"To be honest with you, he's driving our bus big time," Babcock told NHL.com. "He's been our best player by a country mile."
Nobody should be surprised by this, considering Zetterberg has been one of the Red Wings' best players for a long time -- long enough to prompt The Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky, to say Zetterberg has been his favorite player in the NHL over the last decade.
"I think he's the best Swedish player they've ever put in the NHL," Gretzky told NHL.com.
His resume aside, Zetterberg, now 32, is leading the Red Wings with 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) through 11 games. He has points in nine of those 11 games, including a hat trick and two assists in a 5-1 win against the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 1. It was his first five-point regular-season game since Nov. 14, 2009.
*Speedy center Darren Helm, who Babcock identifies as one of the most important players on the team for all that he does on both ends of the ice, has played in just one game due to a back injury.
*Detroit's penalty kill is 26th in the NHL at 72.2 percent heading into Sunday's game against Los Angeles.
*Goalie Jimmy Howard has not played like the All-Star he was last season; he carries a 2.86 goals-against average and .897 save percentage into Sunday.
And yet the Red Wings still are above .500 at 5-4-1 and sitting within the top eight in the Western Conference nearly a quarter of the way through the season. Despite an obvious changing of the guard in Detroit, an NHL record 22nd straight appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is still very much a strong possibility.
Zetterberg is why.
"I think nine months away from the grind of the NHL has been good for him," NHL Network and TSN analyst Craig Button told NHL.com. "Also, he was playing [in Switzerland during the lockout], so I think he came into the season with a bit of an advantage. But Henrik has been an elite player in the NHL, so what he's doing isn't surprising to me in any way, shape or form."
Button hits on two points that factor greatly into Zetterberg's hot start.
1. Despite playing 20 games in Switzerland during the lockout, he's rested, and it shows with how well he's skating and how strong he's been.
It only was a couple of years ago that Zetterberg looked beat-up after two long runs to the Stanley Cup Final with an Olympics mixed in as well. However, in an odd way the Red Wings' struggles in the playoffs the last two years -- Zetterberg played just 12 postseason games in those two years -- has helped re-energize Zetterberg, who even admitted, "Maybe it's that a little," in an interview with NHL.com correspondent Louie Korac.
"I think that is fair," NBC analyst Eddie Olczyk told NHL.com. "You look at when teams have had those long runs the toll it takes. You talk about the timespan of the Final, going to back-to-back, then you get the Olympics and the playoffs, yeah, at some point every athlete just physically gets drained. You're going to have a fall-off because you've been playing so much at such a high level. The long runs that Detroit had, at some point it's going to take its toll on you and you're not going to be able to keep up. That's just the reality of it."
Zetterberg, though, prefers to look at reason No. 2 for why he's been able to carry the Wings so far this season.
2. He was playing during the lockout, so the shortened training camp didn't affect him.
"I think that got me a little advantage coming back here," Zetterberg told Korac. "If you look back the last couple years, I haven't been stellar before Christmas, either. I was always a slow starter, so this is the time of year when I start playing better. I don't know why, but it just fits me."
Zetterberg didn't record his 14th point last season until the 24th game of the season. He already has 16 through 11 games this season.
"I think one of the misconceptions out there for people when they're looking at athletes is how talented the superstars are -- they are talented, but their will is way more than their talent," Babcock said. "They're so freaking competitive, the best players, and that's what makes them special. And [Zetterberg] is like the little energy bunny, he just never stops. He just keeps going and going and going.
"It doesn't matter how big you are or how hard you hit or how determined you are, he just thinks he's going to out-will you."
Zetterberg's new role as captain hasn't changed him, but that's not really a surprise, either. It's almost as if he was being groomed for this role, first under Yzerman and then under fellow Swede Lidstrom.
"I don't think he misses a beat that way," Babcock said. "The kind of person he is, he's a good, good, good man. He treats people right. He's not shy at all. He'll talk to the general manager or the coach and he has an opinion. I think he's a strong, strong leader and he goes about it the right way. He's like a coach on the ice. He's born to lead. He knows what he's doing. I don't think there is any issue for the adjustment for him.
"But it's way harder when your team is not going as well as you like versus when everybody is rosy and you're flying along."
The Red Wings are not flying along, not even close. But they're still competitive, still a playoff contender, in large part because of their new captain.
"One thing about being here is the standards are so high and it's always been about winning, not who gets the points," Babcock said. "It's just about winning, and that's what he is all about. When you're competitive you relish these situations because you think you're always going to get the job done, that's just how your mind works. He's one of those guys."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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