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Filip Zadina exudes quiet confidence as he navigates finding success in AHL

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Everyone remembers one of the first words that came out of Filip Zadina’s mouth after he was drafted sixth overall by the Detroit Red Wings during last summer’s NHL draft.

I’m going to fill their nets with pucks.

The “their,” of course, was in reference to the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Arizona Coyotes, who each passed on the 18-year-old in the draft to select Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Brady Tkachuk and Barrett Hayton, respectively.

And why not? He scored a boatload of goals for the Halifax Mooseheads during his only season in the QMJHL — 44 to be exact and five more during nine playoff games. Not to mention he was projected as a top-three pick, only to be passed on by three teams who decided there were better options available.

So, Zadina began his pro career with a chip on his shoulder, determined to show the teams who passed on him what a big mistake they had made.

That confidence alone was enough to get Red Wings fans giddy, add in the fact it was just the second time since 1991 Detroit has drafted in the top 10, and the expectations for the young Czech soared.

With a youth movement happening in Detroit thanks in part to Henrik Zetterberg‘s early retirement, Zadina had an opportunity to make the Red Wings straight out of training camp.

He had an OK preseason, notching a couple of goals and an assist, but the Red Wings front office felt more comfortable with Zadina beginning his pro career in Grand Rapids. He is, after all, only 18 years old. Only a tiny percentage of players come into the NHL at 18 and find success. The Red Wings thought Zadina would develop better in the AHL.

So all eyes were on Zadina for his first game as a Griffin on Oct. 5 against the Texas Stars.

It was a forgettable debut.

The Griffins managed just one goal in a 3-1 loss, and Zadina didn’t even register a single shot on goal.

Game 2 against the San Antonio Rampage was more of the same, although Zadina registered three shots on goal but still was held without a point.

In Game 3, making his home debut, Zadina gave the more than 10,000 fans at Van Andel Arena something to cheer about — twice.

He scored two goals in a 6-3 win against the Hershey Bears, the team’s first win of the season and Zadina’s first two goals as a professional.

Surely, this would be the beginning of filling more nets with pucks. This would be the emergence of the Red Wings’ first pure goal-scorer since possibly Sergei Fedorov.

But the last six games haven’t produced the results everyone has expected. Zadina has notched just two assists since scoring his first two goals Oct. 12, and that might give some Red Wings faithful pause for concern.

He was, after all, a projected top-three pick, and he’s struggling to score in the AHL. Isn’t he supposed to be filling nets with pucks like he promised?

Well, if you ask Zadina, he isn’t too worried about it.

“I think the goals are coming, it just takes time,” he told Wings Nation after a 3-2 shootout loss to the Iowa Wild on Friday. “I think I’ll be a very good player for pro hockey.”

That confidence is still there, but it’s more of a quiet confidence. He isn’t frustrated with his lack of offensive production, but at the same time, he knows he can be better. The same player that proclaimed he was going to fill NHL teams’ nets with pucks knows he’ll be a good hockey player eventually, even if he isn’t there quite yet.

Zadina registered just one shot against the Wild, but the flashes of brilliance are there. He was shifty with the puck, he made crisp passes, but for those expecting him to break open a game at will, that is going to take some time, and Zadina is perfectly fine with that.

Red Wings fans might not be so fine with that, considering Zadina will be one of the key pieces for Detroit to once again become a playoff contender. But when you consider another high draft pick, Zadina seems to be ahead of the curve.

Alexander Nylander was drafted eighth overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 2016. The brother of William Nylander, Alexander began the 2016-17 season in the AHL with the Rochester Americans, scoring 10 goals and adding 18 assists in 65 games.

Of course, Nylander’s ceiling probably isn’t as high as Zadina’s, but I think the point is just because a player is drafted in the top 10 doesn’t mean they are going to light up the AHL right away. It takes some players longer to develop and figure out how to play against players who bigger, stronger and faster.

Zadina said as much when asked about the differences between playing in junior versus the AHL.

“You play (in junior) against the same age, they were just skinny guys,” he said. “Now, playing way older guys, way stronger than I am. The game is going to be a little faster and stronger. If you can skate with them, if you can be a little faster than them, the game will be easier for you.”

As you can see in the chart below from Prospect-Stats comparing each player’s first year in the AHL, Zadina tops Nylander in nearly every statistical category. Granted, Zadina’s sample size is much smaller than Nylander’s, but overall, Zadina isn’t struggling. His stats are suggesting he’s a strong second-line winger, whereas Nylander graded out as more of a third-line winger.

Courtesy Prospects-Stats

This season, Nylander has nine points in 11 games with Rochester, as he continues to work on his defensive game, something the Buffalo Sabres have wanted him to improve. Defense isn’t an issue for Zadina, so he’s already got a head start there.

New Griffins coach Ben Simon predicted an uphill battle for Zadina before the season began, telling Fox 17, “It’s a young kid learning not only the hockey side of things, it’s being a pro every day. It’s going to be a bit of a learning curve.”

Zadina said the fundamentals are more important at this stage of his career.

“It’s not about the goals or the points, I just want to play good hockey,” he said. “The goals and points will come at some point. … I gotta be patient.”

Red Wings fans will need to be, too.