Reports have surfaced every few weeks this summer that Detroit Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg may not play in the 2018-19 season due to a lingering back injury, and last week GM Ken Holland muddied the water even further. Holland called Zetterberg an “unknown” when speaking to reporters, and indicated he would know more in September. That timeline is what head coach Jeff Blashill repeated to Ted Kulfan of the Detroit News, but seemed even less confident in Zetterberg’s ability to play this season:
He’s had a hard summer and I don’t think his back is reacting great. Certainly we’ll know more in a month, but as of today, there’s a lot of doubt as to whether his back will be healthy enough to play.
If Zetterberg does sit out the year, the Red Wings could put his $6.08MM cap hit on long-term injured reserve to create some more cap flexibility. The actual salary of his deal drops to just $3.35MM this season, and the contract will pay him just $1MM in each of the next two years. That seems like quite the coincidence given that Zetterberg hasn’t missed a regular season game in three straight seasons, but Blashill was quick to point out that his captain was also forced to stop practicing entirely for the last two months of the 2017-18 season.
From 1990-91 to 2015-16 the Red Wings never missed the postseason, and Zetterberg played a crucial role in many of those seasons. He, Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom formed the core of a powerhouse team for years, until the latter’s retirement in 2012. Now having missed the postseason in back to back years, the Red Wings will try to form a new young core of players like Dylan Larkin, Filip Zadina and Anthony Mantha to get them back to the promised land and compete for the Stanley Cup once again. It never seemed like Zetterberg could be a real part of that, even without a career-threatening injury popping up. The 37-year old has seen his offensive numbers decline in recent years, to the point of just scoring 11 goals last season. That was the lowest full-season total of his career, and one that the team should be able to replace.
They won’t as easily replace his leadership though, which will put even more pressure on Larkin to develop into a true first-line center. Without that the Red Wings could be in for a tough season, given their cap problems and lack of real elite talent throughout the lineup.
If it is the end for Zetterberg, he would be leaving the game with 960 career points in 1,082 regular season games. The veteran forward has been in Selke contention for nearly his entire career as one of the better defensive forwards in the league, and took home a Conn Smythe trophy during the Red Wings 2008 Stanley Cup run. Undoubtedly one of the most well-respected and beloved Red Wings players in history, this would be a tough way to see his career come to an end.