The Red Wings could be without a key veteran when the season begins, if Henrik Zetterberg’s ongoing back problems continue.
The captain, who will be 38 come October 9, finished the 2017-18 season ailing physically, and the issue has plagued him throughout the offseason, keeping him from training as he normally would. If he’s not cleared to play at training camp in September, Detroit coach Jeff Blashill doesn’t expect him to suit up for the 2018-19 season.
"Henrik's message to me is that his back has not reacted well, that he hasn't had an opportunity to really train," Blashill told media after the Stars & Stripes Showdown in Plymouth, Michigan on Sunday. "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."
On Tuesday, Zetterberg confirmed that he would at least miss training camp and at least the beginning of the season in an exclusive interview with Swedish outlet Sportbladet.
"I have not managed to work properly throughout the summer," he said, translated via Google. "So I will miss the training camp and also the start of the season. Then we have to wait and see.
"I have not been able to train and I can not play NHL matches without being well prepared, especially not at my age."
There are concerns, as well, that Zetterberg's career may be over, though he's hesitant to say he's done.
"I will need more answers from doctors before I say I have played my last game," he told the Detroit Free Press. "In my mind, I am hoping it can get solved. I don’t want to think I have played my last game. To me, it’s still early to say that. But obviously, I’ve been through this for the last few years, and I know it’s a thin line."
It’s no secret as to what the Red Wings would be missing if Zetterberg. The center has been a key member of the franchise since coming into the league in 2002, ranking among the top scorers in Detroit history with 337 goals, 623 assists, 960 points and 1,082 games played. That doesn’t take into account a Conn Smythe Trophy to go with the 2008 Stanley Cup. He added 11 goals and 56 points, finishing second on the team in scoring in 2017-18.
At this point, the Red Wings have begun preparing contingency plans in case their captain sits out the season.
"He's either going to get to a point where he can play or he can't play, and if it's a point to where he can't play, then we'll continue to move on without him," Blashill said. "That would be my expectation."
If Zetterberg does play, the Wings plan to shift Andreas Athanasiou from wing back to center, along with Dylan Larkin, Frans Nielsen and Luke Glendening.
“That, to me, is [Athanasiou’s] natural position anyway," Blashill said. "The only thing that he has to do better is win face-offs. That is a position I'd feel totally confident putting him in and I think he could do a good job."
Should Zetterberg make his way into the lineup, it would create a salary cap issue for Detroit, potentially putting the team $1 million over.
“If he's healthy and ready to go, we have to make a move with our roster before it is set in October,” GM Ken Holland said earlier in August. “If Zetterberg can't play, then we don't have cap issues but we will have lost one of our best players. Neither situation looks great.”
The Wings will already be saying goodbye to hard-hitting veteran defenseman Niklas Kronwall, a long-time fixture on the Detroit blue line, after the 2018-19 season, and inked Larkin to a long-term extension this offseason.