Henrik Zetterberg will have no trouble taking the lead in the Red Wings locker room. “Hank’s a calm guy, he’s not gonna yell, but he’ll talk when he needs to,” Johan Franzen said. (David Guralnick/Detroit News)
Plymouth — The Red Wings will be different, no disputing that. But in one important way, they should be very much the same.
The moment the team long feared happens to be the moment Henrik Zetterberg long anticipated. Captain Nicklas Lidstrom is back in Sweden, happily retired, and he'll be missed in more ways than we can recount. But on the issue of leadership there are no peals of panic from the Wings because, well, there rarely are.
That's the mantle Zetterberg will take today when he's named the Wings captain, an official proclamation that everyone knew was coming. An NHL captaincy carries an iconic touch, and for the Wings, an ironic touch. From Steve Yzerman to Lidstrom and now to Zetterberg, the leadership tone is understated, but profound.
Zetterberg, 32, will wear the "C" during a tough transition, a compressed 48-game schedule for a team whose aura has withered the past few playoffs. With so much change, this is one thing the Wings needed — a guy who knows his way from A to C, and A to Z.
"I think I've been easing into it for years," Zetterberg said. "When you look at both Stevie and Nick, they weren't the most vocal captains, but they showed it on the ice every day. They showed it in games, in practice, in the weight room. There are many leaders in here who do the speaking part. If it comes time to say anything, of course I'll do it. But I will not change my way."
It's a way that works for the Wings, primarily because Yzerman and Lidstrom generally were the team's best players. Zetterberg isn't on Lidstrom's level in that regard, and he shares top billing on the Wings with Pavel Datsyuk. But Zetterberg is among the best two-way forwards in hockey, and the high-character qualities are evident.
He speaks in low, measured tones and has an underrated competitive glare, as Lidstrom and Yzerman did. I think Zetterberg will be a bit edgier, a bit more outspoken than Lidstrom. Zetterberg has flashed his anger at times, such as when Nashville's Shea Weber clobbered him in the head during last year's playoffs.
There's also the player-coach dynamic, and with Mike Babcock entering his eighth season, it can be a delicate balance between a hard-driving coach and a veteran team. With Lidstrom in the dressing room, no one could stay upset because the captain wasn't upset.
The Wings could use a feistier streak, and Zetterberg has no problem supplying it.
"Bottom line is, he's seen it all, he's like a coach on the ice," Babcock said.
"He doesn't mind getting mad at me and I don't mind getting mad at him. I think that's very important. He doesn't mind standing up for the guys and telling me what he thinks. The other thing is, nobody ever wants the team to not be as good on their watch. Believe me."
Babcock speaks from experience, coaching a team once led by the inimitable Scotty Bowman. Zetterberg has gathered experience observing Lidstrom and Yzerman, whose locker was directly next to his.
There's no debate about the next captain, although defenseman Niklas Kronwall has many of the key qualities. Of all the transitions the Wings are about to undertake, this should be a seamless one.
"As a captain, all you look for is that the players respect you," forward Dan Cleary said. "You lead by working hard, being an honest player and treating people with respect. That's what Stevie did, that's what Nick did, and I know that's what Hank will do."
Zetterberg has been "Hank" for a long time, anointed so by Yzerman. He has a well-known wife — TV personality Emma Andersson — and a splashy life back in Sweden. But here in Detroit, he indeed is Hank, seen at Tigers games wearing his cap with the Olde English D.
More will be asked now of Zetterberg, and that includes production. Since career-highs of 43 goals and 92 points in 2008, he hasn't topped 31 goals, and had 22 last season. Defense is where he excels, winning the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP when the Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2008.
That won't change and his teammates are pretty sure Zetterberg won't change, although Johan Franzen is campaigning for one slight adjustment — more team dinners.
"I said that for motivation, putting pressure on him," Franzen said with a smile. "Hank's a calm guy, he's not gonna yell, but he'll talk when he needs to. He learned from two of the best, so he's probably gonna copy that style. It's been a winning style."
It's been a winning team, with 21 straight playoff appearances. But this is a challenge unlike any the Wings have faced in two decades, their first foray without either Lidstrom or Yzerman. Zetterberg said he talked to Lidstrom over the summer, and if necessary, won't hesitate to talk with him some more.
"He's only a phone call away, even if he is in Sweden," Zetterberg said. "Look at the teams I've played with and all the leaders — (Chris) Chelios, (Kris) Draper, Stevie, (Brendan) Shanahan. You take bits and pieces every year. There are other things I want to try to do now, and I'm really looking forward to it. You have to know when to speak at the right moment, and when to shut up at the right moment."
That moment is here, and Zetterberg is ready, as he's always been.