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Henrik Zetterberg's health is huge question for Blashill as Red Wings camp nears

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — Training camp is a month away for the Red Wings and coach Jeff Blashill has begun preparations.

Including one that Blashill isn’t looking forward to — comprising a lineup that is without captain Henrik Zetterberg.

Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill says forward Henrik Zetterberg's status remains uncertain as the team's camp draws near.

General manager Ken Holland told reporters last week there was an “unknown” to Zetterberg’s future because of persistent back issues that have forced Zetterberg to not train this summer.

Blashill said Wednesday, because of Zetterberg’s health, there’s “doubt” as to whether Zetterbrerg will be ready to play this season.

“He’s had a hard summer and I don’t think his back is reacting great,” Blashill said. “Certainly we’ll know more in a month (at training camp), but as of today, there’s a lot of doubt as to whether his back will be healthy enough to play.”

Zetterberg’s condition, the continued emergence of Dylan Larkin, exciting young prospects such as Michael Rasmussen and Filip Zadina, and the battle for jobs and playing time in training camp were some of the topics Blashill addressed during an interview Wednesday with The Detroit News, as Blashill gets back into the daily hockey grind.

Just returning from a family vacation, Blashill was refreshed and energized. Although the questions about Zetterberg’s availability make for a difficult unknown.

Question: Jeff, certainly there’s a lot of talk right now regarding Henrik Zetterberg. What’s the latest on him? Have you talked to Hank at all, and what do you expect at this point?

A: “As you know, Hank wasn’t able to practice for half the year. He was able to gut it out through those last two months where he wasn’t able to practice. There were nights I didn’t think he’d able to play and he did play.

“He’s had a hard summer and I don’t think his back is reacting great. Certainly we’ll know more in a month (at training camp), but as of today, there’s a lot of doubt as to whether his back will be healthy enough to play.”

Back issues have left Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg's return to Detroit uncertain.

Q: At various times, it has been remarkable the level of pain he’s had to play through. How much of a loss will it be if you don’t have him in the lineup, both on and off the ice?

A: “It was unreal, and it speaks to the level of a competitor he is, and honestly, the toughness, to play through what he did. Obviously if Hank isn’t able to play, there’s a lot of areas where it affects your team. Certainly from a leadership standpoint, but he’s still a real good player for us.

“But with that said, I’ve always been a huge believer that you never worry about who is not available, and you worry about who is available. How much it affects your team depends on the growth of other players, and has there been enough growth among other players? Will it or not be a factor? We’ll see.”

Q: Looking at the calendar, we’re about a month away from the start of camp. Is it basically “go” time at this point of the summer?

A: “Oh yes, it’s go time for us. For planning purposes, we’re making sure we have everything down, systems-wise, camp-wise, getting the practices planned. All that stuff. It’s go time.”

Q: You’ve said several times you’ll divide the groups a little differently next month, correct?

A: “I’ve done camp differently at different years. It’s based on where your team is at, and last year I knew to a large degree the guys who were on the inside to make the team and the guys who were on the outside, and divided the teams that way. I felt it gave us a jump-start on practicing as a group.

“This year I would say there’s more competition for jobs. I’ve let it be known both privately and publicly, and I’m going to divide the teams accordingly so we’re going to have three, probably three, even teams and we’re going to compete for jobs.”

Q: Jeff, when you say that, is that jobs on the roster, or playing time for guys?

A: “I would say both. We haven’t been good enough, so the players who have been on our current roster have to be better, or different players have to be in those spots — and they have to be better. Just having different players doesn’t make you better. They have to be better than the guys you have.

“But when I say jobs, jobs can mean jobs on the power play, jobs could mean on the top line, jobs could mean a job on the team. It’s more competitive, and has to be, because if it’s not, we should expect the same result, and we don’t like the result. So either guys who have had those jobs play at a higher rate or different guys end up taking those jobs.

“But you can’t be given a job. You have to take it.”

The Red Wings selected right wing Filip Zadina with the sixth overall pick in the NHL draft.

Q: So many people ask me about the young players in this organization, but specifically Michael Rasmussen and Filip Zadina. What do you expect from them heading into camp next month? Are there spots in the lineup for them? It doesn’t sound as if you’ll just hand them jobs, that’s for sure.

A: “It doesn’t do them, or us, any good if they’re not ready for the job. It’s just going to take a test when you haven’t studied, you’re going to fail, and that doesn’t do any good.

