Loss of Zetterberg means major issues loom for Red Wings

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Detroit Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg announces his decision to retire from hockey due to a degenerative back condition during a news conference Friday at Centre Ice Arena.

Traverse City — Even with an aching back and not being able to practice, Henrik Zetterberg was often the Red Wings’ best player the last two seasons.

His leadership in the locker room, his ability on the ice, it’s all going to be missed, as Zetterberg announced the end of his playing career Friday due to that troublesome back.

How much will Zetterberg be missed? The Red Wings will determine that in the weeks and months ahead by how they play.

But it’s not going to be easy.

“There’s potential to feel that loss,” said coach Jeff Blashill, who called Zetterberg one of the best “warriors’ he’s been around, and one of the best players. “How much you feel it totally depends on how ready the other guys are to fill those roles.”

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Not having Zetterberg means this team belongs that much more to the likes of Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Bertuzzi, and all those youngsters coming up this season (Michael Rasmussen, Filip Zadina) and, in the not too distant future (Dennis Cholowski, Filip Hronek, Evgeny Svechnikov, Joe Veleno, Givani Smith, or so many others).

There are opportunities for the young players to take this team upward.

“It’s an opportunity for someone else to step up and grab those minutes,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “We need younger guys to push for those minutes.”

It’s an old sports axiom that when a player gets hurt, all it means is it’s an opportunity for another player, usually much younger, and probably very hungry.

The Red Wings are hoping that occurs in this situation.

Still, losing Zetterberg, and all he did for this roster, is going to be a monumental loss.

“Whether you needed a goal or shut it down, he was on the ice and he made it happen,” Kronwall said. “That’s what stands out among the great players. Steve (Yzerman) was the same way, Nick (Lidstrom) was the same way. When it mattered, they were on top of the game.”

Here are several ways the loss of Zetterberg will affect the Red Wings:

Who will replace Zetterberg as captain?

Blashill and Holland both said that will be determined before Opening Night on Oct. 4.

“It’s something we’ll keep discussing internally,” Blashill said. “By Game 1 we’ll have that decision made. But it’s not something I want to comment on. We’ll discuss it internally and decide what is the best avenue for us.”

It wouldn’t be surprising to see another assistant captain named alongside Kronwall and Justin Abdelkader.

A steady, low-key veteran such as Frans Nielsen would appear to be a good possibility to wear an ‘A,’ or maybe Dylan Larkin, who just signed a contract extension and is destined to someway be the Wings’ captain.

But probably just not yet. Larkin is only 22 and it might be too much pressure to wear the "C" at this point.

Larkin took on a larger role last season on and off the ice, and intends to do even more this season.

“I don’t think you need to wear a letter to be a leader and I tried last year to take a step forward in my third season,” Larkin said. “I thought it was time to be a leader, be an impact player on this team. I have the same mentality for this year. Is wearing a letter everything? No. It’s doing the right things, contributing to the team and winning games.

“We’re going to need solid leadership and I want to provide that.”

For his part, Zetterberg believes the leadership is fine on this roster.

“The leadership group we have is strong,” Zetterberg said. “The assistant captains (Abdelkader, Kronwall), we have some young guys that have been here for a while. One player has the ‘C’ on his jersey, but we have a lot of leaders.”

■ How will the salary cap be affected?

Zetterberg has three years remaining on his contract at a hit of $6.083 million on the salary cap.

The Wings will pace Zetterberg on long-term injured reserve when the regular season begins.

How much salary cap relief the Wings receive will depend on who makes the Opening Night roster (and how close to the ceiling of the cap they are).

Regardless, general manager Ken Holland has said on several occasions the Wings will not go looking for a replacement to Zetterberg in the lineup from outside the organization.

“There are a lot of options,” said Holland, noting Larkin, Nielsen, Athanasiou, Darren Helm and Luke Glendening, along with the likes of Rasmussen and Dominic Turgeon, all play center. “It’s an opportunity for other players to show what they can do.”

■ How will minutes and roles in the lineup be affected?

Larkin, obviously, moves into the role of No. 1 center, something that was likely to happen with or without Zetterberg.

“Playing with him my first year on a line, I spent a lot of time with him and learned a lot every day,” Larkin said. “Just watching him, the good times and the bad. Every day there was a new lesson I learned from him.”

Nielsen and Athanasiou (or maybe Helm) will become the second- or third-line centers, with Glendening, likely the fourth center.

There’s also Zetterberg’s spot on the power play, which Nielsen could claim (he was on the New York Islanders’ power play and saw brief time on it with the Wings last season).

Zetterberg’s absence also creates more of a chance for Rasmussen and Zadina to make the roster and see quality ice time this season.

“There’s opportunity in terms of ice time and hopefully some young players are going to take full advantage,” Holland said.