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Detroit’s Gamble on Filip Zadina is a Bet on the Process

Filip Zadina's career hasn't gone completely as planned, but the Red Wings are betting on him – and there's reason to believe it'll all pay off.
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It feels as if Filip Zadina has been in the NHL for so, so long. 

Deemed a bust by so many in hockey, Zadina will turn just 23 in the upcoming season. While he hasn’t burst onto the scene as we have become accustomed to in recent years, Zadina has provided value away from the scoresheet that isn’t as easily identified.

Recently signed to a three-year contract worth $1.825 million per season, Zadina is very evidently talented when watching his game in isolation. That presents many questions about his game – starting with who is Zadina now that he’s locked in as a piece of the Red Wings’ rebuilding squad?

Zadina is a good skater who effectively uses his agility and puck skills in transition. Aside from captain Dylan Larkin, Zadina entered the offensive zone with control more than any other Red Wing last season. His zone transition numbers across the board are among the best on Detroit’s roster which indicates that the skill and pace of his game that he was drafted for aren’t quite as absent as many assume based on his counting stats.

The young Czech forward has also begun to use his mobility to become a better two-way player as well. He does a good job of pressuring opponents into getting rid of the puck before they want to and has shown some impressive puck thievery at times. Like the rest of his game, the consistency defensively hasn’t quite been there. Coming out of the draft, his two-way game was often referred to as underrated or a bonus feature that isn’t always a trait that scoring wingers possess, so the emergence of it at the pro level, becoming a more complete player in the middle-six has been a welcome sight.

Zadina's scoring touch has been underwhelming at the NHL level when he was billed as a high-end shooter as he put up 44 goals in the QMJHL in his draft year. Last season, the young winger seemed to have some of the worst puck luck in the league. Whether it was missing an open net as a puck flipped up on its side or a goalie making a miraculous save they could never repeat, Zadina seemed to be on the wrong end of quite a few bounces.

What Zadina has flashed at times in the NHL is skilled playmaking ability. His passing off the rush has been slick and accurate. Zadina’s ability to read the ice has improved yearly, looking to put teammates in excellent positions to score. 

So, why hasn’t Zadina been able to find the scoresheet as often as expected?

The 2018 sixth-overall pick proclaimed that he would "fill the nets with pucks" when asked about the teams who passed on him after being projected as high as third overall. Unfortunately, he has been developing in a system that hasn’t exactly been the most functional or developmentally focused until the last couple of seasons. Yo-yo’d between the AHL to the NHL during his first two pro seasons in North America, Zadina wasn’t given a chance to settle into any position. Zadina was a victim of his team not being very good while not being quite the game-changing talent to step into the NHL and drive a line in all three zones.

In the last few seasons, the offensively gifted forward has been relegated to the third and fourth line as soon as one mistake is made due to questionable coaching decisions. Rather than giving him an extended run on the second line or constructing a scoring third line, Zadina was stapled to players who play a more traditional checking role such as Adam Erne or Darren Helm over the last couple of seasons.

A short run with Jakub Vrana when Vrana arrived in Detroit showed that Zadina was more than capable of playing within a dynamic offensive unit. Former head coach Jeff Blashill seemed to be at odds with putting a high-level finisher in Vrana with an excellent puck transporter such as Zadina. The chemistry was evident whenever the duo had the opportunity to play together. With new head coach Derek Lalonde in the fold, a reunion could very well be possible.

That all leads us to our final questions - what can Zadina be moving forward and how does he get there?

Zadina still can rip the puck, especially on the rush. His shooting talent hasn’t disappeared but it has faded, particularly in terms of accuracy. He can’t seem to locate shots the way he once did and whether that’s puck luck or just a lack of confidence, Zadina needs to get it corrected. Pairing his playmaking ability with a refined version of his raw shooting talent could make him a legitimate dual threat.

Continuing to improve in the areas of the game he has over the last couple of seasons - in defensive situations and as a playmaker - will be key. Diversifying his skillset can only be a good thing at this point. Zadina has quick hands and well above average mobility, so utilizing those in the defensive end to get pucks back, open up space, and move the puck to teammates will be integral.

Showing more confidence as a puck carrier regularly will also aid in Zadina’s development. He is one of Detroit’s most effective transition forwards through the middle of the ice and gets himself and the puck to the center lane in the offensive zone, but he’s sometimes dealt with losses of confidence in his young career.

Blashill is out and Lalonde is in. A fresh start with a new head coach and fresh faces on most of the coaching staff will be a possible godsend for Zadina. Part of that will be because GM Steve Yzerman added a bunch of depth talent this summer as well.

As mentioned, the reunion of Zadina and Vrana is a possibility to reform the chemistry that earned them the moniker of Czechmates. Should Lalonde deem that David Perron or one of the other wingers deserve the second line spot across from Vrana, Zadina on the third line isn’t the end of the world this year. 

Rather than being saddled with Erne, Givani Smith, or Sam Gagner, Zadina should have the opportunity to play with the likes of Dominik Kubalik, Joe Veleno, or Robby Fabbri when he returns from injury. The increased depth of skill should give Zadina functional, offensively skilled linemates to work with throughout the lineup, a marked improvement over recent years when playing in the Red Wings’ bottom-six was a devastating blow for any skilled player.

Zadina was thrown into pro hockey immediately after being drafted, playing in the AHL the year after he was drafted as an 18-year-old. While he had a solid rookie year with the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Red Wings' development structure wasn’t what it once was in their glory days at the time.

His second year began quite well with 15 points in his first 28 games before being sidelined with injury at the beginning of February. The COVID-19 pandemic ended that season shortly after that. Returning the next season, Zadina took a step back in a brutal season for the Red Wings as just about every player on the roster looked bad. This past season was his first full season in the NHL, filled with fourth-line deployment and broken confidence.

The 22-year-old Zadina is still a young developing player. He wouldn’t be the first player to bloom in their age-23 or 24 seasons and he certainly won’t be the last. While he may not be the 40-goal and 40-assist player that he was once thought to be, he could very well turn into a very useful 25-goal and 30-assist player with two-way value. Zadina can still be a very integral piece to the Red Wings rebuild and with a three-year pact in place, the likelihood of him outplaying the value of the contract is far greater than him not reaching its value.

Betting on Zadina at this point is a bet that the finishing touches on his game will come through as he has shown the ability to play a competitive style of hockey, transporting the puck from defensive zone to offensive zone, and so many smaller details that go unnoticed. 

If the improved talent around him can finish some of his passes and he spent time with the shooter tutor this summer to work on his accuracy, that $1.825 million cap hit over the next few years could look mighty fine for the Detroit Red Wings. 

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