February 5, 2014 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Henrik Zetterberg has been a marvel as Red Wings captain

'Sometimes there's enough panic out there and you just want to keep everything calm,' says Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg. (David Guralnick)

Detroit — Sure, Henrik Zetterberg would like to have a break, or at least catch a break. Sometimes his back aches, sometimes his legs are weary. But he’s needed in all sorts of places now, and the next time you hear him complain, it’ll probably be the first.

This is the greatest test of Zetterberg’s captaincy, across two continents, no time to rest. And somehow, in the midst of guiding the Red Wings through their injury woes, before helping guide Sweden in the Sochi Olympics, Zetterberg is playing as well as ever.

In fact, I’d suggest he’s having one of the remarkably impactful seasons of his career. He leads the Wings with 16 goals and 48 points despite missing 13 games to injury. He’s doing it without a batch of ailing teammates, including Pavel Datsyuk, who may return from a 14-game absence Thursday.

Zetterberg is taking on more duties, all while helping teach the youngsters how to shave. Well, if not shave, how to behave. You’d think it’d wear on a 33-year-old star, with the Wings again scrapping to reach the playoffs. But as the toil has mounted, the toll hasn’t, and as he stood in front of the updated standings on the eraser board in the dressing room, I’d swear it seemed Zetterberg was enjoying this even more than normal.

“It’s fun for us old guys, when the young kids come in and play well,” Zetterberg said. “Obviously they’re ready. They’re doing a good job in Grand Rapids, there’s no transition time when they come up. Once again, you just see the organization doing some right things here.”

Zetterberg has been playing on a line with Justin Abdelkader and Gustav Nyquist, who’s so dynamic he was added to the Swedish Olympic team, replacing injured Johan Franzen. The line has been terrific as the Wings have collected points in seven of their past nine games to climb back into a playoff spot for now, with two more games before the 17-day Olympic break.

Zetterberg has 12 points in seven games and is plus-20 for the season. How impressive is that? The Wings’ next-best is Jonathan Ericsson’s plus-9, while Datsyuk is minus-2.

At first, Mike Babcock was forced to play the youngsters, and now is eager to do so. It helps that Ken Holland and his staff drafted under-the-radar talent, and that veteran leaders such as Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall and Jimmy Howard have embraced the transition.

That’s not as simple as it appears. Experienced players such as Daniel Cleary and Todd Bertuzzi have been scratched at times, and the ongoing competition has pushed the Wings through dangerous times. When Franzen and Stephen Weiss get healthy, the Wings will have some interesting choices to make — unless they’re made for them.

“We’ve had injuries before, but we haven’t had the big pieces out like this year,” Zetterberg said. “It’s been more minutes than usual for me, although I’m not complaining. When (older) guys come back, there are gonna be some tough decisions.”

Keeping it calm

There’s no debating the impact of Nyquist and Tomas Tatar, but when another mob of youngsters — Riley Sheahan, Tomas Jurco, Luke Glendening — play well, you have a whole new atmosphere. The Wings are deep into the post-Nicklas Lidstrom era, and from a leadership standpoint, it’s been mostly seamless.

“All the leaders have done a great job making us feel we’re a part of this team,” Nyquist said. “You learn something every game on a line with Z.”

Just like Lidstrom, Zetterberg has a settling effect, even in a room full of kids. No, it’s not like parenting, because the Wings’ youngsters are fairly mature. It’s more like a dorm-floor monitor, without the yelling and bed checks.

“When they make a mistake, you don’t get down on them,” Zetterberg said. “Sometimes there’s enough panic out there and you just want to keep everything calm. It’s fun to play with them. Gus is so fast, so quick. He gets a lot of easy goals, but they’re not really easy goals. It’s because he’s in the right spot. Then we have Abby, who’s kind of the pit bull and doesn’t get enough credit.”

Definitely noticeable

Zetterberg is averaging 23 minutes lately, and it helps to have the shifty Nyquist on one side and the bulky Abdelkader on the other. The Wings will need Datsyuk to alleviate pressure, but in the meantime, they’re getting better.

Datsyuk created a mild stir by reasserting his commitment to the Olympics in his native Russia while dealing with an apparent knee injury. He might return for the Wings’ upcoming two games, but if he can’t go close to full speed, he probably shouldn’t go to the Olympics.

Easy for us to say, without the political and cultural ramifications. As someone familiar with the pace of international hockey, and as captain of Team Sweden, Zetterberg actually sees a benefit.

“I will definitely say, if we’d been in an All-Star break, it would’ve been nice to get those four days off,” Zetterberg said. “But you always want to play in the Olympics. And being off for 10 days, I don’t know if that’s good either. It’s almost like your body is checking out and thinking it’s the offseason. Since I’ve missed (13) games, it evens out to a normal season.”

In an abnormally turbulent season, Zetterberg has kept things as normal as possible, playing as passionately as ever. Through all the team’s injuries, it’s still noticeable when he’s gone, and especially noticeable when he’s back.


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