DETROIT – It’s easy to forget just how far Henrik Zetterberg has come.
There were 209 players selected ahead of him in the 1999 NHL draft and there isn’t a team in the league that wouldn’t switch any of those picks for the Swedish winger now.
Zetterberg has arguably been the best player for the Detroit Red Wings during their current run to the Stanley Cup final and is favoured to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
Whether he gets recognized with the award or not, it’s been quite a ride. Red Wings defenceman Niklas Kronwall first played with Zetterberg as a teenager in Sweden and never thought he’d see him blossom into the player he is now.
“Back then I didn’t think too much about it,” Kronwall said Monday before Game 5 of the Stanley Cup. “When I was 17 and he was 18, it was all about the Sedin twins.
“Hank was kind of the second-line winger on that team and didn’t get a lot of attention.”
There’s no question in Kronwall’s mind that Zetterberg is among the “top dogs” in Swedish hockey now.
The 27-year-old leads Detroit in scoring with 23 points during these playoffs but that only tells part of the story. Even without scoring a goal in the first four games of the Stanley Cup, Zetterberg’s solid play was one of the main reasons the Red Wings built a 3-1 series lead over Pittsburgh heading into Monday’s game.
The turning point in the series might very well be the 5-on-3 disadvantage that Detroit was able to weather in the third period of Game 4 and Zetterberg displayed all of his skill on that penalty kill. He tied up Sidney Crosby at the side of the net before carrying the puck and killing about 15 seconds on his own.
It didn’t go unnoticed by his teammates.
“He’s so determined,” said Kronwall. “Anything he does, he does it full on.
“He’s one of the hardest working guys on our team and other guys follow that. They look up to that. We’re blessed to have him on our team.”
The Penguins offence was pretty much unstoppable as they tore through the Eastern Conference with a 12-2 record in the opening three rounds of the playoffs. Since coming up against Zetterberg and the Wings in the final, Crosby’s crew has had all kinds of problems finding open areas to create quality scoring chances.
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has done his best to have Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk on the ice whenever Crosby’s line is out. Both are finalists for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s top defensive forward and have done a good job containing the Penguins star so far.
“I’ve been telling people for three years how good Zetterberg is,” said Babcock. “And so this isn’t a surprise to me. He’s just a conscientious good two-way player. So is Datsyuk.”
While it’s pretty rare to find offensive players that show such a commitment to defence, Babcock believes those type of guys actually have an advantage because of how they see the game. They know what the other team’s attackers are thinking.
Teammates believe that Zetterberg’s vision is one of the keys to his success.
“He’s so good at anticipating plays, reading where the puck’s going to go,” said captain Nicklas Lidstrom. “It makes it tougher for them to find the passing lanes and find someone open.”
Zetterberg is one of the few players in the Red Wings dressing room who is looking for his first Stanley Cup ring. Lidstrom, Kirk Maltby, Kris Draper, Darren McCarty and Tomas Holmstrom are all after their fourth.
Even without that same level of experience, Zetterberg has still managed to become one of the leaders on this team.
“He acts like you can count on him every day,” said forward Mikael Samuelsson. “Just the way he carries himself in the dressing room. We look to him.”
That’s only fitting given how many teams looked past him as a teenager.
Hakan Andersson, Detroit’s European super scout, can take credit for recognizing the immense talent Zetterberg had within. At the time he was drafted, the Red Wings were being criticized for trading away top draft choices but their strategy has clearly worked out.
It would be hard to imagine where this team would be without him. There doesn’t seem to be much secret to Zetterberg’s development beyond hard work.
“He’s been growing every year,” said Samuelsson. “He’s always been a really good two-way player but now I think he’s the best out there.”