Where Zadina Made Strides With Red Wings -- And Where He Must Make More

The next time he's here, he's ideally here to stay.

Will Burchfield
March 14, 2019 - 4:15 pm

© Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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When discussing what he learned about himself during his nine-game cameo in the NHL that will conclude Thursday night versus the Lighting -- and how's that for a send-off -- Filip Zadina acknowledged the obvious: he needs to muscle up this summer. Then he politely pointed out a fact we'd all do well to remember. 

"I’m still 19 years old," he said. "But just want to be stronger and probably a little bit quicker, and I think it’s going to be way easier." 

The skills are there for the Red Wings' top prospect. We saw them in flashes over the past three weeks, including that lethal shot he unleashed to score the first goal of his NHL career. It's Detroit's hope -- some may say its need -- that there are tons more to come. 

The mental makeup appears to be there, too. Zadina grew up around the game thanks to his father, an ex-player who now coaches in the top professional league in the Czech Republic. Zadina played in that league himself at the ages of 16 and 17 before moving to Quebec Major Junior last season. He doesn't seem daunted by the NHL stage. 

He's certainly not daunted by the expectations for him in Detroit. Zadina smiles whenever the subject comes up -- he smiles all the time, come to think of it -- happy to know an organization and its fans are counting on him, eager to make everyone proud. 

What's not there, not yet, is the one thing he can't fully control. His body needs to mature. Stronger legs will help him win more races. A sturdier frame will help him stay on more pucks. Time and space are hard to find in the NHL, and Zadina needs to develop the tools to create more of both. 

That's his primary goal in the months ahead. When he returns in the fall, the NHL game will ideally be more within his reach. 

"Most guys can't come in at 19 and be great players," said Jeff Blashill. "Can he come in at 20 and be a great player? I don’t know that answer, but certainly strength and explosiveness helps. If he can get a little quicker, a little bit stronger, that’s going to help."

Then Blashill brought up that crucial intangible, the one that "matters tons." Confidence. In this department, Zadina has already progressed. That's what a little time in the NHL can do. His experience here hasn't necessarily changed his game, but it's certainly altered his psyche. 

"I think I'm the same player, but probably a little more developed now, probably a little bit more confident than I was before I got here," Zadina said. "These games really helped me a lot. I feel like I’m probably a better player." 

Blashill, who's not one to sugarcoat a young player's performance, regardless of who that young player might be, would agree. 

"I think that he's shown well. After the first few games I thought he looked more dangerous. He’s showing confidence with the puck. I think he’s tried to make things happen," Blashill said. "The next step would be greater production, and that’s a heck of a lot to ask of a 19-year-old."

There's that caveat again. It can be easy to forget when wunderkinds like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews have recently taken the league by storm. Through eight games in the NHL, Zadina has one goal and one assist. Both came on the power play, which inherently isn't a bad thing. 

But the Red Wings need Zadina to be a difference-maker at five-on-five. That's the kind of hole the sixth overall pick, Detroit's highest draft selection in almost 30 years, is supposed to fill. 

"The great players find a way to ultimately carry their own lines," Blashill said. "I'm not saying he should have now, but come next fall can he carry his own line? Can he make that line great, whatever line he’s on?"

Dylan Larkin is the Red Wings' only forward who does this on a consistent basis. It's a somewhat jarring realization, considering all the growth that's occurred among the organization's young forwards over the past couple years. Collectively, there's still a long way to go. 

Zadina's path is just beginning. The key question is how much ground he can gain before the start of next season. His time with the Red Wings will give him a boost. 

He smiled and said he was "so glad" for the opportunity. He said he "enjoyed it here with the boys." He agreed it went by "pretty quick." The next few months will, too. Before Zadina knows it, he'll be back in training camp, this time expected to win a job. 

"I think it's been a great (eight) games," Blashill said. "I think he's a way better player today than he was at the beginning of the year. Credit to (Griffins head coach) Ben Simon and his staff, (Red Wings director of player development) Shawn Horcoff and his staff.

"Can he go back and have a great end of the year and then come into camp ready to really produce at a high level?"

The answer will ultimately determine the value of his first NHL cameo, and shed a revealing light on the Red Wings' future. The next time Zadina's here, he's ideally here to stay. He won't have to bid the boys farewell, just as he's starting to fit in. 

"That would be perfect for me," he said, and it goes without saying he said so with a grin. "Just gonna keep going and hopefully I’ll make it happen next season."