Just as the Detroit Red Wings seem to be continually overlooked as a Stanley Cup contender, Henrik Zetterberg has been continually overlooked as one of the NHL's best players.
There is no question the logjam at the top of the league, especially when it comes to young players, is tighter than at any point in the NHL's history. There is the obvious duo -- Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby -- who are considered the two best forwards in the league by a large percentage of observers.
There's Vincent Lecavalier, the elegant and electric Tampa Bay star. On the West Coast, the San Jose Sharks feature Joe Thornton, who combines passing ability with size to provide a formidable combination.
But Zetterberg, as with the Wings as a whole, seems to fly under the radar despite playing in one of the league's strongest markets. As is so often the case, that perception is changing with exposure in the Stanley Cup Finals.
His now-famous work during the Wings' two-man disadvantage late in game four will become legendary. A shot block. Tying up the stick of Crosby at the side of the net, preventing a sure goal. An impressive rush while two men down, killing vaulable time. Clearing the zone. Breaking up several passes by playing the passing lanes to perfection.
As great as that shift was, Zetterberg has been outstanding defensively through the entire series. Make that the playoffs. Oh, and the regular season as well.
In fact, he might be the best defensive forward in the entire league.
Not bad for a guy who posted 43 goals and 92 points in 73 regular season games, good for sixth in the NHL.
Sixth in league scoring, and arguably the best defensive forward in the game. It might be a stretch to say Zetterberg is the game's best player, but on the other hand, it would be hard to make a compelling argument otherwise.
For the sake of fairness, let's put it this way -- Zetterberg is the best two-way forward, Ovechkin is the most electrifying and dynmaic forward, while Crosby has the best playmaking skills and ice vision.
In any case, it might be time to consider it the league's big three instead of the league's big two.
It wasn't always that way. When Zetterberg landed on this side of the Atlantic in 2002-03, he was a promising young player, but far from dominant. After 44 and 43 point seasons prior to the lockout, his breakout year came in 2005-06 with a retooled post-lockout Red Wings squad. Zetterberg posted 39 goals and 85 points in 77 games, and he had become the focal point in Detroit.
Problem is, not many people outside of Michigan noticed. In some ways, Zetterberg stepped up his game even further the following season, as he developed a knack to take over a game single-handedly when necessary. An injury-shortened season limited him to 63 games and 68 points, but his status as a superstar was solidified.
This season, Zetterberg fulfilled the promise once set by another Swedish player -- Peter Forsberg. In his native Sweden, many dubbed Zetterberg as "Baby Forsberg", but Zetterberg is following a career path that could put him ahead of his famous countryman.
Forsberg was arguably the game's best player for a time in the late 1990s, but injuries kept him from ever fulfilling his massive potential. Zetterberg has been felled with some injuries, keeping him from playing all 82 games in any one season. Yet he has so far avoided the serious recurring problems that limited Forsberg to just one year where he played more than half the season past age 30.
If Zetterberg stays healthy, there is no reason he can not be a dominant player for another decade. At age 27, he is older than many of the league's young superstars, yet he is just entering his prime. As Phil Esposito stated, he did not hit the prime of his career until his mid-to-late 20s, and it seems Zetterberg is following suit.
There is no question Zetterberg benefits from playing on a line with Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom, but it is his defensive prowess that puts him over the top. Datsyuk is a similarly talented two-way player, and the trio gives the Wings a checking line that just happens to be their best offensive line.
Or is that a top line that just also happens to be their best checking line?
Either way, it is a tough matchup for opposing teams. Just ask the Nashville Predators. Or the Colorado Avalanche. Or the Dallas Stars. Or the Pittsburgh Penguins.