Just as Detroit Red Wings fans were celebrating a new contract for Dylan Larkin, GM Ken Holland once again muddied the waters on whether the team will have their captain for next season. Speaking on a conference call about Larkin’s contract, Holland told media including Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press that Zetterberg is still an unknown for 2018-19 and has had trouble training this offseason:
I am anxious to know where Henrik Zetterberg is at. He’s a bit of an unknown as far as health. Have talked to his agent – he has had tough summer. He hasn’t been able to train anywhere near where at past summers. I’m hoping he’ll play.
Holland indicated that he would know more in September, but that if Zetterberg can’t play it does help the team’s cap issues that were created by Larkin’s $6.1MM average annual value. Obviously the team is hoping for the legendary forward to be healthy enough to play, but this is just the latest example of doubt that has been cast on his upcoming season.
Skeptics might look at this and question whether Zetterberg is truly too injured to play, given the coincidental decrease in salary he’s set to earn this season. After collecting at least $7MM in each of the first nine years of his current contract, the salary owed to him drops to just $3.35MM this season and $1MM for each of the next two. If Zetterberg retired the Red Wings would be on the hook for cap recapture penalties given the discrepancy of salary, a hit that couldn’t be moved to long-term injured reserve in order to give the team more flexibility. Remember that Zetterberg himself admitted last summer that the last two seasons of his contract were added to reduce the overall cap hit before rules were put in place to close that loophole. While the Detroit captain eventually walked back those comments some will still point to the timing of this injury as questionable.
Even though Zetterberg has played in all 82 games the last three seasons though, there have been multiple reports that a back injury has limited him for some time. Craig Custance of The Athletic (subscription required) relays a report from one source who said it was hard to watch Zetterberg even put on his skates given his injury. The 37-year old forward recorded just 11 goals in 2017-18, matching the lowest total in his entire career (and that came in a lockout-shortened season). Even if he did play, there’s no guarantee he would be effective on the ice, though he still was a positive possession player last season.
If he doesn’t play, Zetterberg’s $6.08MM cap hit could be added to Johan Franzen on long-term injured reserve, giving the Red Wings plenty of flexibility going forward. Even with that added benefit though, it would be tough to watch another one of the NHL’s greats simply fade into irrelevance while still under contract and not have a proper retirement ceremony for several seasons.