Woof! How a puppy has helped Detroit Red Wings’ Filip Zadina as he nears comeback

Detroit Free Press

A new puppy and a new stick has Filip Zadina feeling confident as he nears a comeback with the Detroit Red Wings.

He got the four-legged friend, a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, in early November, right around the same time he suffered a lower-body injury that left him feeling as deflated physically as he did mentally.

Now he faces the task of returning to play midseason, when most players are at full speed. Coach Derek Lalonde said Monday the expectation is Zadina will get into at least one game this week, before the Wings shut down for the All-Star break.

Zadina can’t wait.

“I’m just going to play, and enjoy it,” he said. “I changed the curve on my stick, so I’m excited to shoot the puck again.”

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Zadina, 23, had no points and a minus-3 rating in the nine games he played when he wasn’t a healthy scratch or injured.

“There was a little step back my first nine games,” he said. “It didn’t go well. I don’t think I was on the ice when we scored or gave up a goal, so it was like, I don’t know what was happening.”

It was another disappointment for a guy who came into the NHL with such swagger after being drafted at No. 6 in 2018. He had surgery, and faced a recovery that would cost him most of the first half.

At least he had a delightful (and furry) distraction.

“I got a puppy, so I was full-time taking care of my puppy, and talking to my mental coach, and stuff like that, working on that side of hockey,” Zadina said. “I had a lot of time to think and work on it and get my mental strength a little bit better and I think I’ve done a good job with it. I do feel strong mentally and physically.”

The Wings will have to create a roster spot to activate Zadina; possibilities including putting Tyler Bertuzzi (lower body) on IR or waiving little-used defenseman Robert Hägg.

The bigger issue will be figuring out where Zadina (6 feet, 190 pounds) fits in the lineup. Zadina has been given multiple chances over the past three seasons to play in the top six and on power plays, but has not shown he belongs there, recording just 25 goals and 36 points in 169 games. He isn’t a defensive grinder, either.

“I think he’s probably caught in between a little bit himself,” Lalonde said. “You love the potential, the fact he scored at lower levels. Obviously he has not, in his 160-ish games here. But he can skate. I think a little bit of it is confidence. If he is a shoot-first mentality guy, I think that would help his overall game. When he is skating, he has some offensive confidence, he is a guy that can push some offense. Statistically, it hasn’t been there yet in his career, but you see flashes of it in his game. So a little more consistency in his game.

“The good thing with us becoming more healthy up front, I like our depth. Minutes are pretty spread around. I think he can fit anywhere. He’s going to get a good center and some guys that are doing pretty well no matter he goes.”

When Lalonde was named head coach last summer, the hope was a new coach would be a new start for Zadina. He had a good camp, but the Wings were healthy when the season began, and that left Zadina on the outs. Then came a long recovery after getting hit by a puck.

“It’s been tough and it’s been long,” Zadina said. “It’s been a lot of working out and practicing. Hopefully soon I’ll get cleared and start playing again and I’ll be on the ice boys. It’s been pressure since I got here, right? I don’t think it’s a big deal, or big pressure. When I come back I will enjoy it.”

Credit some of that renewed enjoyment to Jack, a four-month old source of boundless energy and joy. Zadina and his girlfriend purchased the puppy from a place in England, and with Zadina unable to travel because of the leg injury, his girlfriend flew to Chicago to pick it up and bring it back to their place in metro Detroit.

“We were thinking about a puppy for a long time and we decided to get one,” Zadina said. “It’s one of the best decisions we’ve made so far.”

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames.

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Her latest book, “On the Clock: Behind the Scenes with the Detroit Red Wings at the NHL Draft,” is available from  Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.

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