GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — After scoring just one goal in his first six games of the 2019-20 season, anxiety started to set in among some of the Grand Rapids Griffins faithful for winger Filip Zadina. As a sixth overall pick just one year ago, he should be dominating the AHL, right?
Well, coach Ben Simon doesn’t necessarily think so, as he preached patience for his young players, noting the AHL is a tough league to score in. Obviously, it’s not as hard as the NHL, but it’s not as if the AHL is full of a bunch of beer leaguers, either.
Since those first six games, Zadina has recorded five points (3-2—5), including a power-play goal in a 4-1 win against the Toronto Marlies on Friday at Van Andel Arena, in his last seven games. While it’s not necessarily domination in the eyes of some, it’s consistency for a young player who can be quite streaky.
Simon also noted points are not the only way to evaluate a prospect, even though that’s what most fans use to gauge success or lack thereof. He mentioned playing well away from the puck and putting himself in position to find loose pucks, which is exactly how he scored Friday. Matt Puempel ripped a shot from the right faceoff dot, but it missed wide, coming back to Zadina on the left side near the crease. The 19-year-old was able to jam the puck in despite being dwarfed by three Marlies defenders.
“He’s gotta get to those hard areas,” Simon told Wings Nation of what he would like to see from Zadina. “I think he can still do that on a more consistent basis. But the goal he scored tonight was stopping in front of the net, and there was a puck right there. It was a hard-to-get-to area. It takes time for a young kid to realize that the more you go to the net, the apter you are probably to score.”
FINAL – Griffins 4, Marlies 1
— Grand Rapids Griffins (@griffinshockey) November 9, 2019
Year 2 can be a tough year for a young prospect. Dylan Larkin suffered the dreaded sophomore slump, scoring 32 points in 80 games after scoring 45 in his rookie season. And while it’s obviously too early to label Zadina’s second season as a slump, he said he knows always improving will be key.
“I just want to play good hockey and earn a spot here and especially in Detroit,” he said.
Griffins honor Bill LeRoy
On Nov. 1, Griffins video coach Bill LeRoy died unexpectedly when the team was in Manitoba to play the Moose. Before the game Friday, the Griffins honored LeRoy with a video tribute and a moment of silence. LeRoy was in his 18th year as video coach of the Griffins. He was 56.
Simon said he knew LeRoy for the past five years, even before his time as an assistant coach with the Griffins.
“It’s tough when you lose a close friend and you lose someone that you work long hours with,” he said. “It’s going to take time to make sure we are remembering him for all the right reasons. We’ll honor his memory by coming to work every day like he would have.
“He’s just a kind spirit, and he cared about the Griffins. He didn’t miss a game in 18 years. He lived for this. As much as he meant to our group, the guys meant a lot to him, too. It was a two-way street. He’s gonna be missed, but we’ll remember him.”
Goalie Calvin Pickard only knew LeRoy for about six weeks but noticed his impact in the locker room as a loveable person.
“We wanted to win one for Billy,” he said. “You saw everybody’s heart and soul poured out on the ice tonight in front of a good crowd. Billy would be proud.”
Smith anxious for return to Detroit
Givani Smith scored Friday, his first goal for the Griffins since returning from a three-game stint with the Red Wings. Like Zadina’s goal, it wasn’t flashy, but it was about being in the right place at the right time, as a Matthew Ford shot bounced right to Smith’s stick, who fought off a defender to score his third goal of the season.
The 21-year-old did not record a point with the Red Wings, but he now has three goals and four points in nine games with the Griffins.
“It was exciting, it was pretty fun,” Smith said of his time in Detroit. “A little bitter taste in my mouth going back down, but it’s just how the process is.”
Getting that first call-up can be a whirlwind for players, but Smith said the most memorable part of the experience was seeing his dad Gary get some screen time on Fox Sports Detroit’s broadcast Oct. 25.
“Seeing my dad talk on the big screen, that was pretty cool,” Smith said. “Just the love he had for me to notice how hard I worked to get up there. He had a smile; (to get) some face time on TV was something really special to me.”
— FOX Sports Detroit (@FOXSportsDet) October 26, 2019
While many players say the speed of the game is the biggest difference between the AHL and the NHL, Smith said, for him, it was chemistry.
“Guys (are in the NHL) for five to 10 years, and they play with the same players.” he said. “They know every players’ tendencies and stuff like that.”
Smith’s future status with the Red Wings certainly isn’t set in stone. Unfortunately for him, the Red Wings have a lot of depth guys filling the role Smith would fill. Granted, one of them, Jacob de La Rose, just got traded, but Smith will be facing an uphill battle to secure a full-time spot with the Red Wings.
Simon said the key for a return to Detroit for Smith — and the rest of the prospects — is consistency.
“I thought he played very well tonight, I thought he managed the puck well, held onto pucks down low, drew a penalty, scored a goal,” Simon said. “That might have been his best game as a Griffin. He’s gotta take that, bottle it up, drink it tonight and bring it back (Saturday) and do it again.
“Again, with these young players, anyone can do it for a game or two at a time, it’s gotta be done on a consistent basis. Play to your role as best you can and compete and dominate like that on a regular basis. That’s when you play yourself out of this league.”
Smith is hoping his next call-up will be permanent.
“Yeah, I’m pretty anxious (to return), but I know I’m still a young player and there’s still things that I can improve on,” he said. “Next time I go up there, I just want to stay there.”