March 6, 2014 at 8:18 am

Bob Wojnowski

On eve of Nicklas Lidstrom ceremony, Red Wings obtain reinforcement at center

Nicklas Lidstrom on ceremony
Nicklas Lidstrom on ceremony: Former Red Wings captain talks about Thursday's number retirement ceremony.

Detroit — It’s all about the rafters, where the greats are honored and success is marked. It has been the Red Wings’ identity for a long time, to aim for the rafters, and we’ll see it exemplified tonight.

In a pregame ceremony, the Wings will send Nicklas Lidstrom’s No. 5 to the top of Joe Louis Arena, alongside the numbers of such luminaries as Gordie Howe and Steve Yzerman. And then they’ll play the Avalanche and unveil their newest arrival, center David Legwand, who’s here because the Wings steadfastly refuse to take “no playoffs” for an answer.

The streak is 22 years, and it began one season before Lidstrom arrived as a smooth, slender defenseman, who went on to become one of the NHL’s all-time best. It didn’t end on his watch, and if it’s to reach 23 years, the Wings desperately need help. In a move that was half-prudent and half-panic, they landed David Legwand from Nashville (and Grosse Pointe Woods) at the deadline Wednesday, surrendering Patrick Eaves, a draft pick and prized prospect Calle Jarnkrok.

This wasn’t the deal GM Ken Holland wanted to make, but down four centers, he felt he had no choice. Pavel Datsyuk will sit the next three weeks to rest his ailing left knee. Henrik Zetterberg is out until April or later following back surgery. Darren Helm suffered from concussion-like symptoms and was pulled from the game Tuesday night. And Stephen Weiss still isn’t ready to return from a groin injury.

Whatever you think of how much Holland surrendered — a lot, by the way — you can respect the motive. The Wings are one point out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and two things still drive them. There’s the streak, which hangs around their neck like a medal, not a collar. And there’s the notion that anyone can win in the wide-open Stanley Cup playoffs, verified last season when they snuck in, upset Anaheim in the first round and nearly stunned Chicago, losing in Game 7.

“We want to play our way in,” Holland said. “If we can get some good (health) news, we’ve got enough people here with the leadership group, and the kids are giving us a dimension of speed and energy.”

Postseason drive

Could you argue it made less sense for the Wings to go for it this season, with no guarantee they’ll have Datsyuk or Zetterberg for the playoffs? Yep. And you could argue it more strenuously if you knew Jarnkrok was a budding star. With prospects, it’s impossible to gauge.

This day was coming, when the injuries would pile up and time would catch up and the Wings would wrestle with the concept of missing the playoffs. Actually, they were prepared for it last season, then got hot, unleashed youthful talent and showed why you try so hard to get in.

Lidstrom saw it coming when he retired two seasons ago, capping a 20-year career. He could still play, but not at a superstar level, and the Wings weren’t deep enough to compensate.

Now he sees what everyone sees, even if Wings games are on at 1:30 a.m. Sweden time. Lidstrom moved back home with his wife and four sons but still follows the Wings closely, and misses the game badly. Don’t mistake nostalgia for regret, though. He knows he retired at the right time, and when he watches the Wings fight to stay in contention, he probably knows it even more.

“Even watching from a distance, you can tell they’re still battling, doing whatever they can to win games,” Lidstrom said. “It’s hard when you have so many bodies out, but the young guys are taking advantage of opportunities.”

The young guys are at the crux of the current conundrum. They’ve proven they’re ready, from Gustav Nyquist to Tomas Tatar to Riley Sheahan to Tomas Jurco and others. Holland and Mike Babcock accept they’re ready, but still need bodies.

Change of plans

At first, Holland went hunting for a defenseman, but shifted when he got news of Helm’s injury. Then came more bad news Wednesday, when Datsyuk saw yet another doctor, who recommended a complete shutdown. Without reinforcements, the Wings would’ve entered the latest key stretch with these four centers: Joakim Andersson, Sheahan, Luke Glendening and Cory Emmerton. Legwand automatically becomes their No. 1 center for now.

There was no way Holland was giving up a young contributor on the roster now, but to land a solid veteran like Legwand, 33, who averaged 15 goals in 14 seasons with the Predators, he was willing to surrender a gifted young, talent. It’s a roll of the dice on the ice, no doubt. Legwand can be a free agent after the season, but the theory is, he’ll want to stay in his hometown.

It’s a fair debate, but I’ll never blast a team, especially in the crazy NHL, for craving a playoff run, even after 22 seasons. Last year’s run affected the Wings’ strategy this time, and I understand why.

“Once you get in, it’s a brand new season, whether you’re a seven seed or eight seed,” Holland said. “The price we paid is a real good prospect, but we felt (center) was a position of strength, and you have to give to get. And we think we found the perfect fit (in Legwand).”

It definitely was an unambiguous move, with short-term intent, and there’s no certainty it will work. But the irony is rich, because on the night the Wings are honoring one of their shiny symbols of certainty and stability, they’ll take the ice certain of very little.

They’re trying to hold it together in their second season without Lidstrom, but in the pregame ceremony, it’ll be their unassuming legend trying to hold it together.

“I know it’s gonna be emotional,” Lidstrom said, and if his famous stoicism gives way to tears, it won’t be a surprise. “I know there’s gonna be a lot of memories going through my mind. I didn’t even imagine when I came here more than 20 years ago that this would happen.”

In some ways, Lidstrom started it all, and pushed success through two decades and four Stanley Cup titles. Something ended when he retired, but if something else has to end, the Wings aren’t willing to let it go quietly.

Nicklas Lidstrom talks to the media about his number retirement ceremony, which will take place Thursday at Joe Louis Arena. / David Guralnick / Detroit News
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