I wrote an article about the Detroit Red Wings possible first-line combination of Tyler Bertuzzi, Dylan Larkin, and Jakub Vrana on Aug. 15. The feedback I got was pretty positive, but one thing kept being brought up by the readers. What happened to Filip Zadina? Why not him instead of Bertuzzi on the top line? It’s a totally fair question to ask, and I believe it’s important to listen to what those who are reading your content are saying, so that’s what I’m going to do.
Zadina Is a Threatening Presence Offensively
The Red Wings clearly have trouble putting the puck in the net. In the 2020-21 season, their leading point-getter was Filip Hronek, who scored only two goals and 26 points in 56 games as a defenseman. The second-place finisher in the points column was Larkin, with 23 points in 44 games. Zadina placed fifth on the team with 19 in 49 games, playing slightly above 16 minutes a night. It’s hard to be confident about those numbers, but he did improve his play by the eye test. As much as relying on only the eye test can be flawed, it’s clear he is slowly starting to develop into the player we all know he can be.
Zadina’s confidence and maturity level on both ends of the ice has clearly grown. It’s important to understand that, while he may not have the greatest box score and analytical numbers, knowing you can beat players to the puck is vital at this stage of a young player’s career. The biggest tangible thing I noticed was his passing ability. He was patient with the puck and understood that finding the right lane might take some creativity. A minus-3 percent finishing impact from him as an individual and the team converting on 14.3 fewer goals than expected per Micah Blake McCurdy (HockeyViz) won’t help his numbers at all, which may contribute to some hesitancy from fans.
Zadina with Larkin and Vrana Was an Excellent Combination
When looking at Evolving-Hockey‘s Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM) charts, you might be baffled at how awful Zadina’s looks. The common narrative among newbie analytics users is “red is bad, blue is good,” which, on the surface, is true. However, when you dive deeper and understand that the eye test and analytics are important, you tend to stray away from that surface-level analysis.
In Zadina’s case, there is still a lot to say about what he can do, especially with the two players that are most likely to be his linemates. Although 16:52 is a tiny sample for a line, it’s clear that he connected with them in that frame. A Corsi-For percentage (CF%) above 50 is above average. The combination of Larkin, Zadina, and Vrana had a 70.83 CF% per Natural Stat Trick. Of course, Corsi isn’t the best metric to judge how good a line is, but understand that, although they don’t take control over many high-danger chances, the goals will come.
The only player out of these three to have an above-average finishing impact was Vrana. Per HockeyViz, he had a plus-7 percent on the season with both Washington and Detroit. It may seem high, but I wouldn’t fret. His career average for that stat is 2.8, but over the last three seasons, his average is 6%. I’m more inclined to believe the last three seasons over his entire career, primarily because his first two seasons weigh him down. Both Larkin and Zadina shot below average last season per the model, which means they’re primed for a bounce back. Heck, Larkin had 32 goals three seasons ago, and Zadina scored at almost a point per game in the AHL in 2019-20, and when he was on loan to HC Ocelari Trinec in the Czech league in 2020-21.
Why I Didn’t Put Zadina on the Top Line
Zadina will be an integral part of the Red Wings forward core in the future. He has developed his confidence, and the shooting numbers will turn around eventually. However, there are some reasons that I chose Bertuzzi over him, at least to begin the season. The first reason is the way he plays the game. Bertuzzi is someone that brings a lot of edge to a top line. Having three skilled players on a top line is one thing, but having three skilled players who also bring sandpaper is another. Considering Larkin’s last season with the team, having someone like Bertuzzi that can make an individual impact everywhere on the ice could help him regain some confidence.
The second reason is I would be interested to see him take a few games to play with one of the newest Red Wings, Pius Suter. Bertuzzi and Larkin already have established chemistry, which helped me make my decision for the lineup. However, a new chance with a newcomer might not be the worst thing in the world, especially considering how fun Suter is to watch skate and deliver the puck. Having two skilled playmakers, including one with a missile of a shot, might not be the worst thing in the world in terms of depth at the start of the season.
All in all, there were some reasons for not putting him on the first line with those two guys. Of course, I can completely understand your point of view if you believe Zadina should be there over Bertuzzi. After looking over his numbers and film, I certainly wouldn’t be opposed. Although, it is important to note that Bertuzzi barely had time to prove himself last year, so putting him with someone he already has chemistry with could be instrumental in getting his confidence back. Either way, the Red Wings’ top line is in good hands for the next few years.
Jeff is a consistent source for Red Wings and Wild content at The Hockey Writers. He was formerly a member of the Predators writing team, and he enjoys watching all sorts of hockey, from juniors to the pros. Jeff enjoys playing for his high school and local teams in Nashville as well. He’s a big proponent of hockey analytics, and you’ll often see him using lots of statistics and data to back up his main talking points. You can find his work here or check out his contributions on his Substack, Last Word on Hockey, On the Forecheck, and Puck Empire. Lastly, you can listen to him on the Youth Movement Podcast presented by On the Forecheck or the Triple Shift Podcast. For any inquiries about interviews or questions about statistics, analytics, or just general hockey opinions, you can message his Twitter, @jjmid04.