By @StefanKubus –
The Detroit Red Wings announced their latest round of roster cuts on Sunday ahead of their Oct. 4 season opener against Columbus.
Among them was Filip Zadina, the Wings’ 2018 first-round pick at sixth overall and the highest pick the franchise has made since Keith Primeau in 1990. And after just one season in the notably offensive-minded Quebec Major Junior Hockey League that saw him amass 44 goals and 82 points in 57 games with his Halifax Mooseheads, a lot of the Red Wings faithful were fully expecting him to be on the opening-night roster.
There’s no question we saw glimpses of what he’s capable of, in development camp and throughout the summer. But then the reality check known as NHL competition joined the fray and Zadina often looked overwhelmed by the NHL game.
The league is continually getting younger, no doubt about that. But not every player can jump into a NHL lineup straight from junior hockey at 18 or 19 and make a seamless transition; the game is so much faster, heavier and leaves even the most talented junior or college players with less time and space than in their worst nightmares. And that’s totally OK.
Even by his own admission, Zadina said the game was much faster than what he’s used to following his preseason debut against his boyhood idol 29-year-old Patrick Kane (how’s that for perspective?) and the Chicago Blackhawks.
“For me, it was a way different game than I played last year,” Zadina said.
“I probably should play more quicker with the puck for sure. It surprised me a lot, I was kind of expecting a fast game, but it was faster than I thought.”
Which is completely expected from a teenager trying to crack a NHL lineup.
Nashville’s Filip Forsberg and PK Subban are just two names that both started in the American Hockey League before becoming all stars at their respective positions. Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov started in the AHL and even had an underwhelming 52-game NHL season when called up. Florida’s Mike Hoffman and Jonathan Marchessault to name two more. Shelby Township native and University of Michigan alum Kyle Connor is the latest example after a stellar freshman season with the Wolverines. He spent most of the 2016-17 season in Manitoba and even started this past year there before being recalled and going on to pot 31 goals in his rookie season with the Winnipeg Jets.
It’s not the end of the world.
In fact, Zadina’s in a pretty unique situation that makes the AHL an absolute dream option for Detroit. Zadina was loaned to Halifax by his Czech team, Pardubice HC, which allowed him the chance to play in the AHL this season. It’s a rare loophole in the CHL-NHL transfer agreement because, typically, CHL prospects are ineligible for the AHL until they reach 20 years of age or have played a minimum of four seasons with their respective CHL team.
In Philadelphia, the Flyers just sent top forward prospect Morgan Frost, 19 years old, back to the OHL because they felt he wasn’t quite ready for the NHL. Last season, his third in the OHL, he posted 42 goals and 112 points and another 29 points in 24 playoff games. And he certainly passed the eye test, too. I think it’s fair to say that the Flyers would much rather have Frost play for their AHL affiliate in Lehigh Valley. However, it’s just simply not an option for them because rules are rules.
So take a look at Zadina’s situation now: he’ll likely get the opportunity to play top forward minutes with power-play time against full-grown men in the next best option to the NHL. As an 18-year-old. It’s the perfect chance to acclimate to the professional game and likely build his confidence in the process. How long it takes is another question, but as Detroit head coach Jeff Blashill put it, “he’s a smart guy, he’ll figure it out,” saying there’s no doubt in his mind he’ll be a good NHL player one day.
Following Saturday night’s preseason finale against Toronto, Blashill spoke of Martin Frk, who is still young at age 24, and how there isn’t really much room for growth down in the AHL for him because it’s basically a ‘been-there, done-that’ situation, especially considering he spent all of last year in Detroit. Not to compare the two players, but Zadina is a whole five years younger than Frk and clearly struggled against the NHL competition; there’s plenty of room for growth. And frankly, he faced a lot of the same players over the course of the preseason that he’ll face with Grand Rapids, as well.
“Marty’s been around, he’s a little bit older. For him to go to the American league, there’s not lots of growth, whereas some of the younger guys, if they’re not going to play major roles, there’ll be opportunities for growth down there.”
And that’s the key: with Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Gustav Nyquist, Thomas Vanek, Andreas Athanasiou and Tyler Bertuzzi in the mix, there isn’t much room in the Red Wings’ top-six to play a “major role.”
He already has a lot of the hard concepts down that often take young players longer to grasp, according to Blashill. So what does he need to work on in the eyes of the Red Wings’ coach?
“Somebody told me a long time ago, find the firestarter for a player and then just work on that and don’t give him lots of other stuff, so we try to find one singular thing that’s really gonna firestart his whole game,” Blashill said. “For me, he does lots of things really well. He’s not perfect, but he’s got a very mature game for a young player. He plays on the right side of the puck, he blocks shots, he can adapt defensively, he understands all that stuff. I would say once on the ice, continuing to understand when he’s got time and when he doesn’t have time, what he can do to create a little more time, and that’s just an adjustment. There’s no way to make that adjustment in junior until you get to the level and you realize you have to.
“Off the ice, just continuing to push his body. And the quicker he gets, the faster he gets – if he can get to the next level of speed, that’ll help him a lot. He’s quick. I think if he can get to the next level once he gets his first three strides, I think it’ll help him.”
Fortunately, for Zadina, he’ll have the chance to make those adjustments just two hours away from Detroit rather than playing in the QMJHL again.
As Blashill put it, the Red Wings roster is a fluid situation: “This isn’t a ‘you made it or you didn’t make it’ for the season… guys that end up playing Thursday night in whatever roles they’re playing have to keep playing great in order to stay in those roles because there’s other guys pushing.”
Expect Zadina to be one of those guys pushing.