Sitting on his couch in a Newark hotel, Fabian Zetterlund's thoughts were drifting back to home.
He wasn't homesick. The 21-year-old Swede, a right wing in his second season with the Binghamton Devils, was in big brother mode.
"It's my sister's birthday today," he said. "She's turning 17."
Zetterlund had made sure to send his best wishes to his younger sibling. He's hoping for more positive vibes as the B-Devils enter their stretch drive on an American Hockey League season that has been like none other.
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"These are crazy times," said Zetterlund, who, unlike most Devils prospects, was able to play most of a full schedule to close out 2020 with Swedish club AIK.
"We are just thankful that we got to play hockey and have fun here with all the boys."
After posting a 46-games played, eight-goals, 11-assists stat line in his rookie AHL season, Zetterlund played 21 games (4G-6A) with AIK, who are in Sweden's second division in the fall. He reported to Newark in January and now has suited up in another 28 contests (5G-12A). He is a nose ahead of Nolan Foote (6G-10A) and Graeme Clarke (6G-9A) as Binghamton's leading scorer.
All three players would likely admit it's not as high a perch as everyone would like. The AHL club has struggled to win games and score goals. There have been a lot of low-scoring, close, one-goal defeats.
The acquisition of A.J. Greer and Mason Jobst from the NY Islanders in the Travis Zajac/Kyle Palmieri deal has provided some relief because both men have been point-a-game players and shown a young team how to be good pros since their arrival in Bingo. But even more than the parent club, the B-Devils situation has been amplified by roster turnover, youth and playing just three different opponents this season.
Zetterlund gushes about his teammates, especially his fellow Swedes, but acknowledged that his team fights an uphill battle most nights.
"We play fast and hard," he said. "But we are a young group of guys here. On the opposition, they have a lot of veteran players … they know how to close out (close) games."
Developing players, and the drafting of them, is a process. NHL clubs, especially ones rebuilding at the top level as the Devils are now, must assemble a critical mass of prospects. Do that, and competition for spots goes a long way to help the organization get better. But following that path can also give the perception that a solid prospect is "lost in the system" when that is not at all the case.
Another way to look at it is that the NHL is much more like Major League Baseball, rather than the NBA or NFL. In the latter mentioned leagues drafted players usually make the big club right away, after a relatively short stint on practice rosters, or, in the case of basketball, the G-League.
Once a player is drafted, signed to an NHL contract, and then plays in the organization there is also an unofficial metric relative to the players taken the same year as him. Zetterlund was taken with the first pick of the third round (63rd overall) in 2017, the year Nico Hischier went first overall to the Devils. Glancing at players taken around him, it's obvious that the Devils have a player who is farther along.
It can be a slow and winding road, but Zetterlund is getting there.
"You have to bring (intensity) every game, every shift," he said about his approach to wanting to earn his place in the NHL. "You have to go hard to the net in every game and give (Devils management) no choice but to call me up."
There is another interesting aspect to Zetterlund's development. While still playing in Sweden and amid his two-tournament appearance for his country at the World Junior, he had a serious knee injury that cut-short his 19-year-old season in 2018-19. He had surgery and embarked on a long rehabilitation. Though Zetterlund signed his first NHL contract during this time, the pandemic seriously curtailed the end of the season that followed, and then delaying this one, his professional odyssey in the U.S. has been especially scattered.
His occasional linemate in Bingo is Aarne Talvitie, a Finn seven months older than Zetterlund who was taken by the Devils three rounds and 97 selections after Zetterlund in 2017. In an odd bit of medical synergy, both players suffered or aggravated knee injuries at the World Junior in Vancouver.
Both are now fully recovered and playing together in the AHL.
Zetterlund is thankful he's healthy and been able to contribute to the extent he has in two abridged AHL seasons with the Devils organization.
"It can be crazy how things work out sometimes" he explains, "but I think you have to always look back at the things, and [good decisions] made. Right now, sitting here on my couch my knee and I feel 110 per cent."