“With that said, and I’ll start with Rasmussen, he’s made a lot of statements that he is ready. He made a statement last year at training camp, certainly throughout the regular season and playoffs for Tri-City (junior hockey). I got the chance to see him in the playoffs and he was excellent. He made another statement at development camp. He’s making those statements that he’s ready and he has to make another big statement at camp and say ‘I’m ready and I’m going to help this tea get better.’”

Q: Jeff, what kind of player is he? What should fans expect from Rasmussen?
A: “He’s a complete player in the sense he knows how to stop on pucks, and he plays through bodies, but I believe he is going to score in the NHL because he knows how to go to the net and he’s very good in front of the net. He’s excellent tipping the puck, and he has a net front presence, both 5-on-5 and on the power play.

“Rasmussen will be a complete player who’ll score goals in the NHL because his goals are transferable from one level to another.”

Q: Where will you play him?

A: “I’ll play him at center at camp for a bit and at wing. It’s more likely he plays wing if he makes our team this year and eventually moves to center, potentially. He has the versatility to do either. But the biggest thing is he is going to score goals in front of the net.”

Q: How about Zadina? In development camp, he certainly showed an ability to score goals, looked like a pure scorer.

A: “He scored a good amount of goals in junior. He scores what I call transferable goals, goal-scorer goals. But when I watched him on tape, he wasn’t a one-trick pony. He could make plays. He’s not a winger who needs a center to give him the puck. He’s a winger who wants the puck and wants to have the ability to control the play a little bit with the puck. That’s an important aspect that makes him less one-dimensional, and more multi-dimensional.

“I’ve seen him less, so he hasn’t had as many opportunities to make statements. He’ll have a great opportunity in training camp to make a statement. If he’s not ready to help us be better, not ready to play in the NHL, it doesn’t do any good to have him in the NHL. But if he’s ready, he can certainly add a dimension of scoring, both 5-on-5 and on the power play, and if  he can do that, we’re a better team.”

Q: It’s been a big summer for Dylan Larkin, what with a new long-term contract, and coming after another strong performance at the world championships. He took a big step in his development last season, Jeff, are there areas where he can still grow?

Dylan Larkin

A: “He’s really learned to become a complete two-way player that he has to be for us to be a winning team and for him to become an elite player.

“Dylan has to find ways to produce more on the power play, and if he can do that, he can take another step as a player. Another thing Dylan has talked about is making the key plays at key moments. We had tons of one-goal games and we lost too many of them, and in those games, what happens a lot, is the ballplayers on your team make more plays than the opposition.

“He’s one of our ballplayers. If he can raise his game in those moments where he’s either making a big play defensively or offensively, to propel us to the win, that’s another big step.”

Q: It has to feel good adding Thomas Vanek back to the lineup. How are you better with Vanek?

A: “Thomas makes other players exponentially better. You’re just not getting Thomas’ production, but also whoever is on his line’s production. We want to see some of our young guys continuing to make strides, but it’s hard to make strdies when there aren’t guys on your line making you better. He makes guys on his line exponentially better.”

Q: Why was it important to re-sign (defenseman) Mike Green?

A: “When you look at our (defensive) core, there’s a lot of nights where he was one of our best defensemen. He certainly is one of our best puck movers out of our end. He’s a big factor in getting out of our end, and he naturally wants to jump into the play and put pressure on the other team.

“In a lot of ways he was one of our top defensemen on a lot of nights, and he’s a big-time winner who is a great example for our younger guys in the locker room.”

More: Wings' young goaltenders are a long way from ready

Q: Also, signing (goaltender) Jonathan Bernier should make that position stronger. You have to like the idea of Bernier pushing Jimmy Howard, right?

A: “For us to make strides we want to take, you have to have elite goaltending in today’s NHL. It’s really difficult to rely on one guy to give you elite goaltending every game. It’s so tight, the goalie has to be on top of his game so much, you have no room for error. You have no easy games. You need two guys to be able to play.

“Jimmy has been real good the last two years and he’s given us a lot of good hockey. We had to tax him in terms of number of games last year and bringing Bernier in, he’s had two years in a row he’s really given his team a big boost. His work ethic and approach are excellent. I’m hoping he can give us real good minutes and the two of them combine to give us that elite goaltending.”

Q: It definitely sounds as if this camp will be competitive; no one should feel too comfortable.

A: “It has to be (competitive), we haven’t been good enough the last two years. That certainly doesn’t mean a player who has been part of this team is on the outside at all. It means we all have to be better and part of being better is different guys taking jobs (from within the team).

“So let’s be ready to compete for our jobs every day.”