Niyo: Filip Zadina gives Red Wings good reason to believe in him

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Mistakes will be made. But when rookie Filip Zadina made another midway through the third period of Sunday night’s loss to the Los Angeles Kings at Little Caesars Arena, it wasn’t just the frustration that was evident. It was the determination, too.

After getting dumped on his rear end at center ice on a giveaway, Zadina chased the play going the other way and watched the puck go in Detroit’s net, then slammed his stick on the ice in disgust.

Zadina, the 2018 first-round pick who turned 20 a couple of weeks ago, sat stewing on the bench for a couple of minutes. But when he jumped over the boards for his next shift — something that wasn't at all guaranteed for a rookie — it didn’t take long for him to make amends. Anthony Mantha set up defenseman Madison Bowey for a one-timer on a rush, and the rebound came directly at Zadina in the left circle. He shoved it right back on net, and the knuckler off his stick beat Los Angel’s Jack Campbell to finally put the Wings on the board.

Later, as Wings coach Jeff Blashill dissected another loss for his last-place team, he actually singled out the rookie for praise.

Right wing Filip Zadina had a goal and two assists in Detroit's 5-2 win over Winnipeg Thursday, which ended a 12-game losing streak.

“I thought Filip Zadina was probably our best forward tonight,” said Blashill, noting a few prime scoring chances he'd helped generate against the Kings. “Filip’s fighting to stay here. Other guys have to have the attitude that they're fighting to stay here." 

It meant all the more to hear that on a night the organization tacitly rewarded Zadina for his efforts. Sunday marked the rookie’s 10th NHL game this season after a late-November call-up from the AHL. That’s the threshold for starting the clock on his three-year, entry-level contract, one Detroit chose not to cross a year ago when Zadina played nine games after the All-Star break. They could’ve put it off again this season if they’d wanted, since teams are allowed to “slide” ELCs for players who sign at age 18.

More:Filip Zadina's performance keeps him with Red Wings as they focus on his development

And for a brief moment last week, it appeared they might. When Wings general manager Steve Yzerman called Zadina last Wednesday to let him know the team was sending him down to the AHL, the rookie was initially crestfallen. But then the GM quickly explained it was purely a roster management issue and that he’d be recalled 24 hours later.

“So it was a better day after that,” Zadina said, laughing. “But yeah, I still was kind of waiting to see what’s gonna happen.”

Matter of trust

Off the ice, that is. On the ice, he understood this was no time for a wait-and-see attitude. And through his play over the last couple weeks, the former No. 6 overall pick has proven that.

Not just by scoring seven points in his last seven games, including a one-goal, two-assist performance in Thursday’s streak-busting win over Winnipeg. (Zadina became the third-youngest Red Wings player to record a three-point game behind Yzerman and Lane Lambert in the mid-1980s.) But also with his competitive play overall — forechecking aggressively, winning puck battles and playing with more patience and poise as he hangs on to the puck in the offensive zone.

Zadina led all Detroit forwards in even-strength ice time (15:36) against the Kings, and his total ice time (17:53) was a career high for a regulation game.

 “I don’t want to say they ‘trust me’ or something like that, but I’ve been doing good and I think they see me as a good player right now, so that’s probably the reason why they kept me,” Zadina said Monday. “A year ago, I knew it would be nine games and then I would be back down. Right now, I’ve got 10 games and it’s a good feeling. But I just want to keep going and be more productive for the team.”

To the Wings’ credit — and possibly to their benefit when it comes time to sign him to an extension in a few years — it appears he’ll be given ample opportunity now.

The Wings’ dressing room is ravaged by illness at the moment, with several players battling flu-like symptoms and some requiring pregame IVs just to make it through Sunday’s contest. But since Robby Fabbri found some chemistry with Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi in Mantha’s absence, Blashill opted to pair the dominant winger with Zadina on Valtteri Filppula’s line the last two games.

That’s a fit in more ways than one since the Wings hope Zadina draws some lessons from Mantha’s own development as a prolific-scoring prospect who endured some growing pains as he adjusted to the NHL game.

“I went through the same kind of process — he’s going through it right now,” Mantha said. “It’s a learning process, everyone knows, but I think his step has been major the past year. … He’s playing good hockey up here right now, and his confidence is just going to keep building.”

Even if Blashill reshuffles his forward lines tonight when the Wings host Columbus, Zadina’s play warrants a spot in the top six. His on-ice expected goals-for percentage, a predictive stat that measures shot quality, ranks fourth among the Red Wings’ forwards, just behind Mantha-Larkin-Bertuzzi trio. And beyond the numbers, there are the encouraging signs Mantha was referencing Monday.

"He's playing with a ton of confidence, which is great to see,” veteran winger Justin Abdelkader said. “He's got a great opportunity to come in and play, he's been dangerous on the power play, he's carrying the puck through the neutral zone, he's making plays.”

And if he’s here to stay, he'll have an opportunity to make a lot more. 

"That’s what rookie life is about in the NHL You’ve got to grind, you’ve got to earn a spot. And that’s what I’m trying to do."

Twitter: @JohnNiyo