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Monday, May 21, 2007
Updated: May 22, 2:13 PM ET
How long until Zetterberg is considered the NHL's best?

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Three years ago, former NHL netminder Darren Pang was talking to boyhood friend Steve Yzerman.

Pang asked about the new kid from Sweden, Henrik Zetterberg, and was more than a little surprised to hear Yzerman rave about the young man.

"He told me he would be a better all-round player than Peter Forsberg," Pang told ESPN.com during the Western Conference finals between Detroit and Anaheim.

That would be Peter Forsberg, Hart Trophy winner, Stanley Cup winner, Olympic gold medalist and a player considered among the top forwards anywhere, anyplace in the hockey world when in his prime.

More from Wings-Ducks

• No matter what's happened this playoff season, Detroit coach Mike Babcock has managed to maintain a refreshing equilibrium, at least when it comes to dealing with the media.

Asked whether it was tough to stay positive having played so well the past three games only to lose two of them, Babcock said if he had to hang around with reporters any more, he might be less optimistic.

"If I had to spend a bunch of time with you guys, it would be way tougher. In the world I'm living in, it's way brighter than it is in here," Babcock said with a grin.

Asked about the mood in the Wings' dressing room as the team faces a must-win situation in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals Tuesday night, Babcock was matter-of-fact.

"The mood is we've got to win a game. If you don't win, you don't get to play anymore," Babcock said. "That's what the playoffs come down to. You don't win, you don't get to play. We've got a pretty confident, determined group. Like I said, it would be a totally different thing if I was in my locker room and we've been outplayed three games in a row.

"I don't know, I mean, everybody sees things the way they want. But the way I see things, our club's had every opportunity and we just have to keep driving."

• On the other side of the coaching fence, Anaheim's Randy Carlyle suggested that the perception that the Red Wings have dominated the past three games of the series (they did) and that the Ducks are lucky to be ahead in the series 3-2 (they are) is a media distortion not based in reality.

"Well, again, we leave that for other people to make those statements to categorize where we're at," Carlyle said. "There's been a lot made about how much they've dominated us. I didn't see quite the same amount of input in the press when we dominated them in the first game."

• Detroit forward Todd Bertuzzi did not skate Monday after suffering back spasms. He missed most of the last half of Game 5 on Sunday because of the injury. If he can't go in Game 6 on Tuesday, Jiri Hudler will return to the lineup. Bertuzzi missed most of the season recovering from back surgery.

• Former NHL star Brett Hull, who won a Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2002, ripped the Ducks during NBC's Game 5 telecast, saying he believed the Wings would come back and force Game 7 because they've outplayed the Ducks so badly. Predictably, that went over well in the Anaheim dressing room.

"That's why he's on TV, I guess," Ducks defenseman Chris Pronger said. "He's going to make those statements. Yeah, it wasn't our best game, but bottom line is, you've got to win the game. He should know that. He played."

-- Scott Burnside

Which begs the question: How close is Zetterberg to becoming the best player in the NHL?

As the Wings prepare for a win-or-go-home Game 6 against the Ducks on Tuesday night, it makes for interesting water-cooler discussion.

Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin are both younger and at different stages of their development. There's Joe Thornton, Vincent Lecavalier, Jaromir Jagr.

But having grown up in the Detroit system, having learned from players such as Yzerman, Zetterberg, 26, quietly has become one of those players around whom you could build not only an offense but a winner.

"He is a complete two-way player and his play in all areas of the game embodies the style of the Red Wings, much like Steve Yzerman. When Henrik does all the things which are hard and not flashy but extremely important to winning, it sets the tone for the Red Wings. He is a brilliant player in all aspects and combined with his versatility and competitive spirit, he is a top player," said former Calgary GM Craig Button, now a top scout with the Maple Leafs.

"He would be a guy to build around; he makes others better. That is a rare trait that gives a team glue," one Western Conference scout told ESPN.com this week. "His Red Wings pedigree is going to stick with him no matter where he plays later. So, he goes up high on the list [of top players]."

At 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, Zetterberg is deceptively strong and difficult to knock off the puck, and his foot speed has allowed him to become a sterling defensive player.

Pang believes Zetterberg's two-way game could earn him a Frank J. Selke Award, "any given year, along with an MVP award."

Detroit GM Ken Holland, while acknowledging his obvious bias, said that among the game's elite offensive players, Zetterberg has evolved very quickly into a true team player.

"I think he's the best two-way player in the NHL," Holland said this week. "He's just gotten better and better and better. He has tremendous determination. He's got a big heart. He's got wonderful ability."

