. With that in my mind, I criminally underrated him. It took me a while to fully understand the brilliance that was Nick Lidstrom, the supernova of a star of a defensemen for the Red Wings for the past 20 years, in which time the Wings never missed the playoffs, and earned over 100 points every season of the past 12. Lidstrom won 7 Norris Trophies as the NHL's best defensemen. Sure, some of his more recent wins were probably earned more on reputation than play (last season), but, like his partner in history for the 1990-2010 NHL experience Marty Brodeur, he should have won a few earlier in his career when he was denied. Lidstrom was a key member of four Stanley Cup winning teams in Detroit, including a well-deserved Conn Smythe Trophy win in 2002, and was by all accounts an incredible leader on the ice (he was the Captain of the Red Wings after Steve Yzerman retired) and a selfless man off of it, yet none of this really describes Nick Lidstrom. What does is simple - he was perfect. Not perfect in the sense of a perfect team or a perfect season, but if you could construct the best possible defenseman in the NHL in the modern game, it would simply be Nick Lidstrom. Everything about his game was perfect.
He had the sleek skating style that few, if any, matched, being able to glide around the ice. He had the incredible hockey IQ to break up plays, read passes, know how and where to clear the zone, to drape forwards. He had the shot that somehow always seemed far more effective from the point than it should have been. He had the soft hands to make great passes. Although he wasn't all that big, he had the ability and the intellect to use his body perfectly to nudge forwards out of the way, to space his defensive zone. He was the best penalty killer the Wings had, and the most crucial element of their power-play. He was the definition of an NHL defenseman. My personal favorite defenseman was Scott Niedermayer (to me, he was always better than Scott Stevens, but not as integral to the Devils identity) but other than Niedermayer's peerless skating ability, everything Scott did well, Nicklas did just 5% better, and when you add that up across every facet of playing defense in hockey, that's a large gap. The Greatest defenseman that anyone under 40 has seen (because they wouldn't have really seen Bobby Orr) just retired today.
The Red Wings will probably be fine going forward, especially with the loads of cap room which just increased without them having to pay Lidstrom (I'm pretty sure they are going to get Nashville's Ryan Suter from what I have heard, and are probably good players in the Parise race), but that era of Red Wings hockey that Lidstrom defined is coming to an end. Throughout the mid to late 2000s, the Red Wings were the best team in hockey. After the Wings won the 2002 Stanley Cup with the old guard as the face of the team (Yzerman, Shanahan, Chelios, Hasek, Draper, etc.) and were bounced in the 1st and 2nd round the next two seasons (#2 and #1 seeds in those years) the lockout came. The game opened up, the old guard left, and the new Red Wings came in and just dominated with an incredible, frustratingly exact efficiency. The more notable names because of their scoring were Datsyuk and Zetterberg, but Lidstrom was the key. He set the tone, and the rest of the team followed. Outside of those three, the Wings never really had a supremely talented player, but they always won over 100 points and nabbed one of the top seeds (from 2005-2006 on, the Wings were the #1, #1, #1, #2 and then #5, #3 and #5 as age and injury set in). The real peak was from the '05-'06 season through the '08-'09 season. They were just playing hockey at a fantasy level, with sleek perfection. Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Holmstrom, Filpulla, Kronwall, Ericsson and others were key, but Lidstrom was the glue of the team, the true perfect representation of what that Red Wings era stood for.
Lidstrom was one of the few athletes I have seen that mentioned during his retirement that he knew he could play more, but wanted to go out before his play started to slip, and while it robbed the fans of some more games of watching Lidstrom perform, it makes sense. Lidstrom's remarkable career was defined by his unwavering brilliance and it would have been sad and jarring to see a Lidstrom at 80% of his real powers. I don't know if I will ever see any athlete so embody and perfect the characteristics of his position like Lidstrom. Manning and Duncan are the only ones I can think of, and that is high, high company. You never really appreciate a great defensemen in hockey until they are gone, and as a Devils fan, I have first hand evidence as I never really saw just how good Niedermayer was until I had to watch the Johnny Oduya's and Mike Mottau's of the post-Niedermayer era. Wings fans will have the same problem, only with a better player. Wings fan appreciate Lidstrom already, but they will appreciate him more now that he's gone, and Lidstrom will still be probably truly underappreciated, because accurately appreciating perfection is close to impossible.