September 15th, 2018:
Zetterberg’s retirement may be
mixed blessing for Red Wings
By KEITH GAVE
TRAVERSE CITY – If you were surprised by the headline out of the Red Wings first day of training camp here Friday, that captain Henrik Zetterberg made it official by announcing his retirement because of chronic back pain, then you had to be living under a rock for the past several months.
This has been expected since a month or so after the season, when news broke that the same back issues that have plagued Zetterberg for the final third of his 15-year NHL career in Detroit were preventing him from training. Since then, the story has moved along slowly, but deliberately, almost as if it were crafted by a slick PR machine. And maybe it was.
They let us down easy, Zetterberg and his team. So by the time it was finally announced it felt like something we were expecting.
Truth be told, the Wings knew this months ago, probably even during the latter half of last season, when their captain was able to gut it through the final 40 or so games only if he stayed off the ice on practice days.
A sad and premature ending to a Hall of Fame career.
And also not exactly the worst thing that could happen for these Red Wings.
I happened to mention that to a club executive earlier this week during the annual Prospects Tournament, where the young Wings lost to Columbus in the championship game.
Choosing my words very carefully, I said, “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but in some ways it feels like your team caught a break with Henrik Zetterberg retiring.”
The guy looked me in the eyes, paused and whispered, “You know, I do too.”
How do you figure that? Losing your captain and arguably your most important player? The only guy on the roster remotely close to a transformational star?
Yep. A break.
And if you quit screaming at your computer screen for a moment, I’ll be happy to explain.
First, even if he were 100 percent healthy, the Wings weren’t getting anything near the production of the guy who 10 years ago was the playoff MVP for a Stanley Cup championship
team. Even with a healthy Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit felt destined for a bottom-three finish among the NHL’s 31 teams.
Not it seems all but certain.
The loss of their captain makes such a finish that much more reasonable, therefor more palatable, to a rather spoiled and finicky fan base that already is tired of a rebuilding process that will take several more years.
A top-three draft pick might hasten the rebuild. It certainly would give the Wings a shot at a transformational player they so desperately need. With Zetterberg’s retirement, they have none. And you don’t win Stanley Cups without those kinds of players.
How bad is it? A recent ranking of the top 100 NHL players by a respected sports website recently didn’t include a single Red Wings player.
That’s not to say there is no reason for optimism. There is plenty, with young, developing players like Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and, Andrea Athanasiou – if he manages to locate his team’s defensive zone without a compass.
And there are more coming. The Wings arguably have the best crop of prospects in the NHL thanks to recent drafts – especially this year’s, which produced four legit high-end prospects among the first 36 players selected in June.
After more than a decade of abject failure in entry draft, Detroit’s scouting staff has rebounded nicely in recent years. General Manager Ken Holland is thrilled with the youngsters who should be taking a regular shift in Detroit in the next year or two. They include 6-foot-6 center Mike Rasmussen, defensemen Filip Hronek (second round, 53rd overall in 2016) and Dennis Cholowski (first round, 20th overall) in 2016, and the first two picks this year, winger Filip Zadina (sixth overall) and center Joe Veleno (30th overall), who led the young Wings in scoring in the Prospects Tournament.
Of those, Hronek pretty much has the big roster made unless he falters in training camp. Rasmussen, the big body Detroit so desperately needs in front of the net on the power play, will get a long, close look in camp. Cholowski, who led all Wings defensemen in scoring in the recent Prospects Tournament that concluded here this week, will to.
Zadina, a pure goal-scorer, was expected to get serious consideration for the Detroit roster, too. But let’s be a bit more cautious about hanging his number in the rafters just yet. He struggled mightily in the Prospects Tournament, looking a long, long way from being prepared for a regular shift in the NHL.
Unless he turns things around quickly, expect him to spend most of the season with Grand Rapids.
That’s how it seems to be with youngsters drafted out of the wide-open Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where defensive hockey is barely a rumor. Like Zadina, Mantha scored at will in “The Q,” but he labored in the American Hockey League, where he spent two seasons before he got a sniff in the NHL.
Zadina has much to learn, and it might be wise right now to temper the great expectations.
So it begins, this 2018-19 NHL season in Detroit. Without their captain, with little hope of competing for the playoffs, without any expectations other than seeing young talent developing for a better future – after Steve Yzerman returns as GM to rescue the franchise like he did as a player 3 ½ decades ago.
The envelope please:
Lions (0-1) at 49ers (0-1, minus-6): Prevailing wisdom is that there’s no way Detroit is as bad as it looked in front of a national audience Monday night, the way the Lions lost at home to an underdog New York Jets team with a rookie quarterback. But they are. No run defense, no pass rush, no ground game behind an awful offensive line. No hope. Pick: 49ers 66, Detroit 3.
SMU (0-2) at No. 22 Michigan (1-1, minus-35 ½): The Mustangs, rebuilding since the death penalty decimated their play-for-pay program 31 years ago, may not be as good as the weak Western Michigan team the Wolverines throttled last week. It’s hard to gauge any part of Michigan’s game against such weak competition, but the reps are good for an offensive line that should be feeling better about itself, and for Shea Peterson, who has looked every bit as advertised in his first two games in Ann Arbor. Pick: Wolverines 49, SMU 9.
Keith Gave will be signing copies of his best-selling book, The Russian Five, at the annual training camp Alumni and Celebrity Game on Saturday, Sept. 15, starting at 6:30 p.m. at Centre Ice Arena in Traverse City.
Follow on twitter @KeithGave
--- ARCHIVES ---
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