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Zadina ready to make his mark after taking long way to the NHL

Filip Zadina’s draft-day bluster ran into an NHL reality check, but the Red Wings’ hot-shot prospect is rounding into big-league form.
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“The road is long, with many of winding turns that lead us to who knows where, who knows where?”

Filip Zadina is much too young to remember The Hollies. And it’s a certainty he didn’t have himself a Holly Jolly Christmas during a most frustrating turn with the Czechs at the 2019 World Junior Championship.

Hey, but things are looking up. In late February, the right winger was recalled by the Detroit Red Wings, who drafted him sixth overall in 2018. He made his NHL debut Feb. 24 in a 5-3 loss to the San Jose Sharks, going pointless with one shot on goal in 10:38 of ice time. Not exactly the dominance that Zadina once boasted he would deliver upon his arrival to hockey’s biggest stage. Expected to go as high as No. 3 in the draft, when teams like the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators – Detroit’s Atlantic Division rivals – passed on Zadina, he vowed revenge. “I told my agent if they will pass on me I’m going to fill up their net with pucks,” Zadina said at the draft. “I just want to prove to them they did a bad decision. I’m so glad I’m in Detroit. I just want to prove to Detroit they made a good decision.”

Zadina talked a good game. He certainly displayed one through Detroit’s development camp and NHL rookie tournament. But when the big boys came out to play, he achieved precious little. “It’s way different,” Zadina said. “I was playing against kids, and now I’m playing against men, so it’s tougher.”

Locating those soft areas on the ice and getting his shot off, the qualities that enabled him to gain a reputation as the purest goal-scorer available in the 2018 draft, weren’t accessed readily once Zadina got into NHL pre-season games. “You have to learn how to manage that time and space and create offense,” said Detroit coach Jeff Blashill. “It was something that he struggled with in the pre-season with us.”

Zadina conceded that the NHL pace caught him off-guard. “I think it was tough for me because I never played the pro game,” he said. “They are smarter. They know how to move. I probably should play a little bit quicker with the puck.”

He knows that in these days of comments living forever on social media, his draft-day braggadocio will always remain a reference point for critics of his game. “Yeah, 100 percent (it is),” Zadina said. “I see it every single day on the internet, but it’s fun to watch.”

The Wings felt there was nothing for Zadina, 19, to gain from another season with the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads, for whom he scored 44 goals in 57 games last season. Since Zadina was signed as a European free agent by the Mooseheads, the Wings could assign him to their AHL farm club, the Grand Rapids Griffins, rather than have him return to junior. “Once you’ve dominated the level, it’s time to move on,” Blashill said. “The American League is a very hard league, and it’s a bigger step from juniors to the American League than it is from the American League to the NHL.”

Initially, this level also proved to be a stumbling block for Zadina. He scored twice in his first 10 AHL games and five times over his first 24 games. “The beginning of the season was tough for me, playing against the men,” he said. “At first it was one game pretty good, second game pretty bad.”

A goalless performance for the Czech Republic at the WJC didn’t impress upon anyone that Zadina was starting to gain a handle on things, either. Lately, though, he has taken a positive turn. He had three goals and nine points during a seven-game point streak prior to his call-up from Grand Rapids and had posted five goals and 16 points over his previous 10 AHL games. “Right now it’s getting easier,” Zadina said. “Things are going a little bit more slowly for me on the ice. It feels like I’ve got more time with the puck, which is good. Right now I’m playing all those games like I’m pretty good.”

Also on the positive side, the usual pockmarks that afflict a young player’s performance – attention to detail, playing a 200-foot game, backchecking and being responsible – are already part of Zadina’s repertoire. “The thing I like about Filip is his game is fairly mature,” Blashill said. “Our development staff really spent some time with him on some video, working through a couple particulars they want him to get better at. I know the coaching staff down there has been working hard with him, and he’s starting to really take great steps forward to being a more dangerous player in the American League.”

Eventually, Zadina needs to be a dangerous player in the NHL, and the sooner he does that, the better for the Wings, who are headed for a third straight absence from the playoffs for the first time since the 1980s.

He’s certainly displayed the requisite skills to do so to his teammates during early practice sessions in Detroit. “He’s got a lot of skill,” said Wings center Dylan Larkin. “He moves his feet well and has great hockey sense. As he gets more ice time and gets involved more, he’ll be a dangerous player.”

The Wings planned to return Zadina to Grand Rapids before he plays 10 NHL games and burns a year of his entry-level contract. There, the hope is he and the Griffins will embark upon a long and successful playoff run, setting the stage for his ascension to the NHL on a permanent basis next fall. “We all want him to be Wayne Gretzky tomorrow because of the fact he’s an important piece for the Detroit Red Wings, but that’s not the way it always works,” Blashill said. “Filip just has to come along at his own pace, keep believing in himself and he’s going to be a good NHL player.

“How good? He’ll get a chance to prove it over time.”

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