What’s next for Red Wings in post-Zetterberg era?

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This was always going to be a tough season for the Detroit Red Wings. After stagnating for a few years with an aging and shockingly expensive roster, the front office finally started to commit somewhat to a rebuild and has spent the better part of the past year stockpiling draft picks and keeping an eye on the future.

Even with the offseason addition of Jonathan Bernier, the return of Thomas Vanek, and the re-signing of Mike Green there really wasn’t much reason to believe things were going to be much better than they were the past two years when the Red Wings missed the playoffs and failed to top the 80-point mark each season.

There is even less reason to believe that now following Friday’s news that the playing career of Henrik Zetterberg is now finished due to a back injury.

[Related: Henrik Zetterberg’s NHL career over due to back injury]

Celebrating his 38th birthday in less than a month, Zetterberg was obviously a fraction of the player he was during his peak years when he was one of the best two-way players in the league and a Conn Smythe winner. So this isn’t likely to significantly alter the Red Wings’ chances for the upcoming season, especially given where everyone expected them to be even with Zetterberg.

Still, he was the team’s second-leading scorer a year ago (and leading scorer the year before) and was still a very productive player.

But even more than all of that it represents the true end of an era in Detroit.

Following the departures of Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov in the early 2000s, ending that mini-dynasty era that produced three Stanley Cups, the Red Wings had a seamless transition into the next chapter of the franchise. There was no lengthy rebuild. There was no need to tear things down and start over. There were no down years. They were able to keep the machine rolling because they had two in-house superstars already developed in Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk that were ready to take over the top spots on the team. For the better part of the next decade they — along with defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom — were the foundation and faces of a Red Wings team that remained one of the league’s elite, went to back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, winning one of them.

With Lidstrom’s retirement following the 2011-12 season, Datsyuk returning to Russia after the 2015-16 season, and now Zetterberg’s career coming to an end that chapter of the Red Wings’ history book is officially closed.

Niklas Kronwall still remains, but for as good as he was, those teams still belonged to the trio of Zetterberg, Datsyuk, and Lidstrom. They were at their absolute best during the 2007-08 season when the Red Wings rolled through the rest of the NHL on their way to a championship that saw them completely outclass a Penguins team in the Final that had Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marian Hossa on it.

Zetterberg and Datsyuk were at the center of all of it. During the regular season the Zetterberg-Datsyuk duo spent more than 600 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together and outscored teams by a 45-19 margin while controlling 65 percent of the shot attempts. They were untouchable. Shockingly, they were even better in the playoffs when the goal-differential was 14-3 and the shot share was over 66 percent.

And now, it is all entirely gone. So where do the Red Wings go from here?

Unlike the end of the previous Red Wings’ championship era, this transition is not going to be as smooth because there is not another Datsyuk or Zetterberg ready to take over.

While there are some intriguing young players that could be a part of the next contending Red Wings’ team (Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha specifically), their next great hope for a franchise-changing player is 2018 first-round pick Filip Zadina, a super talent and one of the best pure goal-scoring prospects in his draft class. For the time being, it looks like a gift that he was able to fall to them at the No. 6 spot and if all goes according to plan he could be the organization’s next building block. But it will take some time, and he will need some help. There is also the possibility that this Red Wings roster without Zetterberg, and with an aging, declining defense that doesn’t really have an impact player, could finish near the bottom of the league (perhaps even lower than last season’s 27th place finish) and play its way into the Jach Hughes derby.

There are also the salary cap ramifications of Zetterberg’s playing career coming to an end.

Currently, the Red Wings’ salary cap situation is a mess as they prepare to enter the 2018-19 season with one of the highest cap numbers in the league with almost no wiggle room at the top. For a team that’s won as little as the Red Wings have the past two seasons that is a staggering figure. But that, too, is going to start changing after this season. Zetterberg can be LTIR’d (at least until the inevitable contract dumping trade to Arizona or Ottawa or some other team looking to take on a big cap number) and they have another $18 million set to come off the books after this season when Kronwall, Vanek, Gustav Nyquist, and Jimmy Howard all head to unrestricted free agency.

There is not only no real reason for the Red Wings in their current state to re-sign them, there is probably no reason for any of them to remain on this roster past the 2019 trade deadline.

It probably took the Red Wings’ a few years too long to fully commit to a rebuild, and as long as players like Zetterberg were on the roster it was probably difficult to make that call because they obviously still wanted to try to complete as long as they had one of the organization’s legends still on the roster. Now that he is not, it is officially full steam ahead on the next phase.

The final big elephant in the room is who ends up making all of the calls on that next phase.

For now, it remains Ken Holland. But with Yzerman stepping down from the general manager’s role in Tampa Bay, and with Holland’s job performance coming under legitimate question in recent years, it is going to create obvious speculation for Yzerman’s eventual return to Detroit.

Yzerman already played a significant role in forever changing the fortunes of the Red Wings as a player when he arrived in the early 1980s when the team was at the bottom of the league.

It would only be fitting if he got a chance to do it one more time in the front office.

[Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick and CapFriendly]

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.