At the start of the season, there were a few guys who were able to make the New Jersey Devils’ opening night roster that many believed may have been sent down prior to October 13th. Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, Blake Speers and Steven Santini were all players who could be sent down early on and not have a year of the ELCs burned. Nine games into the season and Santini never even saw the ice for New Jersey, and both Wood and Speers played a couple games before being sent back to their respective clubs (Albany and the Soo Greyhounds). Zacha, however, has played in every game so far for the Devils, and it has been noted that John Hynes has no plans to send him down anytime soon, meaning that this year will be the first of his three year entry level contract.
The Devils did this with Stefan Matteau. During the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, he played in 17 games for the big club, which was just enough to burn a year off his ELC. At the time, that move was highly criticized by most fans, as if you’re going to burn a year off the contract, at least play him regularly with the Devils, don’t then send him down a few games later. Had they sent him down a couple weeks earlier, the contract would’ve stayed intact.
With Zacha, however, the feeling is quite the opposite, and for more than one reason. The biggest, most important, and most obvious reason, however, is that Zacha is a way better player than Matteau was as a teenager, and it is not really close. Pavel may have only gotten his first goal on Thursday night in Sunrise, but he has been noticeable on the ice in a positive way for most of the 9 games played so far. This is true despite the fact that John Hynes has constantly switched up the top 9 positions, changing combinations often in order to find a spark when it comes to 5 on 5 scoring. Zacha has moved from a top like position with Taylor Hall down to a third line position with Beau Bennett and Devante Smith-Pelly, and others in between. And it has not really mattered, as when #37 is out on the ice, you can tell that he is busting his butt out there regardless of who else is out there with him, and this has led to good things happening.
This is the brunt of the argument that I want to make today. There are obvious positives that Zacha brings to the NHL club as opposed to playing down in Sarnia. He infuses the team with youth and the energy that comes with that, he fills a need up the middle that is not really found with anyone else, and he has the offensive ability and desire to both fire the puck on net when needed and also dish the puck to generate offense. But perhaps as important as those facts are that he is a flexible player and movement up and down the forward lines does not seem to shake him.
Zacha started out the season in Florida playing alongside Jacob Josefson, who was not even in the lineup on Thursday night. PA Parenteau was also on that line, and it generated the only goal for the Devils that night. Yet they were instantly split, and in Tampa two nights later he was centering DSP and Bennett. That trio on the third line has worked well, especially on Thursday night when I felt it was very visible in a positive way. While that has been a common line, it has not always stayed together. Starting with the game against Minnesota on 10/22, Zacha began playing with Hall and Kyle Palmieri, and boy was that fun to watch. Hall has a gear that no one else has on this team, but if anyone were to be close, I would have to say it’s Zacha. They seemed to be in sync from the beginning, and watching them try to generate offense together was very fun. It was also highly successful, as Zacha assisted Hall on multiple goals during their time together.
After a couple games together, however, Hynes decided to move Zacha back to a third line center role, where he has mostly stayed with Bennett and DSP, although he has had some non-insignificant time with PA as well. Now, one may argue that Zacha would be better with Hall where the dynamic duo could theoretically play together for the next decade and both be extremely successful together. That is a tempting thought for sure. Others may claim that he should stay where he is now, as this line of Zacha, Bennett and DSP has played well together and makes the third line formidable. The Devils have not rolled out three solid lines in what seems like years, but they make that possible. But perhaps the best argument for the Devils’ sake, and definitely for Zacha’s value, is that he could be in either position and probably still succeed. He has proven already that whether he is on the first line or third line, he does well. You would also assume positive production from him in the second line given that knowledge, and he obviously has too much talent to be playing fourth line minutes to even consider that. And therein lays perhaps his biggest value to this team: he is not someone that has to be locked into one role to succeed. Play him anywhere in the top 9 and he makes this team better. Period.
Of course, there are the other positives that I have mentioned as well. He is a plus offensively. He plays with a speed that most Devils do not have. He gives it 110% on seemingly every shift. He is not a defensive liability, which is especially vital in any Devils’ system. But these positives are all also encompassed in the flexibility argument. Those things all matter, and because he is also flexible, he can do those things on any line with most any line mates. Yes some are better than others, but no matter what he is still going to give you a positive game on most nights, regardless. That is a great thing to have from a 19 year old who should be around for a long time. The Devils did not draft someone who needs the right circumstances to succeed (Michael Ryder is someone that comes to mind that fits that bill). He will succeed within the circumstances he is given, and that is awesome to see.
To this end, it was a no brainer to keep him up and not send him back to juniors, as I mentioned before. This was not the Matteau situation, and I fully expect Zacha to remain an NHL regular this season and for many years beyond. His play so far, while not the largest sample to be sure, is hopefully indicative of what’s to come for his time here in New Jersey.
What are your thoughts about this? If you had to say what you think the biggest positive is about having Zacha around, what would you say? Would you go with his offensive capabilities, his speed, his work ethic, or his versatility? As you have watched him to start this season, what have you thought about his game, and do you feel good that he is not being considered to be sent back to juniors? Where do you think he should be playing more often, on the top line with Hall or centering the third line with the likes of DSP and Bennett? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.