Sunday, April 03, 2011

Red Wings Need the "Real" Henrik Zetterberg Come Playoff Time

A quick glance at the numbers ought to tell you a little bit about the superstar hockey player. The superstar player should have numbers that cause eyes to pop, spit takes to be made.

They all had such numbers.

Orr, LaFleur, Gretzky, Lemieux, Yzerman.

At any point in any given season, the stat lines on those players were in the stratosphere, compared to their mere mortal colleagues. They were “you gotta be kidding me” numbers.

And by the end of the campaign, it was an easy task to discern the greats from the very goods. The greats had goal totals in the 40s and 50s—sometimes more. The point totals were well into triple digits.

There were the superstar players and then there was everyone else.

Henrik Zetterberg, I’m convinced, must be sandbagging it. He’s a hockey hustler. Paul Newman on skates. We’ll call him Njurunda Fats.

Njurunda is the town in Sweden where “Z” was born, 30 years ago and some change.

Zetterberg is in the prime of his career, but you wouldn’t know it. He must be pacing himself.

Zetterberg has more talent in his left pinky than a majority of the players in the NHL possess in their entire bodies. When he’s at his finest, Hank Zetterberg is a tornado on skates. He can be as untouchable as Elliott Ness, as deft as Baryshnikov, as productive as a worker ant.

When the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2008, Zetterberg was the best player on a team full of stars. He pumped in 43 goals, added 49 assists, and started in the All-Star Game. Z began the season by scoring a point in his first 16 games, a new Red Wings record.

In the playoffs, Z cranked it up another notch, which the superstars do when you think they couldn’t possibly. In 22 games, Zetterberg blistered the opposition for 27 points. He scored the Cup-winning goal in Game 6 of the Finals. His penalty killing during a Pittsburgh Penguins 5-on-3 in the Finals is stuff of legend.

The Red Wings won the Cup, and Z won the Conn Smythe Award for being the MVP of the playoffs.

And this was after seasons in which he scored 39 and 33 goals. Zetterberg was on pace to be the greatest Red Wing in the post-Yzerman Era.

He had the eye-popping numbers and an eye-popping life. The summer after winning the Cup, Z got engaged to Emma Andersson, a Swedish model and TV host.

Iggy Pop used to sing, “I wish life could be...Swedish magazines.”

Hank Zetterberg lived that life.

Zetterberg is a huge talent—maybe among the top five most skilled, blessed-by-God players the Red Wings have ever employed.

So why do I look at him nowadays and scratch my head?

Zetterberg followed up his magnificent 2007-08 season with 32 goals in ’08-09—not bad—and then dipped to 23 goals last season (not good).

Currently, with six games left to play, Zetterberg has 24 goals and 53 assists. Those are good numbers. But they’re not as good as what Hank Zetterberg is capable of producing.

Zetterberg has so much skill, so much strength, so much hockey IQ, that he should routinely be scoring 40 goals a season and threatening 100 points, especially playing on a team as peppered with talent as the Red Wings.

The past couple of seasons, Zetterberg has done this thing where he disappears for stretches of time, and I’m talking games, not minutes. The final horn would sound and you’d have to double-check with the official scoresheet to confirm that Zetterberg suited up that night. Sometimes, this happened several games in a row.

This was a travesty. It was like attending a performance of the Rat Pack and wondering how you missed Sinatra’s number.

But then Zetterberg reappears from his time MIA, and once again he becomes a man among little tykes on the ice. He takes possession of the puck and keeps it for a week. Without the puck, Zetterberg doesn’t act as if there’s a force field preventing him from entering his own zone, like so many of the goal scorers do in the NHL.

Such is Zetterberg’s greatness that he’s maybe the team’s best defensive forward, perhaps 1A to Pavel Datsyuk’s 1.

Ahh, Datsyuk—Z’s frequent linemate.

Coach Mike Babcock doesn’t know what to do with those two half the time. When the mood strikes him, Babcock puts them together, creating a pairing so lethal that the third player on the line is like the Fifth Beatle.

Other times, Babcock breaks them up, figuring that each is so good that he can create a second lethal line, like splitting an amoeba.

Zetterberg and Datsyuk are two different players, though.

Where Datsyuk is a magician with the puck, relying on sleight of hand rather than brute strength to keep possession, Zetterberg is more bull in the china shop. If they were an NFL backfield, Datsyuk would be the tailback, Zetterberg the fullback. And each would rush for over 1,000 yards.

When Datsyuk went down with an injury earlier in the season, Zetterberg put the Red Wings on his back—at first. Then he faded away again, mysteriously.

The true superstars don’t fade away, they don’t vanish, they don’t have you scurrying to the scoresheet to verify presence. Hank Zetterberg has all the talent in the world. He ought to be a true superstar in a league that he owns if he plays up to his potential.

Check that—he should be playing in his own league.

Yet he’s not doing that right now, and he hasn’t for at least two seasons. He is, without question, a very good player most of the time. But he has the ability and skill to be great all of the time.

The playoffs are almost here and if the Red Wings are going to go as far as the folks around town think they can, they need the superstar Zetterberg to be there, night after night. Not the very good Zetterberg, sometimes.

Or maybe he is hustling us, and the Red Wings, with Zetterberg leading the way, will run the table.

That would be Swede.

No comments: