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Niyo: Concussions leave Franzen's future uncertain

John Niyo
The Detroit News

He is gone, but not forgotten. He is absent, but still must be accounted for.

And while Johan Franzen tries to work his way back from the latest in a string of traumatic brain injuries he has suffered during his NHL career, his boss wants to make it clear: Hockey should be the last thing on his mind right now.

OK, maybe not that far down the list. But certainly not at the top. Not with his track record, and not, as Red Wings general manager Ken Holland puts it, "in the world we live in today."

"He's got a wife, he's got kids, he's got a life to lead," Holland said. "So he needs to get better. He needs to get healthy."

And then he can worry about the rest — the practicing, the playing, maybe even the playoffs.

Holland, meanwhile, says he won't bother worrying about the fiscal concerns associated with one of his veteran players' uncertain future. He'll deal with the salary-cap maneuvering when the time comes, possibly in a few weeks at the trade deadline, if necessary. But he won't address the issues that could come along if Franzen can't return — retirement, recapture fees and the rest — until all this plays out.

Franzen, 35, hasn't played — hasn't skated, actually — in more than a month, and there is no timetable yet for when he will, or when he might, as he follows the day-to-day recovery protocol after another concussion.

"Right now, he obviously doesn't feel good enough," Holland said Tuesday, before the Red Wings boarded a flight for Pittsburgh without Franzen. "So he's not here."

Franzen has a handful of reported concussions dating back to 2006, plus a subdural hematoma diagnosis that forced him to miss six games during his record-setting scoring tear in the Red Wings' 2008 Stanley Cup run.

This latest concussion occurred Jan. 6, when Franzen was blindsided by a check late in a game at Edmonton by the Oilers' Rob Klinkhammer. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound forward, in his 10th NHL season, finished the game after being helped off the ice. But he began feeling concussion-related symptoms on the flight to Calgary that night and was placed on short-term injured reserve the next day to clear a roster space.

According to Holland, Franzen had been making some strides in his recovery the past couple weeks, "and then he had a bit of a setback." But the GM didn't offer any specifics, other than to say Franzen has been working with Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, director of the University of Michigan's NeuroSport Program and one of the nation's leading experts in the study of concussions. (Kutcher declined an interview request Wednesday.) Piet Van Zant, the Red Wings' head athletic trainer, gets regular updates from Franzen, whose eldest child — Eddie Bo — turns 4 in a couple of weeks. His teammates check in, too, though even that can be tough — maybe even a bit scary.

"Absolutely, it's all those emotions mixed at the same time," said Niklas Kronwall, a fellow Swede and a former roommate on the road. "It's a frustrating thing, obviously. Because all he wants to do is play. And to see him go through something like this, it's hard. It was hard last year, and again this year."

Will he play again?

A few years ago, too. And a couple years before that. And yes, the cumulative effect of all that is what makes it harder to speculate about Franzen's future, about whether he should consider pulling the plug on this season, or perhaps on his career. As Kronwall says, "That's something for him to answer."

But it has to be a question, at this point, with Franzen missing 36 games in the last two seasons because of separate concussions. And others wondering, fairly or not, whether his lengthy scoring droughts and seemingly disengaged play might have something do with his injury history.

Last season, it was a hit from Tampa Bay's Radko Gudas that kept him off the ice for the better part of three months. Franzen missed six weeks, returned for a game against Florida, then woke up to a headache and dizziness the next morning. That forced him to withdraw from the Sochi Olympics.

He eventually made his way back to the lineup in late February, and even scored a hat trick in his second game back. But after a 10-day surge — six goals and 11 points in five games — he managed just one goal and eight assists in his last 23 games, including the first-round playoff loss to Boston.

LTIR may be destiny

Franzen, in the middle of a regrettable 11-year, $43 million contract, was off to a productive start this season, with 13 points (six goals) in 13 games. But he'd gone silent again — one goal, eight assists and a team-worst minus-12 rating in his last 20 games — and now there's no telling when he'll be back.

The Red Wings haven't suffered in his absence, winning 10 of 12 prior to Wednesday's game against the Penguins. And with ample depth up front, Holland probably doesn't need to make a move for a forward at the deadline. (As it is, Franzen probably would slot in as the fourth-line center, replacing Joakim Andersson, if he manages to return this spring.)

If he needs the cap space, Holland can put Franzen on long-term injured reserve, where he could remain indefinitely. And having opted against a compliance buyout for Franzen and his back-diving, cap-subverting contract last summer, that might be where he ends up, regardless. Much like Philadelphia's Chris Pronger and Boston's Marc Savard, both of whom had their careers effectively ended by concussions but remain on LTIR to avoid additional salary-cap penalties for their teams.

But that's neither here nor there, as far as Holland is concerned. And it won't be until he knows where Franzen's head is at. Right now, he says, "that's all that really matters."

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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