Detroit – Filip Zadina finished the Red Wings’ preseason opener Tuesday night in Pittsburgh with two points, which was notable for any number of reasons.
But we might as well start with the point that his new head coach made at the start of training camp last week.
“I meant it,” Derek Lalonde said, “when I told everyone there’s gonna be a fresh start.”
So the fact that Zadina, the Wings’ seemingly snake-bitten sniper, already has started filling a clean sheet with positive plays should count for something.
Especially coming on the heels of a strong showing in Traverse City, where Zadina looked every bit like a player that’s not just worth keeping around – as the Wings opted to do over the summer – but also one worth counting on to play a significant role this season in Detroit.
His play on the ice Tuesday against a Pittsburgh Penguins lineup of mostly NHLers helped reinforce that notion. Zadina logged more than 17 minutes of ice time – second-most among Detroit forwards – while playing on the power play and killing penalties. He showed tenacity on the forecheck all night, credited with three hits and three takeaways, both team highs. And it was Zadina who scored the go-ahead goal on the first shift of the second period Monday, uncorking a quick one-timer from the left faceoff circle off a feed from Michael Rasmussen. Zadina later added an assist on defenseman Steven Kampfer’s goal that made it 4-1.
All of that was what you’d expect from a player selected sixth overall in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. But in the case of Zadina, the prospect on draft night who warned the teams passing on him that he’d “fill their nets with pucks,” the game of expectations has been a rather one-sided affair up until now.
He has just 25 goals among 61 points in 160 career NHL games over parts of four seasons in Detroit. And while some of that clearly was the result of terrible puck luck, that lack of production – coupled with all the hope and hype that accompanied his arrival here − seemed to weigh on Zadina the last two seasons in particular.
So did the tug-of-war he kept losing with Lalonde’s predecessor, as then-head coach Jeff Blashill rationed Zadina’s minutes and reduced his role at various times. He made a brief cameo on the Wings’ top line early last season, but demotions soon followed, and in mid-January Zadina found himself a healthy scratch as Blashill tried to send a message, saying, “I don’t think it ever hurts a guy to hit the reset button every once in a while.”
‘Runway’ to a reset
It has been a while now since that low point, but perhaps no player was more eager for Wings general manager Steve Yzerman to hit the reset button this summer than Zadina, who got a new coach in July and then a new contract in August, signing a three-year, $5.475 million contract as a restricted free agent to stay in Detroit.
“Obviously, I’m happy for that deal − I wasn’t looking for some short-term deal,” said Zadina, who described it as a “sort of runway” that’ll allow him to finally get his NHL career off the ground.
Which is essentially what the 22-year-old Czech winger heard from Yzerman at the end of last season as well.
“My message, really, to Filip was, I believe he’s on the right path to becoming a real good player in the NHL,” Yzerman said last week. “He’s working at it. He’s learning to do the little things well.”
And eventually, he told him, those little things should add up to a lot more than we’ve seen from Zadina thus far. More opportunity, more ice time, and presumably more production as well.
“All young players − all scorers, in particular − always measure (themselves) on goals and assists,” added Yzerman, who also went out of his way to praise Zadina’s work ethic, then and now. “And whether you’re playing junior, or in the AHL or the NHL − and in particular for these higher draft picks (where) everybody wants to see the goals and assists measured − you fall into that yourself, thinking, ‘I gotta produce. I gotta produce.’
“But, ultimately, if you do all the other things well, the pucks will go in the net for you. So my message to Filip was, ‘Continue to work at it, continue to do all the little things well, and the pucks will go in the net for you.’”
Figuring it out
Lalonde’s message sounds similar. But the fact that it’s a different voice now − and a different system on the ice – should help Zadina, who may never develop into an elite NHL goal scorer but still could be a valuable piece in the Wings’ next playoff lineup. And a real contract value for Yzerman, to boot.
For all his trouble finishing around the net last season – and the funk that helped create for Zadina − there were some signs he was starting to find his game at the NHL level, whether it was the solid zone transition numbers or some of the advanced counting metrics where he ranked among the Wings’ top six forwards last season.
And though the talent Yzerman added in free agency makes for more competition for ice time up front, it also should mean better linemates for Zadina, who may find himself skating with Pius Suter and fellow Czech winger Dominik Kubalik to start the season. That’s a far better fit than a checking-line assignment opposite Adam Erne we saw too much of last season.
“I mean, it’s a fresh opportunity for everybody on this team, and especially for myself,” Zadina said. “I’m excited about this chance that everybody’s getting. … I just want to take it and be a better hockey player.”