For a guy who’d felt tortured by puck luck for much of this NHL season, this probably seemed like cruel and unusual punishment.
Filip Zadina was a spectator Tuesday night, just like the rest of us, watching the Red Wings’ slumbering offense come to life. Even while shorthanded, sparked by a major penalty and aided by some minor-league goaltending as Detroit rolled to a 6-2 victory over the floundering San Jose Sharks at Little Caesars Arena.
And in a season where the Wings’ next generation of stars has shined brightly — with Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond making this NHL transition look way too easy, at times — it probably makes all this a bit harder to take for Zadina.
A healthy scratch? For the first time in his young career in Detroit?
“I guess what happens when you want to insert somebody into the lineup, you gotta take somebody out,” head coach Jeff Blashill said after Tuesday’s win. ” And it’s honestly sometimes as simple as that.”
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But it’s never quite that simple, honestly. Certainly not when you’re talking about a former sixth overall pick and a player who presumably is — or was? — supposed to be a key piece of the Wings’ next playoff puzzle. A player who, by the way, is in the final year of his rookie contract in Detroit.
No, there was a message being sent Tuesday, and the question now is how it’ll be received. And how, or when, Zadina will respond.
Chances are, we’ll find out fairly soon, as an apparent knee injury to fourth-line center Carter Rowney late in Tuesday night’s win may necessitate more lineup juggling as the Wings begin a West Coast road swing Thursday in Anaheim. Maybe Zadina’s benching was only going to last one game, anyway, following a pair of underwhelming performances coming out of the holiday break.
Zadina, the 22-year-old winger who’d promised the teams that passed on him in the 2018 draft he’d “fill their nets with pucks,” doesn’t have a goal since November, was a minus-10 in his last seven games, and didn’t record a shot on goal in the Wings’ last two games. He’d been dropped from a second-line role to the Wings’ third line earlier in December, and Zadina’s third-period defensive lapse Sunday was partly to blame for Boston’s back-breaking goal in the Wings’ last outing.
A day later, the writing was on the wall, as rookie Joe Veleno took Zadina’s place on the Wings’ No. 2 power-play unit in practice. (The Wings’ 31st-ranked unit has fallen back into its old anemic habits this winter.) But the player who technically replaced Zadina in the lineup Tuesday against San Jose was fourth-line winger Givani Smith, who only lasted four shifts in the game but drew the praise of his coach afterward for his “eventful” 2 ½ minutes on the ice.
“He was good,” Blashill said of Smith, who dropped the gloves and squared off with the Sharks’ Jake Middleton on his first shift, then exhorted the crowd to make some noise. “He fought, he hit. … I actually thought in the little bit he played, he played with poise, he played strong, he battled hard. I was happy with those couple minutes of ice time.”
Blashill wasn’t happy to lose Smith to a game misconduct on a 5-minute boarding major, or with the huge power-play opportunity it gave the Sharks in a 1-0 game late in the first period. But then Smith’s teammates responded with an aggressive penalty-kill effort that led to something Red Wings fans haven’t seen since before the pandemic.
Pius Suter snapped the team’s 100-game streak without a shorthanded goal — Darren Helm’s shorty on Feb. 15, 2020 was the Wings’ last — and then Tyler Bertuzzi scored another on a 2-on-1 break just 37 seconds later.
At that point, the rout was on, and James Reimer, who’d misplayed the puck to give the Wings’ their first goal, eventually was pulled for a second straight start. But not before a nifty assist from Michael Rasmussen set up Suter for the Wings’ fourth goal, and himself for a pat on the back from his coach, who called it “as good a game as he’s played in a while.”
Rasmussen, who’d been moved from third-line center to second-line winger in Zadina’s absence, likely will revert back to center if Rowney’s out to start this road trip.
As for Zadina?
“What Filip wants to do is put himself so he’s not in the mix of players that we’re talking about, ‘Who goes out?’” Blashill said. “There’s a group of guys that we have conversations about and try to make the best decision. And ultimately, if you don’t want to come out, put yourself so you’re not in the mix. We don’t talk about that with Tyler Bertuzzi or Dylan Larkin, because of what they’ve established themselves as players.”
Zadina has struggled to do the same, though this is really just his second full NHL season. And whatever the reasons are for that — Blashill and his staff certainly aren’t blameless — it’s fair to wonder just when things will finally click for the young Czech.
He ranks second among Wings forwards (behind Bertuzzi) in 5-on-5 expected goals for percentage, per Evolving Hockey, yet the scoresheet most nights leaves everyone wanting. One reason: Zadina’s subpar shooting percentage (5.6) is the same as it was during that nine-game audition in 2018-19, and not far off last season’s mark (6.3), which is hardly what anybody expected when then-Wings GM Ken Holland touted his scoring ability after that 2018 draft. Holland preached patience then, but also said he hoped Zadina would be “a big part” of a budding Cup contender “hopefully when he’s 21 or 22.”
Obviously, the past two seasons have been hard on player development for everyone in the NHL, but Zadina’s own frustration with his lack of production — and likely his role as well — has been evident.
It also partly explains why Blashill was talking at Thanksgiving, right around Zadina’s 22nd birthday, about the young forward needing a different perspective — “He can’t put all his self-worth as a player into scoring,” the coach noted — and understanding all the other things that go into “playing winning hockey.”
That talk draws eye-rolls from frustrated fans, I know, after five straight losing seasons on Blashill’s watch. And it probably grates on young players as well. But Zadina has to know the GM he plays for now believes those same things about “winning” hockey players.
And one thing we know about Steve Yzerman, both from his tenure in Tampa and his first two seasons back in charge in Detroit, is he’s not afraid to make a move, even if it involves a young player some might view as part of his team’s core. Like the Anthony Mantha trade last April, for instance.
So while it’s too soon to say something similar will happen here with Zadina — a hockey deal for another player looking for a fresh start — it’s hardly out of the question. There are only two or three untouchables on the Wings’ current roster, and a pending RFA with 47 points in 118 career games can’t be one of them, no matter where he was drafted.
No, for Zadina, the best way to make good on his promise here in Detroit would be to take the decision out of his coach’s hands, before it’s too late.
“You know, I don’t think it ever hurts a guy every once in a while to hit the reset button, kind of take some pressure off and then just go get it,” Blashill said. “So when Z gets back in the lineup, I’m hoping he can come back charged and playing real good hockey.”
That doesn’t sound like an ultimatum, but at some point it might be.