DETROIT -- He thought about it. He thought about it for a couple days, while the misery was fresh. But every time Steve Yzerman contemplated retiring, he'd recall those playoff losses that felt so horrible, and the right knee that felt so good.
Ultimately, with his health returning and the Red Wings set up for perhaps another Stanley Cup run, it made no sense to leave. Yzerman confirmed he'll be back for his 21st season, his 18th as the team's captain, the NHL's longest-standing streak. He met last week with Wings General Manager Ken Holland and they agreed to work out a one-year contract sometime before July 1.
Yzerman, who turns 38 next Friday, said after the Wings' numbing first-round sweep by Anaheim two weeks ago that he planned to return for at least one more season. But there were issues -- direction of the team, contract, health -- that had to be resolved.
"There won't be any stumbling blocks," Yzerman said, speaking extensively for the first time since then. "I was a little down, and I wondered if I wanted to come back. Pretty quickly, my mind was made up that I want to play, based on what I felt at the end of the regular season, and the four games in the playoffs. Plus, we still have a good team -- potentially, an even stronger team next year."
After undergoing radical surgery last Aug. 2 to realign his damaged right knee, Yzerman sat out until Feb. 24, then played in 16 regular-season games, notching two goals and six assists. Once one of the game's top scorers, his role has changed, but his leadership impact hasn't.
In the playoffs against the Mighty Ducks, Yzerman got more comfortable, even as the Wings suffered a first-round shocker.
"Forget about the production, I just felt I was starting to move around the ice significantly better," Yzerman said. "With each game, there was no question I was able to keep up. I still feel there's a role for me. I was pretty discouraged after that last loss, but I'm convinced I'll be able to be an effective player next year."
Make no mistake. Yzerman's return is one of the important green lights Holland needed to justify another big-money run for the Wings, who won three Cups in six seasons before this spring's dethroning.
Holland has said he doesn't expect major alterations to the payroll. Yzerman made $8.5 million last season, and although nothing is decided, he'll probably end up near that figure. He said he's not yet ready to call it his final year.
The loss to the Ducks was crushing to the Wings, financially and emotionally. Yzerman admitted he avoided hockey the past two weeks. He said he couldn't even bring himself to watch a full playoff game.
But he's hoping lessons can be extracted from the demise.
"I've thought about it a ton," he said. "Everyone has their own theory on why we lost. I thought in Game 2, we played tremendously, but all of sudden, it's two quick games and we have nothing to show for it. (The Ducks) were a little better defensively than we were. Combine really good team defense with a good goaltender, and we couldn't score goals.
"I'm still a little discouraged. We can sit here and say we should be playing, we're better than this team or that team, and it doesn't matter."
Yzerman isn't willing to peg the defeat solely to the stellar play of Anaheim goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere. And he certainly isn't looking to blame anyone, including Dave Lewis, in his first year as coach.
In fact, as he talked of the future, Yzerman started biting on his words. He made it clear the Wings lacked some hunger, the most-common ailment for defending champs.
"It was a good humbling for us, and hopefully it shuts everybody's mouth," Yzerman said. "(Lewis) did a really good job in a tough spot. Coaching wasn't a problem. We've just got to get back to being a hard-working, businesslike team, and get away from thinking of ourselves as the Stanley Cup champions, because we're not anymore."
There was a nonchalance during the playoffs that was difficult to pinpoint. It wasn't simply a lack of effort, because the Wings dominated a couple of games. It was a lack of the consistent, driving effort that desperate teams deliver.
Now, the Ducks are doing it to Dallas, which softens the sting slightly, not that Yzerman can bear to watch. He plays a little golf, hangs around the house and does a lot of thinking. We're guessing he's not the only contemplating Wing these days.
With time, the malaise lifts, and the Wings should be reinvigorated. You listen to Yzerman, it sounds like it'll be replaced with solid resolve.
"I know everyone wants to write us off now, we're done, we're too old, whatever," he said. "This team is going to be very competitive next year. With Henrik (Zetterberg) and Pavel (Datsyuk) improving, and Jiri (Fischer) coming back, we'll be good. We might not get 110 points, but I expect us to be stronger."
If not stronger, certainly more motivated and less distracted. Sometimes it's not easy being the champs, chased and scrutinized all year, followed by camera crews, touted relentlessly. Now, as the playoffs churn on without them, Yzerman and the Wings are revisiting another old truth -- it's even harder being the dethroned champs.