Yes, Zetterberg's talents are impressive. But when juxtaposed against the game's finest players -- Crosby, Ovechkin, Lecavalier, Thornton et al -- there is one stunning, even mind-boggling difference. Every one of those players was a first or second overall pick in the entry draft. All were anointed franchise players from the time they were teens.

Zetterberg?

Well, let's just put it this way. Whatever other debate might rage regarding his talent, it's safe to say Zetterberg is the finest seventh-round draft pick. Ever.

At the 1999 draft, 209 players were selected before the Red Wings chose Zetterberg. What does that mean? By the time the seventh round of the NHL draft rolls around, the stands are empty and those still on hand are often asleep. Teams sometimes pick players in the seventh round because they feel sorry for them sitting in the stands. Any drama is gone because so few of these players will have any impact in the NHL.

Was Zetterberg sitting by his phone waiting for the draft call?

He laughs.

"It wasn't a big thing for me," he said. "I wasn't thinking about it at all at the time. Actually, I was on vacation with my parents, so I didn't think about it at all."

So, how did this happen?

Holland was frank -- there was a little bit of luck involved, plus more than a little hockey acumen provided by European scout Hakan Andersson and assistant GM Jim Nill. Andersson first stumbled on the shifty, undersized Zetterberg at a tournament in Northern Finland. Zetterberg was still in his teens, and Andersson was looking at another player, one Nill graciously declines to identify.

"But there was this little Zetterberg guy who always seems to have the puck," Nill recalled Monday.

So, they put the name in their back pocket. Figuring that most other teams hadn't seen Zetterberg, they bided their time and nabbed him with the 210th pick.

In 2001, Zetterberg was named rookie of the year in the Swedish elite league. The next season, he was named player of the year. By the time the 2002 Olympics rolled around, Zetterberg had filled out (he is now 30 pounds heavier than when Andersson first saw him play) and his game had evolved to the point that many people considered him the finest player not playing in the NHL.

"That's when they [the Red Wings] knew they had a diamond in the rough," Pang said.

Zetterberg, who grew up in a coastal town about four hours north of Stockholm, admitted his childhood dreams didn't necessarily include the NHL.

"When you were young -- 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 -- the national team is a bigger goal than the NHL. That's the only games that you see," Zetterberg said. "The NHL games are in the middle of the night that you don't see that much. But I think maybe it's a little bit different now. The kids growing up now, I think the exposure is a little bit better for the NHL."

Zetterberg
Henrik Zetterberg had 33 goals and 35 assists in 63 regular-season games in 2006-07.

Even after he'd been drafted, he didn't think too much about an NHL career. Not until the Salt Lake City Olympics. Although he'd played with and against NHL players at the World Championship, this was an entirely different stage.

"It's not the same thing as the Olympics," Zetterberg said. "I remember my first shift was against Eric Lindros. I'll never forget that."

Success at the highest levels of the NHL is all about degrees or passing certain thresholds. After Zetterberg broke out last season (85 points in 77 games), the question was whether he could produce in the playoffs. Although the Wings were upset in the first round by Edmonton, Zetterberg acquitted himself with six goals in six games.

This season, with Yzerman retiring and Brendan Shanahan signing with the New York Rangers, Zetterberg felt more pressure to carry an even greater load. He compiled 68 points in 63 games before suffering a back injury that cost him the last 19 games of the regular season. At the time of the injury, there were many who believed Zetterberg was the best forward in the game.

This spring, coming straight off the back injury to the emotionally charged world of the playoffs, Zetterberg continues to get better. He is third on the team in scoring with 12 points in 17 games and is averaging 22:32 minutes a night in ice time. The Wings' hopes of advancing rest in part on Zetterberg's ability to help them get there.

"He's been really good ever since he got over here, and a couple of years before in Sweden. He's kind of a late bloomer," said countryman Samuel Pahlsson, who grew up not far from Zetterberg's home and is one of the Ducks' top defensive players. "He's always been really skilled and really smart. Makes the right decisions all the time.

"He's tough. He doesn't put himself in vulnerable situations. You try to be on him, try to hit him. But it's hard because he doesn't put himself in a bad situation."

Zetterberg, naturally, is more concerned with the here and now than where he has come from.

"Of course, I'm happy to be where I am right now and having a chance to play for the Red Wings and have a chance to be here for a long time" Zetterberg said. "But also, it's the Stanley Cup. You want to win. I still have that left, and that's what I'm going for now, and when I get that, I'm going to be a little more satisfied."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.