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Photo Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

In Lost Red Wings Season, Zetterberg Shines Bright

After 137 Detroit Red Wings playoff games appeared in, 36 and a half year-old Henrik Zetterberg will find his mid-April normal routine rather unsettled in a few weeks.

Of all current Red Wings players, Zetterberg may have had the longest time-investment in “The Streak” given he’s been present and accounted for the past 13 of Detroit’s 25 years in the postseason, and despite the team’s fair share of consistent early exits of late, to Zetterberg, being there was always better than not being there, given the knife edge of a chance that often revealed itself to the Red Wings.

Even in the 2013 lockout-shortened season, few gave Zetterberg and the Wings a puncher’s chance as a #7 seed against the #2 seed Anaheim Ducks, but the Red Wings somehow won a Game 7 road affair (Bruce Boudreau involved!) and took a 3-1 lead on the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks, before losing one-goal games in Games 6 and 7 of the series. From that year’s Game 6 forward, the Red Wings have lost 14 of the past 19 playoff games they’ve appeared in, and this season, they’ve obviously hung around the bottom five in the overall NHL standings.

Reality has set in, and Zetterberg can no longer claim to be even on a “contender” let alone a good and well-built hockey team because the Red Wings are far from that. No longer whispers, but clear statements from the hockey community have been made all season that the Red Wings have one of the most unfavourable salary cap situations in the entire NHL, with players who are either too expensive, too old, too injured, or too “all of the aforementioned” to be anything but a bottom-feeder for years to come.

But Zetterberg has been a bright light this year, and you’d have been forgiven if you were skeptical he would be. His offseason began with a knee injury that kept him out of his beloved Team Sweden uniform at the World Cup of Hockey where his countrymen looked set for the best-of-three Final and a Sochi gold medal game rematch against Canada, before a rag-tag Team Europe derailed them in the semis.

Zetterberg barely saw the ice in preseason games, but the later start to the regular season (October 13th) may have been a difference-maker because lo and behold, he was ready and in uniform during the team’s season opener in Tampa Bay, adding an assist in a 6-4 loss.

But even with diminished expectations given his advancing age and injuries, the start was still categorically slow for Zetterberg. He didn’t score a goal in his first ten games, contributing only four assists, one of them primary assists before finally lighting the lamp in the first game of November.

To be fair, the Red Wings aren’t looking for “finish” from Zetterberg at this point of his esteemed career, but he has to drive play, and he has to check well still, and he has to be in on scoring chances. He hasn’t hit the 20-goal plateau since 2011-12 when he scored 22, and despite his fantastic playoffs in 2013, his numbers subsequent to that have shown that was a bit of a blip on the radar.

But the Red Wings captain kept earning his ice time as November turned to December, and fans saw a very engaged player, who could hardly control the lack of productivity around him. From the inconsistencies of Dylan Larkin and Gustav Nyquist, to the inexplicable head games (still recently occuring as well) between head coach Jeff Blashill and both Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou, Zetterberg endured. He had a six-game point streak in mid-December. He had back-to-back games with a goal in each twice in January. His possession numbers have been among the Red Wings’ best, and the ice time he’s received has been about the present, not the past.

He scored the Red Wings only goal Friday night against a Lightning team desperate to stay in the playoff hunt, although Tampa will find it strange not to find Detroit awaiting them in the first round as they have in the past two seasons.

Point being, of all the things you thought in October would go very wrong with for an NHL team likely drawing its very last breath as a playoff contender for a few years to come, Zetterberg’s health and consistency were top of mind. That hasn’t transpired, and though age is just a number, we all know the toll the sport and the extra playoff rounds and the international play has taken on Zetterberg’s body.

From the 1999 NHL Entry Draft, only Radim Vrbata (yes, I was surprised also!), and the Sedin brothers (#2 and #3 overall) have played more regular season games than Zetterberg has in their respective careers, and Zetterberg has played in 30+ more playoff games than either Henrik or Daniel, and he’s played in 95 more playoff games than Vrbata, and at a position and in a role that is far more physically taxing.

It’s Zetterberg’s ninth 60-point plus season of his NHL career, he’s now three points shy of 900 for his great career, and only ten other current players have more points. With all that has gone terribly wrong for the Red Wings this season, and some of those developments were quite observable and predictable coming into the season, a notable decline for Zetterberg hasn’t been one of them. In his first season without Pavel Datsyuk as a teammate, he’s had to dig deeper, and, sure, the fact, he’s leading his own team in scoring by more than 20 points is an utter indictment on the roster assembled to play with him, but it’s also a great compliment to him, and the past eight months have enhanced his legendary status.

We’re all expecting Game 1000 of his career to be at Joe Louis Arena in its grand finale in a few weekends time, and he’ll be a Red Wing next season. Is he going to play those last two years of his contract beginning in Fall 2019 when he’s paid a “mere” $1 million per season? Well, many doubt he is.

Would it be smart for the Red Wings to expose him in the upcoming Vegas Expansion Draft? Yes, it actually would, but the Red Wings won’t. We all know that would be somewhat unbefitting, and despite Ken Holland’s blind and reckless loyalty to a few Wings on the current roster, and several on the past several rosters, I understand this completely. Also, no team would likely chance grabbing Zetterberg even were he to be exposed, given there’s a notable recapture penalty if he does retire before the summer of 2021, when he’ll be almost 41 years of age.

Mar 2, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Red Wings left wing Henrik Zetterberg (40) skates with the puck defended by Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson (4) in the first period at Joe Louis Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Either way, Zetterberg won’t get much empathy for his lack of playoff games this spring. His playoff debut on April 10th, 2003 (a triple OT loss to Mike Babcock’s Anaheim Mighty Ducks), Zetterberg skated with eight current Hockey Hall of Famers, as well as Pavel Datsyuk, who likely joins Zetterberg in the Hall within the next decade. It’s a league where it’s increasingly hard to make the postseason, and good-to-great veteran players obviously miss every year. Though very different players, Shane Doan has played closely to 500 more regular season games than Zetterberg, and yet Zetterberg’s skated in the postseason over 60 times more than Doan has.

More pain is on the way for the Red Wings, but at the very least, the worries about Zetterberg staying healthy this season or ceasing to be an unproductive NHL player, didn’t come to fruition. Now the question is whether the team can re-organize, and build quickly enough to get Zetterberg back to the playoffs before he hangs up the skates.