Krupa: Healthy Zetterberg has new lease on hockey life

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — On the east shore of the Black Sea, 18 months before the start of training camp this season, Henrik Zetterberg was in such pain that touching him, let alone moving him, required some caution.

“It’s the same problems as before with my back, only 20 times worse,” he told the Swedish daily, Aftonbladet, from his room, during the Sochi Winter Olympics. “I can hardly move, the pain is incredible.

“It’s really sickening. I’ve been looking forward to this tournament for years.”

Flown to Detroit for back surgery, he followed it with months of rehabilitation and, in whatever time remained, conditioning, in an attempt to maintain hockey shape for the world’s greatest league.

This summer, the rehab yielded almost entirely to conditioning.

When Zetterberg turned 35 years old Opening Night against the Maple Leafs, he could look back on a long voyage.

“The wall” he said he hit last January — when after an uncustomary hot start to his season, his performance flattened during the stretch drive and the playoffs — is now a memory, and an experience he said he works hard to avoid repeating.

Now, he flies.

Attacking and defending with Justin Abdelkader, the burly offensive force beginning his seventh season, and the 19-year-old Dylan Larkin serving notice his time in the NHL has arrived, Zetterberg looks quick, powerful and, to opponents, dangerous.

Team effort helps Red Wings' penalty kill thrive

The new top line for the Wings has combined for seven goals and nine assists for 16 points in three games.

Zetterberg’s seven points leads the team, as does his five assists. He also leads all Wings forwards in ice time per game, with 17 minutes 30 seconds.

He says he likes skating with the younger guys.

“Keeps me young,” he said, flashing a dry smile.

From a player who began looking old, perhaps, at times, to a guy who is re-establishing the sort of performance that allows him to regularly haul the team around on his back in the playoffs, Zetterberg is a force, once again, in the early going.

“Great to see him healthy,” said Gustav Nyquist, who provided some bedside assistance in Sochi. “I think his body feels as good as it has in a long time.

“I think it shows out there. He’s strong on the puck.”

Moving up career lists

One of the great Red Wings in history is in the autumn of his career, with this and five more seasons remaining on his contract.

When he turned 37, Gordie Howe was asked in the dressing room at the old Olympia if his time was about up.

Little did the scribes and microphone guys know then.

No one should expect the same longevity from Zetterberg, or any other mere mortal, of course.

But his skill, matched with his enduring and extraordinary courage in the fray, is again combined with advanced conditioning. This time, at the very least, no one should underestimate the potential.

Seventh in the 89-year history of the Red Wings in points, ninth in goals and seventh in assists, Zetterberg’s career totals appear likely to increase for a while.

And it comes at a time when there is even more desire because, as he said when I first talked to him this season, “For some of us, the time is getting short.”

Like Nyquist, Abdelkader knows what he sees.

“He came into camp ready to go, with a chip on his shoulder even,” he said.

Change behind bench

And there might be another ingredient in the autumn-of-career resurgence: A new coach.

Mike Babcock is a rough rider.

He is, I believe, the best coach in hockey. I would take him over Joel Quenneville, despite the Blackhawks coach’s 3-1 lead in Stanley Cups. But that does not mean they were easy years that decade in Detroit.

In fact, the strong sense is that “life with Mike” could be difficult.

One gets only the slightest indication of that from time-to-time from Zetterberg, and almost entirely through his humor in the occasional bemused response to a question.

Meanwhile, as captain, Zetterberg’s role was essential to keeping the troops marching at the general’s orders, while perhaps occasionally trying to rein him in, when he could.

And, Babcock admitted, Zetterberg could.

Jeff Blashill arrays players and “draws it up” in much the same way as Babcock. Many remark how similar they sound.

But the sense is the new toaster burns the bread less often, perhaps a lot less.

The pain in Zetterberg’s back is gone and, to the extent his former coach could be a pain in the neck, that is a welcomed relief, too.

“Even, you know, a new coaching change maybe brought the fresh air for him, with Blash,” Abdelkader said, as he continued to discuss his captain and line mate.

“Yeah, he’s playing well.”