Henrik Zetterberg’s back problems have reportedly made it difficult for the Detroit Red Wings center to train, and with training camp fast approaching, all signs seem to point towards the 37-year-old having played his last game in the NHL.
For weeks now, it has been reported that Zetterberg has had difficulties training, which has led to speculation that he may not return to Detroit for the 2018-19 season. That Zetterberg is fighting back issues is nothing new, mind you. The veteran has battled a bad back for several seasons and missed nearly half a season with back-related ailments during the 2013-14 campaign. But after minor indications regarding Zetterberg’s future from Red Wings GM Ken Holland earlier this summer, Detroit coach Jeff Blashill said Sunday that he isn’t sure how it will be possible for Zetterberg to play this coming campaign.
"Henrik's message to me is that his back has not reacted well, that he hasn't had an opportunity to really train," Blashill said, according to NHL.com’s Nick Cotsonika. "I think there's lots of doubt, because I don't know how you go through not being able to train to being able to play an NHL season. I think it's almost impossible. So all signs indicate to me right now that it'll be very difficult for Henrik to be cleared to play.”
If Zetterberg isn’t cleared, and it sure seems as though he won’t be, the likely next step is placement on long-term injured relief, where he will all but assuredly remain for the final three seasons of the 12-year contract he signed with Detroit in January 2008. Though the contract carries a cap hit a shade under $6.1 million, Zetterberg was set to be paid $3.35 million in 2018-19 and $1 million in each of 2019-20 and 2020-21.
It’s difficult to imagine the Red Wings without Zetterberg, to be sure. He has spent every single second of his 1,082-game career with Detroit. Drafted in the seventh round of the 1999 draft, he debuted during the 2002-03 campaign and burst onto the scene as the Calder Trophy runner-up. From there, he became a near-instant fixture of Detroit's top-six, where his two-way play made him one of the league’s preeminent pivots. In 2008, having earned a spot in Detroit’s leadership group, Zetterberg won the Conn Smythe Trophy, posting a 13-goal, 27-point post-season as the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup.
If he has played his final game in Detroit, Zetterberg will end his time in sixth place on the franchise’s all-time games played list, fifth in all-time goals, fifth in all-time assists and fifth in all-time points. He’s all but certain to have his number raised to the rafters down the line.
Zetterberg sitting out the 2018-19 season, and likely ending his career altogether, would signal more than just the end of his own personal tenure in Detroit, however. It would also see one of the last vestiges of the Red Wings’ most successful era hang up his skates. As it stands, Detroit’s only remaining roster players from its 2008 Stanley Cup victory are Darren Helm and Niklas Kronwall, though the former was and is simply a role player and the latter is on his last legs, a shadow of the player he was during the Wings’ most successful seasons in the post-lockout era. Already, the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen have seen their careers end, while Hall of Famers from the same Stanley Cup winning club such as Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios have long since retired.
And once Zetterberg goes, it will really, truly feel as if the Red Wings are in a transitional period. For two seasons now — consecutive campaigns in which Detroit missed the playoffs, no less — there has been a sense of change surrounding the organization. But with Zetterberg remaining as the ever-present leader, one of the faces of the franchise for nearly 15 years, there hasn’t been an opportunity to see a real changing of the guard. It seems as though that will take place this coming campaign.
It could be the best thing for the Red Wings, too. Of course, there’s little doubt that a healthy Zetterberg, or even Zetterberg at 50 percent, would have been one of the team’s top players. Last season, despite battling his back issues, Zetterberg skated in all 82 games and finished second in team scoring with 11 goals and 56 points. That’s not to mention his ice time was second among all forwards. But his retirement, even if it unofficial and only by way of his LTIR status, would force those within the organization to step up.
It’s become clear that Dylan Larkin is either already pegged as or has the best chance at succeeding Zetterberg as the Red Wings’ captain. The 22-year-old has taken tremendous strides over the past season and his team-leading offensive performance last year was proof positive that he’s ready to take over as Detroit’s top scoring threat. But others will also benefit from the space opened up by a potential Zetterberg departure. Andreas Athanasiou could shift to become a full-time center, Anthony Mantha could become a greater fixture of the offense and a spot will open up on the top power-play unit for the Wings’ up-and-coming forwards. Maybe a player such as 2018 first-round selection Filip Zadina or 2015 first-rounder Evgeny Svechnikov can slide into that spot and help carry the torch if Zetterberg does indeed pass it off.
Ideally, the succession plan would've seen Zetterberg hand the reins of a Stanley Cup contender over to the next generation in much the same way that he took over an on- and off-ice leadership role from Nicklas Lidstrom, who had previously learned under the guidance of Steve Yzerman. And while the circumstances — both his injury and Detroit’s place in the league — don’t make that possible, it still gives this next generation the opportunity to build together, grow together and find their own way forward with some of the tools that Zetterberg has helped give them over the past several seasons. But that won’t make it any less bizarre if Detroit hits the ice on opening night without Zetterberg.