With Zetterberg’s future uncertain, Red Wings ready to go all-in on youth movement

Henrik Zetterberg’s future with the Red Wings remains uncertain as he battles back issues. That might make this the perfect time for Detroit to turn to Dylan Larkin and the youth of the roster.

As training camp nears, a number of questions face the Detroit Red Wings. What will they do to get under the salary cap? How will the defense hold up this season? Will this be Jimmy Howard’s final year in Hockeytown? And will first-round pick Filip Zadina make an impact in his rookie campaign? But arguably the biggest worry for the Red Wings as the season approaches is the future of captain Henrik Zetterberg.

While there has been mounting concern about Zetterberg’s ability to play this coming season, comments from Detroit GM Ken Holland in recent days have led to further speculation that the soon-to-be 38-year-old could be heading for the long-term injured list. In speaking with the Red Wings’ website on Friday, Holland said Zetterberg, who has captained Detroit for the past six seasons, “hasn’t been able to train anywhere near close to where he’s been able to train in past summers due to his back,” which has made his status for the upcoming campaign “a real unknown.”

Holland’s comments aren’t entirely out of left field, mind you. While he had stated previously that he expected Zetterberg to play this season, it was less than one month ago that the center’s agent, Gunnar Svensson, told Swedish publication Hockeybladet that Zetterberg hadn’t decided whether he would play this coming season.

On a statistical basis, there wasn’t a single red flag when it came to Zetterberg’s game last season. Despite being at least four years older than every other forward on the Red Wings roster, Zetterberg had a productive 11-goal, 56-point season that saw him finish second in scoring in Detroit and average the second-highest ice time of any forward. And while it marked a slight downturn from his 2016-17 production — Zetterberg had scored 17 goals and 68 points one season prior — his point total during the last campaign was an increase from his output during the 2015-16 season.

What happened on the ice was a far cry from what happened behind the scenes, however. Holland said Zetterberg didn’t practice across the final two-plus months of the campaign due to back pain. Zetterberg’s back problems date back to December 2013, when he suffered a herniated disc, which later led to him missing the Sochi Olympics with Team Sweden and eventually a back surgery that cost him the final quarter of the 2013-14 NHL campaign.

If Zetterberg is unfit to play in 2018-19, though, don’t expect a formal retirement announcement. Due to the nature of his contract — he signed a 12-year, $73-million pact in January 2009, the type of back-diving, cap-circumventing deal to which the NHL put an end — the next step for Zetterberg should he decide to hang up his skates would be a trip to the long-term injured reserve. By placing him on LTIR, the Red Wings wouldn’t be saddled with the full amount of his $6.08-million cap hit. And Zetterberg, for what it’s worth, wouldn’t exactly lose out on the high-paying years of his deal. After earning $7 million last season, his salary dips to $3.35 million in 2018-19 before paying out $1 million in each of the next two campaigns.

And while a Zetterberg-less Red Wings would mean the end of an era, the changing of the tides may be what’s best for the organization in the long haul. It’s no secret Detroit, after a long spell of success, are mired in a two-season drought and entrenched in a transitional period as the old guard passes the torch to a new wave. And in that sense, it was somewhat fitting that Holland copped to the continued uncertainty about Zetterberg and the potential for life without one of the franchise’s modern fixtures on the same day the team announced and celebrated the signing of Dylan Larkin to a five-year, $30.5-million pact.

Larkin took a major step towards becoming the future of the Red Wings’ offense last season when he took over the top-line role that formerly belonged to the likes of Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, commanding not only first-line playing time, averaging nearly 20 minutes per outing, but driving the offense with a team-leading 63 points. Even prior to his career-best point production, though, Larkin was heralded as the future in Detroit, with some even attaching the future captain tag to his name.

And while Larkin’s role would potentially stand to increase the most on a Zetterberg-less Red Wings, with added on- and off-ice responsibility as arguably the new face of the franchise, he would be far from the only one who could benefit from the roster refresh that could truly be spurred on by Zetterberg’s injury-related departure. Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou, both of whom were handed two-year contracts this summer, would almost certainly be among those to see increased playing time if Detroit were to hand the reins over to their younger talent. Both have seemingly untapped offensive upside, and on a goal-starved team, having one or both breakout with greater ice time would give promise for a brighter future for the Red Wings.

Likewise, other up-and-comers fighting for playing time, the Tyler Bertuzzis, Martin Frks and Evgeny Svechnikovs of the roster, could see greater opportunities come their way were Zetterberg’s absence to lead to a change in mindset in Detroit. While veterans such as Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm have become fixtures of the middle-six for the Red Wings, Detroit could use this as an opportunity to rejuvenate the bottom half of their roster with young legs. That’s to say nothing of the aforementioned Zadina, either, who could be an instant top-six winger in Detroit.

It’s more than time for the Red Wings to take the youth approach, as well. Last season, Detroit had the highest average age by the end of the season and were the only team whose average roster player was over 30. And given the continued reliance on veterans hasn’t led to success over the past two seasons, taking the approach other teams have adopted — youth, speed and skill over an experience-laden group — might be the best way forward.

None of this is to mention, either, that Zetterberg’s departure might be what’s best for the salary cap. While Detroit can undoubtedly shuffle the deck to get cap compliant before the season starts given Johan Franzen is LTIR-bound, Zetterberg joining his former teammate on the injured list would give the Red Wings, who presently stand to have the largest cap hit in the NHL, some financial wiggle room that could be used simple as a buffer or, if Detroit wants to get a bit more aggressive, to take a flyer on a late-summer free agent or two.

All of this is to say, though, that if Zetterberg does return, the Red Wings will welcome him back with open arms. For 15 years, over which he has played more than 1,200 games wearing the Winged Wheel, Zetterberg has been one of the heart-and-soul members of one of the most storied franchises in the league. If he’s played his last game in Detroit, the organization will move on. But they certainly wouldn’t say no to having Zetterberg return for one final go-round.

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