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Is this it for Zetterberg with Red Wings? Maybe it should be

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With his back issues in mind, the Detroit Red Wings aren’t sure if Henrik Zetterberg will be able to play next season.

It’s something GM Ken Holland acknowledged as free agency began on July 1, according to reporters including Ted Kulfan of the Detroit News.

“The last I talked to him, he’s planning on playing,” Holland said. “Obviously his back is going to determine whether he can or can’t. Do I have a clear green light (as to whether Zetterberg is returning)? I’m expecting him to play. Do I have a clear green light? No.”

With that uncertainty in mind, it’s not too surprising that something as minor as Zetterberg playing golf was enough to seem like an “encouraging sign” to the Red Wings, as the Detroit Free-Press’ Helene St. James noted today. Apparently Zetterberg joined Erik Karlsson and other pals on the greens, as Karlsson shared:

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Another beautiful day. #trumpinternational

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Sure, playing golf is lot easier when you aren’t in excruciating back pain, but it merely provides a minor bit of optimism about Zetterberg’s health. Without diving too deep into #PleaseLikeMySport territory, it’s fair to say that a jovial day of golf with your pals (pro athletes or not) isn’t exactly the same as dealing with checks, slashes, and hooks in the NHL.

Clearly, there’s little certainty about Zetterberg’s viability.

Personally, though, this is another case of the wrong questions being asked. The Red Wings aren’t best served asking if Zetterberg could play in 2018-19; instead, they should be wondering if he should.

What’s best for Zetterberg?

With 56 points last season, Zetterberg finished second in scoring for the Red Wings, trailing only Dylan Larkin‘s 63. The sturdy Swede was outright brilliant the year before, easily leading Detroit with 68 points in 2016-17. By just about any reasonable measure, Zetterberg is still good enough to play.

Still, his efforts failed to land the Red Wings in the playoffs in either of the past two seasons, and the Red Wings fell in the first round in 2014-15 and 2015-16.

On paper, Zetterberg could face a Sisyphean task in 2018-19: trying to push a mediocre (if not outright bad) team to the playoffs while suffering through back pain. At 37, the upside seems pretty dismal.

Much of the Red Wings messaging is about “culture,” and such thoughts sometimes trickle down to fans and media. Cameron Kuom of Wings Nation worries about the potential off-ice impacts of the Red Wings possibly losing their captain, for instance.

Yet, what about the possibly grim alternative of fans and young teammates watching Zetterberg getting run into the ground for … what, the lure of finishing in the East’s playoff bubble? Miraculously being bounced from the first round?

What’s best for Zetterberg might also be best for Red Wings

Nostalgia represents a tantalizing siren call, one Ken Holland clearly struggles to resist.

Still, at some point, younger Red Wings such as Larkin, Anthony Mantha, and eventually Filip Zadina will need to serve as the leadership group of this franchise, thus being responsible for “the culture.” Why not ease them into such roles during a season of low expectations, rather than pasting the “C” on someone’s chest later on, when fans are growing more and more restless with a one foot in, one foot out rebuild?

It’s fairly obvious that, from looking at Zetterberg’s contract, the expectation was that he’d probably play his last games in 2018-19. Consider how his actual salary compares to his cap hit going forward, via Cap Friendly:

2018-19: $6.083M cap hit; $3.35M salary
2019-20: $6.083M cap hit; $1M salary
2020-21: $6.083M cap hit; $1M salary

Look, it’s no fun to pay someone not to play, which is what the Red Wings would essentially be doing if they place Zetterberg on LTIR.

It makes sense on a number of levels, however, especially since they don’t need to worry about the cap floor even before handing RFA deals to Larkin and Mantha.

Beyond saving Zetterberg some anguish, the Red Wings would increase their odds of landing another high-end draft pick if their captain goes on LTIR and they wade through a rougher regular season. It’s not as if Zetterberg would lack credibility in going on injured reserve, as there have been plenty of questions about his health for some time now.

***

If the Red Wings are realistic about their near future, they should err on the side of encouraging Zetterberg to way his health more than trying to gut out the 2018-19 season.

Again, what’s the best-case scenario if Zetterberg plays? He’d take a roster spot from a player who might be part of a longer-term solution in Detroit, on a team few expect to contend. There’s also the unsettling possibility that his own play would plummet. Zetterberg would have robust company if he joined the ranks of sports stars who’ve suffered depressing final seasons, but wouldn’t be more pleasant to see him instead end his Red Wings days with his head held high?

Conversely, the Red Wings could instead improve their odds of landing a lottery pick like Jack Hughes in 2019, something that – deep down – they should realize they really need. Along with the torch being passed to the next generation of Red Wings, there might be a better chance of fringe prospects receiving crucial make-or-break opportunities.

Also, a beloved star wouldn’t needlessly suffer.

Of course, this conversation is moot if Zetterberg really wants to play, or needs to find out for sure if he’s done. Perhaps he’d prefer a relaxed schedule, much like Teemu Selanne experienced (sometimes by choice, other times with hard feelings) during his final season?

There are still some questions in need of answers, and plenty can change between today and the moment Zetterberg decides to call it a career (or, like Pavel Datsyuk, an NHL career).

