It was Sunday night, shortly after the Detroit Red Wings had come all the way back from a two-game deficit to eliminate the Anaheim Ducks in their hard-fought, wholly entertaining Western Conference playoff series.
Mikael Samuelsson, the long-time Red Wing who’d won a Stanley Cup with the team in 2008, was alone at his dressing-room stall. In one corner of the room, goaltender Jimmy Howard was holding court; in another corner, Niklas Kronwall was talking to a couple of Swedish reporters.
The largest crowd had gathered around the Red Wings’ captain Henrik Zetterberg, who’d been named the game’s first star after another heroic playoff performance – one of those nights in which he’d been good on practically every shift, and along with teammate Pavel Datsyuk, had provided a one-two presence down the middle that ultimately made the difference in the game and in the series.
Zetterberg was the NHL’s playoff MVP back in ’08 and he won it largely on the strength of his defensive play in the Stanley Cup final against the up-and-coming Pittsburgh Penguins. Zetterberg is one of the most responsible players in the league, and along with Datsyuk, provide for the current generation of Red Wings the sort of quietly effective two-way play that Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov once did.
There was unique pressure on Zetterberg this year because he was replacing the venerable Nicklas Lidstrom as the Red Wings’ long-time captain, but according to Samuelsson, that wasn’t how Zetterberg approached it at all.
“I think he sees it with joy,” said Samuelsson. “Let me see if I can find the right word. It was like a big honour for him. I don’t think he’s changed that much from the type of guy he was, or in his role in the locker room, even if he’s the captain. A great guy stepped down in Lidstrom and (Zetterberg) is still the same guy – and that’s how it should be, I think. The guys have more respect for that – you don’t have to change a whole lot just because you’re the captain.”
“I just take the hat off to him. It’s not like he is super fast or has a super good shot. But he’s a hell of a player, just the way he protects the puck.”
I reminded Samuelsson of another player that fit the description he just gave of Zetterberg - Doug Gilmour, back in his Calgary Flames and Toronto Maple Leafs days.
In those days, I used to tease Gilmour all the time – how come a guy with a shot that couldn’t break a pane of glass; who was too small and too slow to play could have such an impact on the outcome of every game. Gilmour always laughed. As with Zetterberg, he often played his best hockey when it mattered most; when the stakes were highest.
“Exactly,” said Samuelsson, who has also been around long enough to remember Gilmour in his prime. He then asked a great question:
“How, as a scout, can you see that at a young age? You never know how it’s going to turn out.”
It’s funny because about an hour before, in the second intermission of that game, I’d asked a similar question of Red Wings’ general manager Ken Holland. The set-up in Anaheim is such that the visiting GM has a booth in the press box, right next to the reporters.
Holland was over at the coffee machine so I asked him, tell me again how you found Zetterberg in northern Sweden.
So he went through it for me – their European scout, Hakan Andersson, and their assistant GM Jim Nill were at a game to scout a prospect named Mathias Weinhandl, and they kept getting distracted by a smallish forward, who always had the puck on his stick and made something happen every time he touched it.
So that year, the 1999 entry draft, one of the worst in NHL history, they took a chance on a too-small guy and selected Zetterberg at No. 210 overall. Holland is a very modest guy, unusual in that job, and always says the same thing about the late-round picks that got them both Zetterberg and Datsyuk: “We got lucky.”
Well, yes and no. I happen to think you make your own luck in situations like that – to actually have two people on site, scouting a game, and then thinking far enough outside the box to take a chance on a player who, by the league’s 1999 standards was never going to be big enough play in the NHL.
Then they waited for him to develop and then yes, they did get lucky that he became more than just a player in the NHL, but a star.
Maybe the best point about Zetterberg’s and Datsyuk’s contributions in the victory came from coach Mike Babcock mid-series, when he pointed out that while they inherited the roles previously assigned to Yzerman and Fedorov in previous incarnations of the Red Wings’ team, it was a different era back then. Detroit had all kinds of depth, and more players who could share the scoring and leadership burden.
Not so now. The Red Wings may have good prospects coming through the system, but they are still learning about the day-in and day-out consistency needed to thrive at the NHL level. Most of the good things that happened against the Ducks - and why they are in the second round against the Chicago Blackhawks – were because Zetterberg and Datsyuk elevated their play when their Anaheim counterparts could not.