Let’s go back to 2016. The Detroit Red Wings were in the midst of a playoff push, and injuries were starting to pile up. Given the circumstances, they elected to call-up their prized prospect Anthony Mantha to provide an offensive jolt. During that 10 game audition, Mantha posted three points, averaging under 12 minutes a game.
For the next few seasons, coach Jeff Blashill would answer questions about his usage of Mantha by asserting that Mantha needed to drive his line and not be a “passenger” – he wanted the young forward to earn top-line ice time. After all, his first full season came when he was 22 years old, and it was very obvious at times that he still had plenty to learn.
Fast forward to this season, and Mantha is perhaps the biggest bright spot on a putrid Red Wings’ roster. The 25-year-old has 23 points in 25 games, and the Red Wings’ roster looks inept without him available.
Depending on who you ask, the prized prospect in the Red Wings’ pool is young winger Filip Zadina. Still just 20 years old, he is in the midst of his second pro season, and his second short stint with the Red Wings. During last season’s stint from late February to mid-March, he had three points in nine games.
During that opportunity, Zadina looked frazzled at times. He would shoot for the sake of shooting, and the faster pace of the NHL definitely disrupted his game. When the news came that the Red Wings were summoning him again on Nov. 24, all of Red Wings nation were hoping to see progress out of the native of Pardubice, Czech Republic.
Sure enough, Zadina has looked improved in many areas over the course of five games so far. His two points are both assists, stemming from the fact that he’s looking for open plays more than trying to force one himself. His shot presents a threat on the power play, and he looks genuinely heavier on the puck.
The Blashill Effect
During last night’s media scrum, coach Blashill repeated a sentiment he’s had since Zadina’s first game back up with the Red Wings:
I think Zadina’s played well, he’s played…much better than what he did a year ago. I can’t say to you that he outplayed, you know Fabs (Fabbri) who ended up playing on that top line through the second part of the game. So you know, if he gets into a spot where he’s outplayed the guys, the left and right wingers on there, and I think he can help those lines better than those guys, then he’d play there.Jeff Blashill, 12/2/19
The prime spot for Zadina to slide in would be on the right wing alongside Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi. That spot is currently held down by Luke Glendening, whose five-point output in 19 games suggests that his offense is limited, to say the least. Given that Zadina currently plays alongside the goalless Frans Nielsen and defensive winger Darren Helm, it’s no wonder that Zadina hasn’t produced more (from ‘NHL teams still digging out from 2016 free-agency debacles,’ New York Post, 11/15/2019).
Zadina has flashed next-level skill during his brief time with the Red Wings this season. It seems that he learned from his time in the NHL last season, and he’ll only get better as he continues to play at this level. However, a player like Zadina needs to play with players of a similar skill level in order to be most effective. After all, this is the guy who said it was easier to play in the NHL because the passes were more tape-to-tape. (from ‘Detroit Red Wings’ Filip Zadina explains why he’s more comfortable in NHL,’ Detroit Free Press, 06/29/2019)
Realistically, Zadina is likely destined to return to the American Hockey League’s Grand Rapids Griffins once the Red Wings’ roster heals up. The Griffins should be playoff-bound this season, and that competitive atmosphere will help the development of Zadina and the rest of the Red Wings’ prospects. Winning breeds personal success far more than losing.
That being said, at some point, the Red Wings and Blashill need to let Zadina play. Much like Mantha a few years ago, it doesn’t have to be in a primetime role immediately. Mantha only averaged 15:54 in ice time during his first full season. Since then, his ice time has steadily climbed, and he is now the Red Wings’ most pure offensive threat. If that doesn’t describe Zadina’s potential, nothing else will.
It’s time to take the leash off. Zadina has shown progress during this brief period, but just how much can’t be determined until he plays with players capable of utilizing him as their linemate. In a season where the Red Wings are basement dwellers, it doesn’t hurt to see exactly where he can play on this roster. Nothing sells tickets, jerseys and merchandise like a young kid who shows he belongs.