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As Quinn Hughes gains NHL foothold, Filip Zadina's path to Detroit will take patience

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Red Wings prospect Filip Zadina opened the season with Grand Rapids, while the player selected one spot after him, Quinn Hughes, is playing for the Vancouver Canucks.

Detroit — While Quinn Hughes was listed in the Vancouver Canucks lineup Tuesday night for their game against the the Red Wings, Filip Zadina was not.

Zadina wasn’t with the Red Wings at all, as he hasn’t for much of his pro career, now entering the second season, just like Hughes is in Vancouver.

Zadina was practicing with the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Wings’ minor-league affiliate, and preparing for a weekend trip to Texas.

The Wings chose Zadina sixth overall in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. It was hailed as an excellent stroke of luck for the Wings, as Zadina was expected to be picked in the top three or four selections.

But instead, Zadina fell into the Wings’ waiting arms.

With the very next selection, Vancouver chose Hughes, an offensive defenseman who played collegiately at Michigan.

That very moment, there were still many analysts — and fans — who wondered if the Wings should have gone with Hughes, the local kid, who was projected to go anywhere from third to 10th.

To date, Hughes has lapped Zadina on their way to the NHL — although analysts aren’t getting carried away by that fact.

“If you’re going to compare Quinn Hughes and Filip Zadina right now, I’ll default to Quinn Hughes,” said Jeff Marek, Sportsnet’s NHL analyst. “That’s the way the NHL is trending with defensemen, an elite skater, I don’t know if I’ve seen a young guy make ice around him as quickly as Quinn Hughes does, which is a unique skill set.

“But I don’t think you should feel, if you’re a Wings’ fan, you should be upset about having Filip Zadina. Filip Zadina is a high-end shooter as, and as you well know, goals are not easy to come by in the NHL and they are expensive when you get a bunch of them.”

But Marek is adamant that giving up on Zadina this early would be a foolish endeavor.

“As far as ‘did we make the wrong choice,' I wouldn’t’ worry about that right now,” Marek said. “It’s early in both of their careers. Take a look at the trek of Anthony Mantha, and how long it took him to figure it out (in pro hockey).”

Zadina, 19, didn’t make the Wings out of training camp last year and was sent to Grand Rapids, where he learned the adjustment to pro hockey wasn’t going to be easy.

In 59 games with the Griffins, had 35 points (16 goals, 19 assists) with a minus-17 plus-minus rating, with a heavy emphasis on learning how to use his linemates and playing in the defensive end.

Zadina was called up for nine games with the Wings, totaling three points (one goal, two assists) and a minus-5 rating.

Zadina didn’t score a goal through the exhibition season last month, and was sent to Grand Rapids again. In three games thus far, Zadina has one goal and a minus-3 rating.

During training camp, Zadina stressed he believed this season was going to be a positive step forward in his career.

“The game is going to be a little bit slower for me this year because I know what it’s going to be like,” Zadina said. “It’s about the space (on the ice), but it’s about patience. If you get the puck, you have to skate. Be smart, and a good skater, and the game will be easier.”

“It’s part of hockey life. No one has an easy way to the NHL. I was glad I could spend one year in the AHL. It opened my eyes to what I have to do better. I worked the whole summer and I’m a better player.”

General manager Steve Yzerman liked what he saw of Zadina in the Prospects Tournament in early September, though Zadina didn’t score a goal in four games.

In training camp, Yzerman was quick to point out Zadina’s age and impressive work ethic.

“He can really shoot the puck, he’s got an instinct for getting open,” Yzerman said. “He’s only 19, he was eligible to play junior (hockey) last year. He did very well in the American League. It’s just adjusting to the pro game.

“He’ll continue to get physically stronger and gain experience, and with that strength and experience, he’ll get more accustomed to the pro game.

“Not knowing him very well, but talking with a lot of people on the staff that know him, he’s got a good attitude and he’s open-minded and wants to improve. With a good attitude and open mind and work ethic, he’ll improve. He’s projecting in the right direction.”

Vancouver Canucks defenseman and Michigan product Quinn Hughes, left, has three points (one goal, two assists) in four games this season, with a plus-2 rating.

Hughes, 20, has three points (one goal, two assists) in four games this season, with a plus-2 rating.

Hughes played two seasons at Michigan before signing with the Canucks late in the season, collecting three assists in five games.

There was an expectation Hughes would struggle defensively early in his career while adjusting to the NHL, but Hughes looked quite capable in that regard in the first week this season.

“He’s a good skater, he’s smart, he angles well,” Canucks coach Travis Green told reporters this week. “Takes away time and space with his skating, especially through the neutral zone and on the rush.

“Originally, you’re probably worried that he’d lose some puck battles in our zone, but a lot of times when you’re playing against top lines, they’re not necessarily the heaviest lines, but some of them are. But he’s also showed that he can adapt to things, he’s been fine in that area.”

The proliferation of the digital world, and expectations of quick stardom, has created unrealistic expectations.

“We have to remember we’re dealing with human beings,” Marek said. “With technology, we get things fast, and things happen fast, and technology gives us unrealistic expectations about things like rebuilds in the NHL because we want things to happen quickly.

“Just because a few guys can walk in right away, not everybody can. It’s supposed to be hard (to reach the NHL).”


Twitter: @tkulfan