Even though the two players crossed paths at opposite ends of their careers, Matthews saw some of Zetterberg’s best. Not only did Mike Babcock have him study video of the Red Wings captain during his rookie season, he got a first-hand look at what Zetterberg could do in their seven head-to-head meetings – games where the veteran amassed two goals and eight assists.
"I find him to be a really good player; a little underrated at times," Matthews said Friday, shortly after it was announced that back issues will force Zetterberg to step away from the game just before his 38th birthday.
"He [could] make plays, sees the ice so well. Even when we played him, he made me look bad a couple times and you kind of shake your head sometimes because [he was] a guy that still gets it done."
The one thing Babcock wanted Matthews to pick up from watching clips of Zetterberg was how to play more efficiently in the defensive end. Early in the 2016-17 season, when Matthews was still seeing sheltered usage during his first couple weeks in the NHL, the Leafs coach showed him examples of how Zetterberg forced turnovers and got the puck back just by knowing where to stand on the ice.
The Swede enjoyed his finest seasons while being coached by Babcock in Detroit, putting up 92 points in 2007-08 before capturing the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP when the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup.
"He was an elite, elite player, a better competitor and maybe [even a] better person," said Babcock. "A real leader."
Exactly the kind of player Matthews is trending towards becoming now. It seems somewhat fitting that he’s got one of Zetterberg’s signed Warrior sticks on display in his Toronto apartment – a sign of respect for one of the top performers from the generation that came before him.
"I loved watching him play, even later [in his career]," said Matthews. "The last two years playing against him he was always tough to play against: So smart, maybe couldn’t move as well as he used to the last two years – [or] three, four years – but he’s tough to play against. He knows where to be.
"Health comes first when it comes to sports and life in general, so it’s obviously unfortunate. He obviously had a hell of a career."