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Zetterberg open to less minutes, rest days as Red Wings’ transition begins

Henrik Zetterberg has seen his production drop in the back half of the past two seasons, and he's willing to watch his role diminish if the team's young players can step up.

The Detroit Red Wings will enter the 2016-17 season with one of the oldest rosters in the league, and the face of that roster, 35-year-old captain Henrik Zetterberg, said he isn’t opposed to giving up some of his playing time as the team looks to get younger.

Zetterberg, who skipped the World Cup with a knee injury in order to heal up for the season, said that he’s not going to simply give up his minutes this coming campaign, but he realizes that he might need to slow down as he gets later in his career. He admitted that over the past two seasons he “ran out of gas” near the end of the year, so allowing the young players to take his spot at certain times in the season if they’ve earned it doesn’t exactly bother him.

“As a player, as soon as you hear 'less minutes,' you're not happy,” Zetterberg told the Detroit Free Press’ Helene St. James. “I don't think I will go and tell Coach I need less minutes. But if he decides that I need to play less or get some rest dates, I'm open to listen to that…We want to see the younger guys take steps and kind of take minutes from the older guys. But I won't give it away, they have to earn it. That's part of the transition.”

As Zetterberg pointed out, that was exactly what he went through when he came into the Red Wings. During his first season in Detroit, Zetterberg fought for minutes against players such as Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille. Zetterberg only saw 16:19 of ice time per game, which is more than three minutes less than what he has come to average over his career.

However, by his second season in Detroit, Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk were the two forwards taking the highest average ice time. Veterans such as Yzerman, Shanahan and Hull watched their minutes diminish during the last great transition period for the club, and with Zetterberg going through that process early in his career, it’s clear why he’s open to the idea now.

And it’s awfully honest of Zetterberg to admit that he’s been out of gas by the team the end of the campaign has rolled around the past two seasons, even if it may not have needed pointing out.

The 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons have been the two least productive of Zetterberg’s career from a points per game perspective since his first two years in the NHL, and his later-season play has been indicative of that, too. From the start of the campaign to the end of January over the past two years, Zetterberg has scored at a .80 points per game clip, but that has slipped to .62 over the final three months of the past two campaigns.

“You can't play hockey in this level when you run out of gas,” Zetterberg told St. James. “So that's one thing we're going to play around with.”

Finding a way to keep Zetterberg’s tank from hitting empty is going to be incredibly important for the Red Wings, especially with the way his contract is structured. He has five seasons remaining on his deal at nearly $6.1 million per year. The Red Wings’ plan for keeping Zetterberg fresh while he inches closer to 40 will have to start sooner rather than later, and that means worrying about the present as much as they consider the future, especially the 2018-19 to 2020-21 portion of Zetterberg’s deal.

One idea could see the Red Wings move Zetterberg out of the middle and onto the wing. It’s an option that could help the veteran Swede preserve himself because, as he told St. James, the defensive responsibilities of a winger would allow him to expend less energy.

Whichever way the Red Wings go about things, though, the transition from the Zetterberg era appears to be well under way, and Detroit coach Jeff Blashill will have a way to save his captain from exhausting himself by the end of the campaign.

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