Until recently, Filip Zadina being selected in the top three of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft was nearly as certain as Rasmus Dahlin being first off the board. With mere days to go before Trevor Timmins steps to the podium to announce the Montreal Canadiens’ choice, the Czech import’s status is now in question.
The rise of other candidates has led to much uncertainty at the position where the Canadiens will select. This after the majority of rankings would have shown a clear gap in talent after third just months, and in some cases weeks, ago.
It is becoming more common for other draft eligibles to take Zadina’s spot at third in mock drafts, though it likely has nothing to do with Zadina himself. The scoring winger is still the top-end prospect he was in January, but scouts are now seeing value in his contemporaries that may have eluded them earlier in the year.
While the presence of Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Quinn Hughes at positions of need will make the decision difficult for a Habs brass that may now be dealing with a number of options, for some it goes back to Occam's razor: when presented with competing solutions, the simpler option tends to be the better one.
There’s no denying the surge up the rankings we have seen from Kotkaniemi. The Finnish pivot would address a need down the middle that is even greater in the wake of last week’s trade of a roster player who had played the position. Hughes could patrol a left side that lacks high-end talent as well as depth. Brady Tkachuk may be the more impressive physical player. The point is, there are few bad choices at third overall, but one has to be best.
For much of the year, “best” was unanimous, and it was Zadina.
It’s hard to say whether Timmins and the Canadiens’ scouting staff would agree with that sentiment, but we do know that his team intends to draft the best player available regardless of position, as he stated at the Scouting Combine.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable for his staff to conclude that another player is, in fact, the best available. Regardless, there’s a reason Zadina has been near the top of the charts all season long, and plenty of evidence to suggest he remains the best draft-eligible outside of Dahlin and Andrei Svechnikov.
With an arsenal chock full of offensive tools, Zadina represents one of the more intimidating scoring threats in the draft. Opinions differ, but depending on who you ask he possesses the best shot in the class; a result of his deceptively quick release paired with deadly accuracy. That scoring touch helped him record 44 goals and 82 points in the 57 games for the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads this past season, his first on North American ice.
Zadina impressed internationally as well. Scoring at a goal-per-game rate with eight points total in seven appearances at the World Junior Championship, only Martin Necas had more points on a Czech team that finished fourth in the tournament.
Zadina is a dynamic skater who uses that to his advantage in creative ways. Though others may be quicker to their top speed, Zadina has great agility which allows him to create separation. He can beat defenders one on one, is able to make quick cuts while maintaining control, and is in constant motion around the ice, not often failing to find space for himself.
This is an important aspect, as Timmins also noted in his scrum at the Scouting Combine that the Canadiens would be focusing on bringing in good skaters who can play at a high pace. It won’t be the singular deciding factor, of course, but Zadina is a talented mover and would likely hold the edge in the category over Kotkaniemi, if those are the two players you’re zeroing in on.
The key to Zadina’s game, aside from his shot, is his puck control. His hands leave nothing to be desired, as he may have more skill with the puck on his stick than the vast majority of his peers. This manifests itself in his ability to dance around opponents, but also in his puck protection.
While he may not be the strongest physical specimen at the draft, as evidenced by his underwhelming performance at the Scouting Combine, it hardly holds him back, as few players are as good at maintaining possession of the puck and bringing it to dangerous areas.
His blend of puck skills and skating ability complement his tendency to carry the puck into the offensive zone with control - an attribute the Habs’ will be in greater need of now, after having moved on from Alex Galchenyuk, who was perhaps the team’s most effective puck-carrier.
McKeen’s’ Michael Sanderson has proposed Zadina is not only a better shooter, but also a better skater than Nico Hischier. The two have followed similar development paths, and last year’s number-one selection tallied 52 points in his rookie season with the New Jersey Devils. If that isn’t an exciting prospect for a Canadiens roster struggling to score, nothing is.
Zadina has mostly managed to hold down his position in the top three, though it has become increasingly likely that a given list or mock draft may have him further down. There may be less separating him from those around him than previously thought, but there’s no denying the skill and production that has had him right in the mix with those ranked above him for much of the year.
The reasons for Timmins and co. to make Zadina their selection are numerous. The draft is never a guarantee, and it’s an enormous risk to take players who will still require more development elsewhere when there is one who, by all acounts, could step into an NHL top-six still available.
The winger could immediately replace many of the things the Canadiens lost in dealing Galchenyuk for more of a playmaker in Max Domi. Zadina’s comfort level with the puck on his stick is reminiscent of Galchenyuk’s, and he may very well have a higher offensive ceiling.
One could easily argue that the swap made the need down-the-middle even greater. You’d drum up a lot of support for that assessment, but I would suggest that in the mind of Marc Bergevin, the Habs have as many centremen today as they did at the end of the season.
Other names have been linked to the Canadiens more often, true. Also true is that Zadina has mostly stagnated in the rankings while those around him have seen their stock rise. That’s hard to fault Zadina for, though, as he was never going to be able to move much higher than where he had been.
We must, then, be cautious about over-hyping those who have risen so quickly over the past month or so, because while scouts’ excitement for them grows, we’ve known what Zadina can bring for a long time, and may instead be focusing only on his shortcomings while ignoring those of others.
It is worth noting that Timmins suggested the club will not be looking for a quick fix but rather the player who will be best down the road. A throw-away line, maybe, but by all accounts Zadina is the player most NHL-ready in his tier. The club may be concerned there isn’t much improvement left in this player, which could explain why the gap between he and his peers seems to be slowly closing, though that’s purely conjecture.
While left wing is not a position the Canadiens are hurting for, the greatest need of all on this team may not be any one position in particular - especially not when an 18-year-old is the one filling it. The greatest need for this team is game-breaking talent, and if Zadina has anything going for him, it’s that.
Views from across SB Nation
“He has a pro shot, and plays a two-way game.” - [The Cannon]
“Zadina uses his speed, puck skills, and creative hands to dazzle and produce in the offensive zone” - [Winging It In Motown]
“He has a knack for finding the open areas of the ice and doesn’t need much room to get shots off.” [Blueshirt Banter]
“He isn’t going to wow you with straight-line speed, but his balance and strength on the puck is elite.” [Canes Country]
“Few players in this draft, if any, have the kind of on-puck ability that Zadina has.” [Broad Street Hockey]
Read more on the draft-eligible prospects in SB Nation’s draft hub.
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