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Editor’s Choice: On Filip Zadina, the Blackhawks, & Dan Cleary

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Filip Zadina may have cleared waivers, but it wasn’t what he wanted. Willing to forego the remaining two years of his contract, Zadina is now a free agent. Though I looked at this earlier in the week, the cost has dropped significantly. Would the Chicago Blackhawks want to have any interest in a player who was once projected to be a lethal goal-scorer?

The answer, after some research, is complicated.

Zadina Is Not the Player Detroit Thought He Would Be

There are a lot of factors to this story, but let’s start with why the Red Wings are in as bad of a position as they still are. While many are questioning Steve Yzerman right now, he did not walk into a desirable situation in 2019. In fact, looking back now at Detroit’s first-round choices over the last decade, there aren’t exactly positive returns. So when Zadina fell to the Red Wings at the time, it looked like a huge win. But there were those who wanted the defenseman taken immediately after. Quinn Hughes, it turns out, would have been the right pick.

Hindsight, of course, is flawed in the sense of NHL drafts. It’s easy as hell to look back four to five years later and blast a team for picking one player over another. What I can say, as being heavily invested in what Detroit did in that draft as the rebuild was starting, is that there were few complaints as to the Red Wings choices. By many, it was considered a steal. Hell, Ryan Lambert of Yahoo Sports gave them an A+++++ grade and he’s not even a Detroit fan. Not convinced? Here’s another A+ draft grade.  Third time’s a charm? The Sporting News pegged Zadina as sure-fire can’t miss and Bob McKenzie had him as the fourth best prospect in the draft.

So if there’s ever one draft where Holland deserved a pass, it was here. It was a huge deal and one that everyone expected to work.

Until it didn’t.

Is Zadina More Dan Cleary or Jesse Puljujärvi?

Blackhawks fans of a certain age remember when the Hawks selected Dan Cleary. He was the 13th overall pick but it didn’t come close to working out.  Lo and behold after bouncing around a bit, he settled in Detroit where he became a valuable role player who became a 20-goal scorer.

He even haunted his old team at times in the 2009 Western Conference Final. For Cleary, he attributed it to not being NHL ready on or off the ice. The pressures of what he represented were too much. For that case, Zadina certainly is similar. As the sixth overall pick, he was all but anointed as the scoring machine Detroit lacked and would be once he was up with the team.

But the emphasis on his development was more the 200-foot game instead of just letting him be a sniper. Or at least it’s how it appeared.

Red Wings head coach Derek Lalonde thought he was capable of being a top-six forward, but had him as the 13th forward to start the season. Even former bench boss Jeff Blashill told Zadina not to put all of his “self-worth” into scoring. Back in 2021 when Zadina was all of 21-years-old and a fanbase was getting antsy,  Blashill said this:

“I think he is trying,” Blashill said. “…I think he’s got the capability to be much more than a goal scorer. He can be a give and go type guy and that’s what we are working on.”

So recap, Zadina came into the league wanting to fill the net with pucks, but instead, was evolving into more of a playmaker, two-way player role.

The cautionary tale in all of this would be the Jesse Puljujärvi situation–fourth overall, rushed to Edmonton, and never came close to being the player they envisioned. To me, that’s the more apt comparison at this point. To wit:

  • Jesse Puljujärvi: 334 games played; 51-63-114 (Goals Per Game: .152;  Pts Per Game: .341)
  • Filip Zadina: 190 games played; 28-40-68 (Goals Per Game: .147); Pts Per Game: .357)
  • Dan Cleary with Chicago: 41 games played: 4-5-9 (Goals Per Game: .098; Pts Per Game: .291)
  • Dan Cleary with Detroit: 609 games: 124-151-275 (Goals Per Game: .203; Pts Per Game: .451)

Clearly settled into his spot. Puljujärvi never could and Zadina is seemingly running out of time.

Is It Worth the Blackhawks Time To Take a Chance?

Well, here’s the deal. Cleary signed a PTO in 2005 with Detroit and barely made it out of that camp. But when he did, he made the most of it, and the numbers don’t lie. Now, one other important aspect to point out is that Cleary was on a championship caliber team for his first six seasons in Detroit. As he aged and the team began to crumble, so too, did his numbers.

Puljujärvi certainly had a more advantageous situation being with Connor McDavid. But it still didn’t translate. What about Zadina? He was supposed to be a major piece of Detroit’s rebuild. Perhaps that was an overreach, but on a team like Chicago, who already has Connor Bedard and in theory more help on the way, could he find a role that better suits him?

The pressure wouldn’t be the same, nor would the expectations. Hell, the Blackhawks could give him the NHL minimum. It could be a Cleary like bargain.

But there’s one other caveat. Blackhawks General Manager Kyle Davidson said he was all but done with the roster heading into the season, with maybe, something here or there.  But here’s what he said about the culture they’re trying to build in Chicago:

“I was reading Oliver Moore’s comments about how he said how Connor carries himself has already rubbed off on him and that’s what you want,” Davidson said.  “That’s culture. So you see players come in and they’re already dictating behaviors and positive behaviors, that’s kind of the goal that you seek.

And we’ve got a lot of that in the room over there and it’s a testament to the amateur staff of finding those types of people and making sure we highlight that type of behavior and personality in the players we acquire.”

This is extremely important to read because in the eyes of the beholder, what Zadina did with Detroit could be seen as “courageous” as one analyst described it or as some of the fans have seen it, cowardly. Zadina, in many fans’ eyes, quit on the organization.

Regardless of perspective, Zadina walked away from $4.56M and is essentially betting on himself.

At 23-years old, he’s young enough to still go in the right direction but maybe older enough that he’s had his fill of rebuilds. The risk would be extremely low, not even breaking a million. Zadina would push to have a good season now, and get paid later.

For the Blackhawks, he could be their redo on Dan Cleary.

Or maybe he’d be Puljujärvi 2.0.

But if they think he could be an asset to the culture, even if only for a year, he might very well be worth the risk.