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For Red Wings, Zetterberg is one for the ages

Detroit veteran uses skills, smarts to continue dominance

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

DETROIT -- A year ago, early in Auston Matthews' rookie season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mike Babcock showed Matthews video of Henrik Zetterberg. Babcock had coached Zetterberg for 10 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings and used him as an example of how to play center in the NHL.

"I heard some rumors about it, but I don't really see the comparison between me and him," Zetterberg said with a laugh Tuesday. "He's way taller, stronger, faster, more skilled than me, so …"

So, what will Zetterberg do when the Red Wings play the Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; SN360, SN1, TVA Sports, FS-D+, NHL.TV)?

When you're a 37-year-old, 6-foot, 197-pound veteran and your old coach teaches your tricks to a now 20-year-old, 6-foot-3, 216-pound opponent, on what do you rely?

"Probably my head," Zetterberg said. "You've got to be smart out there."

Exactly.

That's why Babcock showed Matthews video of Zetterberg in the first place.

"What I showed him with Zetterberg was how he got the puck back three times by just standing in the right spot," Babcock said at the time. "Shut everything down. Had the puck."

* * * * *

Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said last season was Zetterberg's most impressive. That's saying a lot, considering Zetterberg went from a seventh-round pick (No. 210) in the 1999 NHL Draft to a top two-way forward thanks to his head, heart and more skill than he wants to admit. Zetterberg won the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs when the Red Wings won the Cup in 2008.

In 2016-17, Zetterberg rebounded from a down season with 68 points (17 goals, 51 assists), leading the Red Wings by 20. He was plus-15 on a team that had a minus-37 goal differential. It wasn't because of him Detroit missed the playoffs for the first time in 26 seasons.

Kronwall said Zetterberg has been even better lately.

"To do what he does at this age with the speed of the game, it really is amazing," Kronwall said. "The way he started off this year, it's hard to put in words how impressive it really is."

Video: DET@VGK: Zetterberg slips one through the five-hole

Zetterberg has seven points (three goals, four assists) in six games. He's averaging 20:55, most among Red Wings forwards.

"When we need a goal, who do you put out there?" Kronwall said. "When you're up a goal and protecting the lead, who do you put out there? He's the most responsible guy, and he finds a way to win. That's what he does, and that's what he's been doing his whole career. But as he gets older, I think it just becomes more and more impressive."

Zetterberg had a goal and three assists in a 6-3 victory at the Vegas Golden Knights on Friday. Even though Detroit was playing the second game of a back-to-back set and the third in four nights on the road, he set up a goal to make it 1-0 in the first period, scored to make it 2-1 in the second and set up two more goals to make it 4-3 in the third.

"He's our best player, most valuable player," Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin said. "He makes everyone around him better, which is the thing I notice the most out of him. We didn't have much energy … and he just turned it on and won us the game."

On Monday, early in the first period against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Zetterberg carried the puck through the neutral zone. He approached three defenders at the blue line, cut to the middle, darted through them and ended up in alone. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy had to make a great save.

"It wasn't speed," Zetterberg said. "I will not do a [Connor] McDavid and skate by guys."

Zetterberg noticed the defenders were flat-footed and stickhandled around the outstretched sticks of center Brayden Point and defensemen Braydon Coburn and Anton Stralman.

"He puts the puck in areas where the [defenders] can't reach it," Kronwall said. "Obviously he's not the fastest skater, but I guarantee you he's one of the smartest guys in the game."

Video: DET@ARI: Zetterberg taps one in through the five-hole

Opponents try to use Zetterberg's lack of speed against him by chipping the puck behind him.

"We have to make him skate the whole way back, make him play a little [defense], so now he's got to change and he can't go down and play offense," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

But Zetterberg has emphasized managing the puck, chipping the puck deep himself so he can spend more time in the offensive zone. He also concentrates more on rest and recovery.

He was supposed to captain Team Sweden at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 but pulled out because of a knee problem. He played one preseason game for the Red Wings and had lots of jump when the 2016-17 season started. He stayed off the ice when necessary to stay fresh during the season. He played in all 82 games.

The plan was to play two preseason games this time. After a neck problem popped up, he played one preseason game again. He has had lots of jump again.

"You only have a certain [number] of miles in your body," Zetterberg said. "You might as well put them into the real games."

* * * * *

Zetterberg doesn't deny his lack of speed or advancing age. He defies them. He makes the most of what he has, the most of the moment.

"I'm happy where I am, but also I know it can turn quick," Zetterberg said. "You've just got to enjoy when everything feels good, when your body feels good and you can actually do something out there, because there are times when you're just hanging on and you just put your skates out there and hope to survive.

"Going through those times helps me now, because I think you appreciate it more when you're feeling healthy and you can be out there and do the stuff that you wanted to do when you were playing injured, when you can't do stuff. That's frustrating not to be able to do the things you think you can do. And so, right now, I'm feeling pretty good, so I'm enjoying it."

Video: MIN@DET: Zetterberg beats Dubnyk five-hole

Watch and learn, if you're an opponent like Matthews, but especially if a teammate like Larkin, among the next generation of Red Wings leaders. Learn from Zetterberg the way he learned from Nick Lidstrom and Steve Yzerman.

"When it's time to leave, I want to leave this team in a good situation," Zetterberg said. "When other guys left, they made sure that we're in a good spot. For me, it's the same thing now. I'm nearing the end of my career, and there's a lot of young guys here who are going to take over and play here for a long time, so you want to leave them in a good spot. You want to transfer the traditions that I got taught, and hopefully they will continue it."

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