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.

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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.

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.