Filip Zadina wasn't supposed to help in year one. He wasn't really supposed to help in year two, if we're being fair. But by now? By now the Red Wings likely expected more from Zadina, who likely expected more from the Wings.
But here they are, about a third of the way through Zadina's third season in the organization, still searching for a path forward, still wondering when things might change. Which brings us back to the outset of Zadina's first season, when Detroit was still buzzing about his arrival.
“I’m worried about what Zadina looks like at 22,” said then-GM Ken Holland, with the sixth overall pick starting his career in Grand Rapids. “I’m not looking at what Zadina looks like (right now). For us to be a Cup contender down the road ... Zadina’s a big part of it. But not today when he’s 18. Hopefully when he’s 21, 22."
Zadina turned 21 in November. This is one way of reiterating his youth. It's another way of putting his youth into context. He has one goal in 11 games this season, and the Red Wings have four wins in 18 games. They rank last in the league in goals per game for the second year in a row. Their power play hasn't scored since last month.
"It’s hockey," Zadina said Thursday. "There’s lots of ups and downs during the season, and we’re trying to get up from the bottom right now. We’re doing a good job, we just gotta keep going, keep battling. It’s tough for everyone in this organization, I would say. But we want to win, we’re hungry for it, and we’re doing everything we can."
There's truth in all of that, larger truths than Zadina was even suggesting. The Red Wings have been trying to get up from the bottom for the last four years. They lost on Wednesday for the fourth time this season to a longtime rival who met them in the muck and left them there, who sunk later and is rising sooner. That's tough for everyone in the organization.
The Blackhawks have three players from the 2018 draft playing regular minutes in the NHL, including fourth-round pick Philipp Kurashev whose dazzling goal Wednesday stood up as the game-winner and whose nine points and five goals this season would be tied for the team lead in Detroit. The Red Wings have one.
That's not Steve Yzerman's fault, but it's becoming his problem. Where are the goal scorers in this organization? Where are the playmakers up front? It's daunting to consider, but you could argue Detroit's offensive outlook was brighter when Zadina arrived than it is now. Hopes for Lucas Raymond and Jonatan Berggren are dulled by doubts about Evgeny Svechnikov, Michael Rasmussen and ...
... and reservations about Dylan Larkin, who averaged .77 points per game in the 2017-18 season and who's averaged .81 since. And Anthony Mantha, who averaged .30 goals per game in the 2017-18 season and who's averaged .36 since. And Zadina himself, who flashes now and then, but who still looks more like the rookie we saw two years ago than the top-line sniper the Wings want him to become.
Of those five first-round picks, Larkin's the only one who's firmly established in Detroit's future. And even his growth has stalled. Mantha's new contract promises him nothing but his money. Zadina's pedigree promises him nothing but a chance. None of this would have seemed possible in the summer of 2018 when the pieces were falling into place.
The Wings -- if we're being fair -- have tightened up defensively this season, which can at least partly explain the decline in production for Larkin, Mantha and Zadina. They've also been thwarted by bad luck. Shooting percentages for Larkin and Zadina should begin to rise. There's still plenty to like.
It's just that, especially in the case of the two wingers, there's less to like than before. Less to believe in than before. Zadina scored eight goals in 28 games last season. Mantha scored 25 in 67 the season before that. This season, they feel stuck. So does Larkin, who's on the same cusp of stardom hinging on the same essential question -- No. 1 center? -- that he was three years ago.
So the Red Wings are stuck, too.
"Every single game is pretty close. We just can’t score right now," Zadina said. "That’s probably the worst thing that’s chasing us. It’s tough. But I love to be a hockey player, I love to play hockey. It’s not going our way right now, but we just gotta keep believing and keep working hard and we’ll be fine."
We'll see. It's not enough to play sound hockey in the NHL, as the Red Wings have most nights this season. You also need special players to make special plays, like the one Kursahev made on Wednesday. In the fourth full year of Detroit's rebuild, how many special players are on this roster? How many special plays have they made this season?
It's a short answer, and still a long road ahead.