PLYMOUTH, Mich. — Henrik Zetterberg seems increasingly unlikely to play for the Detroit Red Wings this season because of back problems.
“Henrik’s message to me is that his back has not reacted well, that he hasn’t had an opportunity to really train,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said after the Stars & Stripes Showdown at USA Hockey Arena on Sunday. “I think there’s lots of doubt, because I don’t know how you go through not being able to train to being able to play an NHL season. I think it’s almost impossible. So all signs indicate to me right now that it’ll be very difficult for Henrik to be cleared to play.”
Red Wings veterans are scheduled to take physicals Sept. 13 in Traverse City, Michigan, but can set up physicals in advance. General manager Ken Holland said he hadn’t heard that Zetterberg had set one up.
Blashill said he wouldn’t plan on Zetterberg playing this season if the center isn’t cleared at training camp.
“He’s either going to get to a point where he can play or he can’t play, and if it’s a point to where he can’t play, then we’ll continue to move on without him,” Blashill said. “That would be my expectation.”
Zetterberg, who turns 38 on Oct. 9, ranks fifth in goals (337), assists (623) and points (960) and sixth in games played (1,082) in Red Wings history. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs when the Red Wings won the Cup in 2008 and has been their captain since 2013.
After having back surgery Feb. 21, 2014, he played 77 games in 2014-15 and 82 games each of the next three seasons. He ranked second on the Red Wings in scoring last season with 56 points (11 goals, 45 assists) but struggled down the stretch physically.
“He gutted it out for two months at the end of the year, and it was amazing to see,” Blashill said. “But it’s one thing to gut it out for two months. It’s another thing when you haven’t been able to train at all to be able to play an NHL season. So I know it’s been a real hard summer, and I know there’s obviously, as I’ve said publicly, lots of doubt to where he’ll be at. So he’ll come into camp, he’ll do his physical, and we’ll see where he’s at.”
Blashill said the Red Wings have two plans: one with Zetterberg and one without. If Zetterberg can’t play, Detroit will use Dylan Larkin, Frans Nielsen, Andreas Athanasiou and Luke Glendening down the middle. Athanasiou, 24, has been on the wing but center is his natural position.
“The only thing that he has to do better at that position is make sure that he wins faceoffs,” Blashill said of Athanasiou, who has won 42 percent in his NHL career. “But that to me is a position that I’d feel totally confident putting him in, and I think he could do a good job.”
Michael Rasmussen, 19, the No. 9 pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, has played center but likely will enter the NHL at left wing.
“I think it’s way easier to break into the National Hockey League as a winger than a center,” Blashill said. “[Center is] a lot of responsibility to put on a guy. The second thing I’d say is, when he plays wing, he might be net front more in the [offensive] zone than when he doesn’t play wing, and his best attribute, for sure, is how good he is at the net front. So he might end up being a winger in the National Hockey League.
“I know that he’s outstanding in front of the net, and I certainly wouldn’t want to do anything to take away from that. So if it eases him in by allowing him to be a winger and really focus on being that net-front guy in the [offensive] zone, then that’s what we’ll do.”