As sad as it will be to see Z go, there’s a strong chance that it will end up being what’s best for everyone involved.

MORE ON RED WINGS’ RELUCTANT REBUILD

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bargain star MacKinnon says he’d take less money again to help Avalanche win

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If you could choose one active NHL player to build a team around, who would it be?

In a vacuum, the answer should be obvious: Connor McDavid. Yet, when you consider salary cap realities, the choice gets fuzzier thanks to the absolutely ludicrous bargain the Colorado Avalanche are enjoying with Nathan MacKinnon.

With all due respect to the steals teams like the Bruins enjoy with David Pastrnak, you can’t really beat the bang for the buck the Avalanche get for MacKinnon (unless you try to cheat with rookie contracts, which: tsk, tsk).

MacKinnon, 24, is currently in the fourth season of a contract that carries an outrageously team-friendly AAV of just $6.3M, and delightfully for Colorado, that deal won’t expire until after the 2022-23 season. That cap hit is barely more than half of the $12.5M AAV McDavid carries, and frankly, McDavid is worth every penny of the league maximum. (And MacKinnon likely deserves something in that range, too.)

You have to wonder if MacKinnon must be want to fire his agent after seeing players like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner cashing in on their second deals, but the speedy Avalanche center mostly shrugged it off — though with some humor — telling Forbes’ Jordan Horrobin that, in the grand scheme of things, MacKinnon has “no regrets” about signing his contract.

After all, MacKinnon is doing just fine, with Cap Friendly estimating his career earnings at $27.025M so far. Yes, MacKinnon deserves more, but unless Elon Musk or Bill Gates is reading this post, you’d agree that it’s a good problem to have.

Even so, fans of teams with stars on less team-friendly contracts likely feel jealous when they see MacKinnon ripping through defenses at a cut rate. Those fans may grit their teeth, then, while Avs fans may want to throw up confetti when they realize that MacKinnon indicated to Horrobin that he’d sacrifice some dollars on his next contract if it helped the Avalanche win big.

“We have guys that we wouldn’t (otherwise) be able to bring in,” MacKinnon said. “On my next deal, I’ll take less again. Because I want to win with this group.”

Now, sure, “less” is likely to be a relative term. Maybe it would mean that MacKinnon would “settle” for a bit less than whatever the maximum salary would be. The league’s salary structure and revenues could really blossom by 2022 (the first summer where MacKinnon could sign an extension) or after 2022-23, when his deal expires. Or maybe MacKinnon would follow his buddy Sidney Crosby and give the Avalanche another extreme sweetheart deal.

And, obviously, things can change fast. The Avalanche could fall off the rails compared to their current seemingly skyrocketing upward trajectory, or MacKinnon could clash with management, making the prospect of leaving even more money on the table far less palatable down the line.

But the concept of getting another value contract with MacKinnon is ultimately extremely promising for the Avs.

After all, this bursting group of young talent figures to become pretty costly down the line. Cale Makar is already flirting with superstar status, and he’ll need a second contract after 2020-21. Philipp Grubauer only has two more years on his active contract, too, and could prove he’s worth far more than his current $3.33M AAV. Gabriel Landeskog‘s contract expires during that same offseason.

You can see how the belt could really tighten for the Avalanche down the line, and while MacKinnon should command a huge raise whenever he inks his next contract, it sounds like he might be willing to compromise to try to win a Stanley Cup (or, perhaps if he parallels Crosby in more than just taking less money for the team, winning multiple Stanley Cups).

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Coyotes’ Soderberg thriving despite blindness in left eye

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GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The darkest time came right after the injury. Months in the hospital. Multiple surgeries. Pain, fear, little hope.

Playing hockey again was not even a remote consideration. Carl Soderberg had bigger concerns.

”I was more worried about my eye and would I get my vision back,” Soderberg said.

The Arizona Coyotes made the biggest splash of the offseason, trading for highly productive right wing Phil Kessel.

But the addition of Soderberg might have been Arizona’s biggest move.

A 6-foot-3, 210-pound center, Soderberg has given the Coyotes a big body to go with all those fast, skilled young players.

He’s a willing jostler outside the crease, creating traffic in front of opposing goalies and shooting lanes for his teammates. He’s the guy who goes into the corners to dig pucks out. Need a big hit, he’s Arizona’s guy.

Soderberg also is skilled, tied with Christian Dvorak for second on the team with eight goals. He’s also tied for fifth with 15 points through 29 games.

”He’s a guy that goes to the net. He’s always around the net,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. ”He’s just fit in and he’s a big body. It’s nice to have those big bodies. He’s done a nice job for us.”

The most amazing part of Soderberg”s NHL success: he’s legally blind in his left eye.

He was injured while playing in the Swedish Elite League in 2006 when an opponent tried to lift his stick and hit his eye instead. Soderberg suffered a detached retina, spent three months in the hospital because of pressure in his eye and lost track of how many surgeries he had, estimating between eight and 10.

A young player reaching his prime, Soderberg was in too much pain to think about his hockey career.

