Friday, January 25, 2008

Lidstrom The Best Ever -- Even An Oldtimer Must Cede That

Once, there was Doug Harvey -- my dad's favorite, by the way -- who was a shot blocking maniac and so much of a stay-at-home defenseman that I wouldn't be surprised if he received his mail in front of the Red Wings' (and Canadiens') goal crease. There was also Bob Goldham, a pillar of the Red Wings' Cup-winning teams of the 1950s. Goldham would later become a Hockey Night In Canada analyst, talking about the current blueliners who were so inferior to him in his heyday.

Then along came Bobby Orr, and everything anyone knew about defensing in hockey went out the window, for Orr was a dazzling combination of skating, scoring, and playmaking -- from the "D" -- for the great Boston teams of the late-1960s, early-1970s. It's an overused term, but Orr truly revolutionized the way the position was played, and the way it was scouted.

Orr spawned the likes of Paul Coffey, Raymond Bourque, Al Iafrate, and others who would use speed and offense to, at times frankly, mask some of their defensive deficiencies.

Then there were the combos, like Al MacInnis, Chris Chelios, and Scott Stevens, who could do a little of both, but who had mostly a thick thread of nastiness in them.

Another defenseman exists today who is not revolutionizing the game. He's merely perfecting it.

I've written it before, and I'll write it again. You can have all of them -- Harvey, Goldham, Orr, Bourque, and the rest -- and I'll take Nick Lidstrom and trump you every time.

Sunday, Lidstrom will play in another All-Star game, and it's ironic, because though he is an annual participant, the game has never been about defense. But that's OK; his booming shot and precise passes go just fine there, too.

I'm usually an old fuddy-duddy when it comes to comparing players of different eras, which is always a futile endeavor anyway. But when it crops up, I'm likely to shove Oscar Robertson in front of you for every Michael Jordan reference, and Jimmy Brown for every Barry Sanders mentioning.

But I'm changing my tune with Lidstrom, who I'm convinced is playing defense better than anyone ever has in the National Hockey League. That's right -- EVER.

Here's Anaheim Ducks coach Randy Carlyle -- defending Cup champ coach and possessor of Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer on his team.

"What he's been able to accomplish and how he plays the game, he is (on) a different level," Carlyle was quoted in today's Free Press. "You can see it when he's out there, you can see the composure. You can see the things that he does. Nobody gives him enough credit for his defensive game."

Nobody except me, who is unashamedly putting Lidstrom at the top of the list as the best ever.

Carlyle spoke after the Red Wings' 2-1 win over the Ducks Wednesday night.

"He's playing against the best players in the league, and he's performing at the highest level. He defends extremely well with his stick."

That last sentence might be a candidate for biggest understatement in league history, too.

If a photo exists of Lidstrom being caught out of position, surely it's a fake -- a PhotoShop manipulation

Carlyle, who obviously couldn't help himself, went on.

"He's not a big guy, but his positional play is -- I don't know if there's a player that plays better in that position. (author's note: There isn't, Randy.) This guy is always up there and is always doing things that never seem to amaze people because, when you see him every day or you watch a lot of him, you kind of take it for granted. And that's what those elite players can do: They can make the most difficult task look easy."

When I wrote a similar heap of praise upon Lidstrom last season, I compared him to the Tigers' old second baseman, Charlie Gehringer, whose nickname was The Mechanical Man for his seemingly effortless way he would hit over .300 and play stellar defense. I suggested that Lidstrom was hockey's Mechanical Man, and Carlyle's comments are in line with that way of thinking.

But enough coachspeak. Listen to Lidstrom's contemporary, Pronger.

"If there's a lack of physical play [in Lidstrom's game], I certainly think he makes up for it by being in the right place at the right time. The way he can pass the puck and the way he sees the ice certainly makes him a special player and a guy who can control the tempo of a game. It takes a special player to be able to do that."

The Red Wings have had not only two of the game's greatest players, but also two of the most humble. In Lidstrom and Steve Yzerman, I don't know if you could drag a brilliant word about their own play out of them. The new captain is just as gracious and eloquent as his predecessor, conducting himself with the quiet grace that just adds more to his aura. They're both like Gordie Howe in that way.

Howe, the greatest right winger of all time -- and maybe the best player, too -- and Yzerman, one of the top five centermen ever, are now joined by Lidstrom, who I'd say became the best defenseman ever about a year or so ago.

This fuddy-duddy, whose memory of watching athletes perform dates back to 1970, is willing to concede that a modern day player is the best, all-time, at what he does. I don't do that very often. Usually, it kills me to even consider it.

But, as with everything else he does, Nick Lidstrom makes it easy.

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