Zetterberg rescues hurtin' Wings

Nicholas J. Cotsonika

DETROIT – Before the NHL unveiled the roster for the 2011 All-Star Game, the Red Wings’ Henrik Zetterberg(notes) sent a text message to an old Detroit teammate. He told Brendan Shanahan(notes), now the league’s vice-president of hockey and business development, that he probably wouldn’t be able to play Jan. 30 in Raleigh, N.C.

Zetterberg has been carrying the Wings while Pavel Datsyuk(notes), Dan Cleary and Mike Modano(notes) have been out with injuries, and he has been doing it with a sore back. Shanahan told Zetterberg that he wished he could come, but he understood.

“I think it’s best for our team. I think it’s best for me,” Zetterberg said. “If I was 100 percent, I would love to go. The situation is, with our injuries we have and the way it’s been going lately, I think it’s best for everyone.”

So the NHL hockey operations department didn’t select Zetterberg, who was tied for sixth in the league in scoring when the league’s all-stars were named on Tuesday. Zetterberg was the lone omission among the top 15 scorers at the time.

This illustrates the challenge Shanahan has as he tries to make the All-Star Game matter again – changing the format so the all-stars pick the captains and the captains pick the teams, hoping that will make the players more engaged, the game more entertaining.

Some players prefer the all-star break to the All-Star Game. Some people, including some inside the league, would like to scrap it altogether now that the Winter Classic, the annual outdoor game, has become such a showcase event.

While the league doesn’t want its stars weaseling out of obligations to fans and sponsors, it has to respect injuries. It doesn’t want embarrassing situations, either. When Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom(notes) missed the 2009 All-Star Game, the NHL forced them to miss the Wings’ next game as a pseudo-suspension.

But this also tells you something about Zetterberg. He deserves to be an all-star, but he isn’t all about being a star, which is part of what makes him who he is as a person and what he is as a player.

The spotlight, Zetterberg said, is “something that always will be there. But I think once you reach it, you just want to kind of get away from it. It’s not that I need that spotlight or I need that attention. Once you’re off your work, it’s nice to be a normal guy.”

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The spotlight didn’t shine on Zetterberg at first. He didn’t stand out as a kid, skating against the likes of Henrik and Daniel Sedin(notes), who now play for the Vancouver Canucks and rank just ahead of him in scoring.

“He wasn’t the greatest player back then,” Henrik Sedin(notes) said. “He really came into his own when he was 18, 19.”

But once Zetterberg reached it, he reached it big-time. He became a top player in the Swedish Elite League and then a top player for the Wings, who were smart enough – and lucky enough – to draft him 210th overall in 1999. He became half of a Swedish glamour couple when he started dating Emma Andersson, a TV personality.

And then he just kind of wanted to get away from it. When Henrik and Emma wed last summer in Molle, on the southern shore of Sweden, it was a pop-culture media event, complete with paparazzi.

“Put it this way, he had to have guards put up in certain areas so he could try to keep it somewhat private,” said Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall(notes), one of the guests. “They were still standing there, right on the line, trying to get pictures and all that. That rarely happens in Sweden.”

In his home country, Zetterberg hardly can go anywhere without being recognized. But in most of the United States, no problem. And even in Detroit, a.k.a. Hockeytown, he can keep a low profile sometimes.

Zetterberg went to a Michigan football game in September. He walked across a main intersection – Stadium and Ann Arbor-Saline – surrounded by thousands of sports fans, at a venue that would draw 113,411 for an outdoor hockey game in December.

Still, out of context, wearing his red beard and street clothes and a Detroit Tigers ball cap, looking like just another 30-year-old fan at an unremarkable 5-feet-11 and 195 pounds, Zetterberg slipped through the crowd unnoticed.

“As long as one guy doesn’t see me (and attract attention),” Zetterberg said with a wink, “I’m good.”

Detroit provides Zetterberg with a good balance. In the community, hockey is important, but it’s not all-important, part of a much larger sports landscape. On the ice, he’s important, but not all-important, part of a longstanding team framework.

It dates back to Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov(notes), outstanding offensive talents who also won the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. It continues with Datsyuk, a three-time winner of the Selke, and Zetterberg, who should be a Selke candidate.

The Wings’ best players go hard at both ends of the ice. Hoping to do that for 82 games and four playoff rounds, they have to sacrifice ice time, which means sacrificing offensive numbers.

“So you’re looking at the scoring race, and our best players play three to four minutes less per game than the top offensive players on other teams,” Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “You times that by 80 games, and you’ve got somewhere between 200 and 300 minutes that the other guys are on the ice. It’s obvious that those players from those other teams are going to get more points.”

Before Datsyuk suffered a broken hand Dec. 22, Zetterberg was averaging 19:40 per game. The Pittsburgh PenguinsSidney Crosby(notes), the NHL’s scoring leader, is averaging 21:55. The Washington CapitalsAlex Ovechkin(notes), currently slumping but usually a top scorer, is averaging 21:29. (Other examples don’t fit the narrative so well, like the Sedins. Daniel is averaging 18:41, Henrik 19:15. But you get the Wings’ mindset.)

“That’s the way it is here, and I’m enjoying that,” Zetterberg said. “So I don’t really … I don’t say miss it, because I never had it. But it isn’t like I want to have that role that Crosby or Ovechkin have.”

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Zetterberg can play that role, though.

The night Datsyuk went down, the Wings trailed the Canucks 3-2, but Zetterberg tied the game early in the third period. The Canucks took a 4-3 lead, but Zetterberg earned the primary assist on the tying goal by Lidstrom with 3:56 to go, then scored the game-winner in overtime. He had two goals and one assist in 23:01 of ice time. The Wings won 5-4.

Thus began an 11-game point streak for Zetterberg and a 7-3-1 run for the Wings. Six of those victories were on the road. All of the games were without Datsyuk and Modano, who is recovering from a wrist laceration. Eight of them were without Cleary, who has a broken ankle. Two of them were without Valtteri Filppula(notes), who had a groin injury.

The Wings are deep. They have received contributions from grinders such as Patrick Eaves(notes), Darren Helm(notes), Kris Draper(notes), Drew Miller(notes) and Justin Abdelkader(notes). They even got a goal apiece from short-term call-ups Jan Mursak(notes) and Tomas Tatar(notes).

But it starts with top players like Zetterberg, who has played as much as 24:52 with Datsyuk out – defending top players, killing penalties and producing points, too. With six goals and 16 points during his streak, he has 16 goals and 49 points this season. He’s on pace for 93 points, which would be one more than the career high he set in 2007-08, when he capped the season with the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player.

“We are decimated a little bit up front, then all of a sudden Henrik starts to get the minutes up front that probably the top forwards get on the other teams, and the proof’s in the stats what he can do with more minutes,” Holland said. “He plays at a high level, but he has the sense to raise his game when he knows that we really, really need him. ... When he’s challenged, he gets incredibly determined.”

Zetterberg said he hasn’t made plans yet for the all-star break. All he knows is he wants to rest his back for the really, really big games to come.

“In the end, it’s all about winning,” said Zetterberg, whom the Wings have locked up through 2020-21 at a relatively friendly cap hit of about $6 million per season. “That’s probably why I signed a 12-year deal here. I could have gone somewhere else where maybe I had a little more ice time, a little more spotlight. But this is where I want to be. I want to be here with a lot of good players.”