”The pressure in my eye was so high for months,” the 34-year-old said. ”It wouldn’t go down, so I was in constant pain, getting constant headaches and worried if I would ever be able to see out of my eye again. I just wanted to feel good again.”

Once the pressure started to go down, Soderberg began working out and, within about a year, was playing hockey again. His return was difficult, from figuring out how to play with limited vision to quashing the fear that comes with having been struck in the eye with a stick.

”It was a little different on the eyes, I was scared, afraid to get hit again,” he said. ”It took me a couple years to fully get back.”

Soderberg worked through the tentativeness and adjusted his game, learning to turn his head more to see the puck and having a better understanding of where everyone is on the ice.

”You have to be more aware, you have to listen to your teammates, look around you a little bit more,” Soderberg said.

Willie O’Ree knows what Soderberg is going through.

Playing at a time when players didn’t have helmets much less visors, O’Ree took a slapshot to his right eye during a game in 1956. O’Ree lost nearly all the vision in his eye and was told he would never play hockey again.

Undeterred, he started skating two weeks after leaving the hospital and adjusted his game. Being a left-handed left wing helped some, but seeing the puck to his right required turning his head all the way to the right so he could see it with his left eye.

O’Ree went on to become the first black player in the NHL in 1958 and played 21 seasons in a variety of leagues. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018, has an NHL community award named in his honor and currently serves as the league’s diversity ambassador.

”You never took an eye exam, so I said, if I’m good enough to make the team with one eye, just don’t tell them,” O’Ree said. ”I was getting hit a lot more than I did before, but I was able to play 21 years with one eye.”

Soderberg is playing his eighth NHL season while seeing little more than light in his left eye. He spent three seasons with Boston and four with Colorado before being traded to Arizona for Kevin Connauton and a draft pick last summer.

Soderberg, who has 94 goals and 166 assists in 511 career games, has been a big reason the Coyotes are off to one of the best starts in franchise history, entering Wednesday’s games a point behind Edmonton in the Pacific Division.

”I have a good feeling about us as a group,” Soderberg said. ”We should be at the top of our division at the end and that’s our goal.”

It’s hard not to trust Soderberg’s vision at this point.

Pittsburgh’s Primanti Brothers restaurant honors ‘Doc’ Emrick

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One of the ultimate signs of respect from the city of Pittsburgh is when Primanti Brothers, the local sandwich shop known for piling mountains of french fries and cole slaw on its sandwiches, names something after you.

NBC Sports announcer ‘Doc’ Emrick recently had that honor when the four downtown Pittsburgh locations offered “The Doc Special” this week that included their traditional pastrami sandwich and a pop (no “soda” in Pittsburgh) of your choice for $9.50.

Before ‘Doc’ called Wednesday’s game between the Penguins and defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, he stopped at the Market Square location to enjoy his very own special.

The restaurant decided to honor him because it has been nearly 50 years since he had his first experience covering the NHL when he covered the Penguins for the Beaver County Times.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

PHT Morning Skate: Delicate line for NHL coaches; Sabres headed for collapse?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Devils discuss why John Hynes was fired, and the tone is pretty close to the opposite of how people discussed coaches like Mike Babcock once he was out the door. Taylor Hall talks up Hynes’ role in Hall winning a Hart Trophy, saying “I have a pretty cool trophy at home that I think he had a part in.” (The Trentonian)

• Kings coach Todd McLellan has been around, including working with Mike Babcock in Detroit. He has some interesting insight on how “delicate” it can be to motivate players without crossing the line, and compares it to how discipline has changed at elementary schools. “Ears aren’t pulled. You don’t go to the principal’s office to see or get the strap.” (Los Angeles Times)

• John Tortorella didn’t comment, but plenty of players from his various stops discuss his methods, with the overriding message being that he doesn’t cross the line. (The Athletic [$])

• A hand injury will likely keep Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon out at least a couple weeks. (Star-Tribune)

• In taking a deep dive regarding the Sabres’ underlying numbers, Travis Yost wonders if another collapse is looming. (Buffalo News)

• Manon Rhéaume, the first woman to play in the NHL, will be honored with a statue outside Quebec City’s Videotron Centre. [CBC]

• An in-depth breakdown of the Blues’ “Enter the Zone,” predictive gaming platform, which “offered a glimpse of the future of wagering on professional hockey.” (ESPN)

• Sonny Sachdeva wonders if Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl could actually maintain their paces at around 140 points, and compares their starts to some of the hottest stretches from the likes of Jaromir Jagr and Sidney Crosby. (Sportsnet)

• How defensemen are evolving to impact games more at 5-on-5 than on the power play. (Rotoworld)

• People might snicker at Alex Burrows making the Ring of Honour, or sneer at his agitating days, but Daniel Wagner explains that you won’t understand Burrows if you aren’t a fan of the Canucks. (Vancouver Courier/Pass it to Bulis)

• When will the Blackhawks break out of their current trend of mediocrity? (Second City Hockey)

• The second tier of pending free agents who might get big raises, from Jake Muzzin to Evgenii Dadonov. (Sporting News)

• There are some interesting photo choices in the latest edition of the Upper Deck hockey card series. [Puck Junk]

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.