DETROIT, United States - When Nicklas Lidstrom inked a two-year, $14.9 million contract extension with the Detroit Red Wings on December 26, Sweden's chances of repeating as Olympic champions in 2010 rose exponentially.
The signing means Lidstrom will still be an active NHLer in 2009-10, and that makes it a virtual certainty that the brilliant Wings captain will pull on the Tre Kronor jersey when the men's tournament kicks off on February 16 in Vancouver.
There's no reason to believe that Lidstrom will miss the games, even at age 39. The five-time Norris Trophy winner has participated in every previous Olympics for which he has been available: 1998, 2002, and 2006. Injuries are unlikely to stop Lidstrom; the 188-cm, 84-kg defenceman has never missed more than four games in an NHL season (78 games in 2001-02).
Of course, it's hard to imagine things going much better for Lidstrom than they did in Turin, where he scored the gold medal-winning goal against Finland just 10 seconds into the third period of the championship game. But he could be asked to take on a more prominent leadership role in 2010.
Speculation is rife about the future of Mats Sundin. How much longer will the big centre, still productive this season, be willing to endure Toronto's Stanley Cup famine? Will he prolong his career with the Maple Leafs, seek new challenges as an unrestricted free agent this summer, or simply retire? Sundin, who is about a year younger than Lidstrom, has captained Tre Kronor at the last two Olympics, but if he doesn't play in 2010, Lidstrom would likely be next in line to the throne. (That is, unless something special happens, like Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson edging out Lidstrom to become the first European-trained captain to lead his team to the Cup.)
After a devastating seventh-place finish in the 2006 Olympics, Canada hopes to return to the top of the hockey world on home ice, but Lidstrom has experience in spoiling the party at GM Place. It was his shot from centre ice that beat Vancouver Canucks goalie Dan Cloutier in game three of the first round of the 2002 Stanley Cup playoffs, giving the Wings their first win of the series. The goal crushed the Canucks psychologically, and Lidstrom proceeded to capture his third Stanley Cup, topping off a stellar run with the Conn Smythe Trophy, a first for Europeans.
It's no wonder The Hockey News recently named Lidstrom the best European player ever to suit up in the NHL. That indirectly points to another factor the Vasteras native will have in his favor in 2010.
Sure, Lidstrom has got progressively better at each of his Olympic tournaments, earning 14 points in 16 games overall. But at the same time, he has consistently dominated on the smaller North American rink with his quick stick, puck movement skills, and ability to read the play. With the possible exceptions of Anaheim's Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, no other NHL blueliner controls the game like Lidstrom does. Most observers figure using the 60.98-by-25.91-metre (200-by-85-foot) surface in 2010 will favour Canada and the USA, but Lidstrom's NHL success (not to mention that of Alfredsson, Henrik Zetterberg, and the Sedin twins, among others) suggests that won't be an issue for the Swedes.
If Lidstrom can replicate his golden heroics of 2006, it would mark just the second time the Swedes have ever won the same IIHF tournament back-to-back. The first time featured Sweden's 1991 and 1992 IIHF World Championship victories.
While the demise of the "Golden Generation" (including stars like Lidstrom, Sundin, Alfredsson, Markus Naslund, and others) has long been predicted, Detroit's latest move should ensure that it will have at least some impact at the 2010 Olympics.