Is This More Than 'A Moment In Time' For Filip Zadina?

This might be his chance to prove he belongs.

Will Burchfield
November 27, 2019 - 6:21 pm

Minas Panagiotakis / Stringer

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How old is Filip Zadina?

No, I'm asking you. His birthday was Wednesday, and for all the attention paid to the Red Wings young forward since he joined the organization last summer, for all the time we've spent pondering and soon fretting about his future, it feels like he should be somewhere around 22. Doesn't it? That was my guess, anyway, when Zadina indulged a few birthday wishes in the Red Wings locker room Wednesday morning, before his buddy Filip Hronek draped an arm over his shoulder and the two of them slipped out of sight. Hronek is 22 years old himself.

"21," Zadina corrected me.

"No, no," he said, now correcting himself. "20." 

Maybe this was Zadina having a little fun. He does seem more at ease in the NHL environment than he did a year ago. Or maybe he actually lost track, and who would we be to blame him? Either way, it's a reminder of Zadina's inchoate development. It's a reminder of his untapped potential. It's a reminder that when the Red Wings drafted him sixth overall last year and he vowed to punish the teams who passed on him by "filling their nets with pucks" -- a joke, Zadina would say, that he shared with his agent -- the kid was 18 years old. 

"It’s a reminder of how young he’s been in pro hockey," said Jeff Blashill. "And I think that’s important for everybody to remember." 

We're back to having this discussion, because Zadina is back with the Red Wings. He was recalled last weekend when Anthony Mantha went down with a lower-body injury and the Wings needed a scorer to step into the lineup. Zadina, a scorer by trade, was on a roll in the AHL. He was fresh off a six-game point streak. With seven goals on the season, he was nearly halfway to his total from last season. By all accounts, Zadina was starting to meet the first challenge that stands between him and a full-time NHL job. 

To borrow a few words from Blashill, "Look like you don’t belong (in the AHL)."

The second one? Prove you belong here. And Zadina stands to get that shot right now. While the Wings initially called him up on a day-to-day basis, they've since ruled out Mantha for several weeks. Maybe, to borrow a few more words from Blashill, this is more than just "one moment in time" for Zadina. He looked pretty good in his first test Sunday night, much better than last year. His renewed confidence was evident early in the game when he beat one defenseman at the blue line and then maneuvered around another to set up Valtteri Filppula with a terrific scoring chance in front. 

It was clear last season, even during his nine-game cameo that came later in the year, that Zadina wasn't ready for the pace of the NHL. The game was too fast for him. Now he's catching up. 

"Even after I got those 19 games in the AHL this season, it’s getting slower and slower and I know what to expect," Zadina said. "It’s getting, like, not easier, but a little bit slower and it’s not as hard."

Dennis Cholowski, 21, spent most of the final two months of last season with Zadina in the AHL. He watched Zadina find his game down the stretch, and now he's watching him try to bring it to Detroit. Cholowski knows as well as anyone on the Red Wings roster the challenges of sticking in NHL. He was sent down amid his struggles last season, and he's been scratched a couple times this season. It's all about confidence, Cholowski will tell you. It's about trusting in your game.

"For sure," Cholowski said, when asked if Zadina looks more relaxed in the NHL this season. "For sure. He’s less frantic. He looked a little nervous last time. This time he’s seen it before, so he’s just trying to play the same way he did down there. That’s what you have to do." 

Despite the hype he arrived with last year, it was probably wrong to think Zadina would make an immedate impact in Detroit. His skillset isn't the kind that translates right away. He's not "super fast," in Blashill's words, and he's not "super big." He's got clever hands, a mind for the game and one heck of a shot, but none of that really matters without time and space to operate. Zadina couldn't find any last year, and then he found himself in the AHL. And a fan base found itself wondering if the hype was warranted from the start.

Was it? We're still a long way from finding out, but Zadina's slowly starting to build his case. The next few weeks will provide some more clues. The outside expectations remain high, and the same would likely be said internally. Zadina smiled when asked about the hopes of the fans. They're his hopes, too, and he's earnest about fulfilling them.

"It just takes a little bit of time probably, for me to show them that I’m a good player," he said. "But I just want to be happy and enjoy my time here and play the best and show them that they’re right."

Most players in last year's draft went back to their junior teams. Only the top four picks played more than a few weeks in the NHL. Zadina went straight to the AHL, which is where he belonged, and he went back there this year. We've viewed his struggles from up close. Now he's starting to show us something else, and maybe he can prove that he belongs where he is.