ANN ARBOR, MI -- Detroit Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom stood on the football field at Michigan Stadium and looked around at the massive empty stands around him. The Winter Classic will be at the Big House next year. That's been decided.
Whether or not Lidstrom will actually play in it hasn't been decided, although he was intrigued by the surroundings on Thursday.
He hasn't announced his retirement plans yet, and despite our best efforts to find out if he'll be playing in the actual Winter Classic or the alumni game, Lidstrom wasn't about to tip his hand.
"Oh, I don't know," Lidstrom said with a laugh when asked which Winter Classic event he'll be participating in. "I guess I have a chance to play in either one. I guess we'll wait and see."
Mike Babcock isn't waiting. He joked with Lidstrom that, if he's going to retire, he should at least wait until Jan. 2. But the Red Wings' coach doesn't believe it'll come to that.
"He'll be back," Babcock said. "He's too good to quit and our team's too good. I was concerned this year might be his last if our team wasn't good, and our team is good enough."
All things being equal, the Winter Classic might be the game that tilts Lidstrom's decision. It also could be a nice recruiting pitch this summer for both the Red Wings and Maple Leafs. Both teams will have money to spend in free agency, and general managers Ken Holland and Brian Burke are expected to be aggressive. In a salary-cap system, free agency is about the recruiting pitch as much it is about the money.
"We think we have a great story to tell from a recruiting standpoint in Toronto anyways," Burke said when I floated the theory of the Winter Classic attracting free agents. "First off, we're Big Blue. We do everything first class or we don't do it. Our travel, hotels, our practice facility. We're the only team that has our farm team in our home city. We're Big Blue; we think we have a great story to tell. Absolutely, this is part of it. Absolutely."
While one outdoor game isn't going to make the decision for a free agent, Holland thinks it adds to the total package these two Original Six franchises can offer.
"For both franchises ... the more things you're involved in, the longer you get in a playoff run -- we went to Europe, played in Sweden. The more opportunity you have to give memories of a lifetime [the better]," Holland said. "That's one of the reasons why some players have come here, one of the reasons why the ones that are here for the most part have stayed here. They're happy. They like the experiences."
So it got us thinking. Who are some big-name candidates to play in next year's Winter Classic who aren't currently on Toronto and Detroit rosters? Here are five:
Ryan Suter, Predators defenseman -- It sounds like the Red Wings may not have to replace Lidstrom for next season, but they would jump at the chance to start the transition early. Suter may not be traded before the Feb. 27 trade deadline, but if he hits free agency on July 1, the Red Wings would immediately become the favorite to land the defenseman.
Jeff Carter, Blue Jackets forward -- Burke doesn't like those crazy long-term contracts but may eventually warm up to the idea of trading for Carter once the realization sets in that there aren't too many options at center before the trade deadline. Burke seemed a bit frustrated Thursday with the lack of trade talk at this point in the season. "It's quiet," he said.
Bobby Ryan, Ducks forward -- Count me among those who think Anaheim is more likely to trade a potential UFA or even defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky than one of its top forwards in the next few weeks. But the summer is a different story. Anaheim GM Bob Murray may decide that the best way to get the Ducks back in the playoffs would be a big package in return for Ryan, and waiting to do it around the draft opens up the number of potential trade partners. Murray and Burke are close, and Burke knows Ryan well through their time together in Anaheim and USA hockey. The 6-foot-2 Ryan would provide some of the size Toronto is lacking right now up front.
Zach Parise, Devils forward -- Parise won't be moved before the deadline, but all indications point to his hitting free agency on July 1. Returning home to Minnesota would be a real option for Parise, but both Toronto and Detroit could make a run at him this summer. Parise has indicated that playing on a winner is an important factor in his long-range plans. The Red Wings would be an easy sell, and Burke has Toronto trending in the right direction.
Ryan Malone, Lightning -- Malone can control his own destiny with a no-trade clause, but he would fulfill Burke's desire to get bigger up front before the trade deadline. Malone is another player who knows Burke well through USA Hockey and has the right mix of physical play and skill Burke would love to add if Tampa decides to become a seller in the next couple of weeks.