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Projecting Pavel Zacha

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The New Jersey Devils selected Pavel Zacha 6th overall in the 2015 NHL Draft and it appears that he will be a member of the big club sooner rather than later. Today we look at how Zacha’s game has evolved, as well as where he could play and who he could play with.

Toronto Maple Leafs v New Jersey Devils Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

While he only appeared in one (throwaway) game for our New Jersey Devils last season, young prospect Pavel Zacha made a strong impression in his NHL debut. His 2 assists were the final product of the evening, the stat line doesn’t show all of the excellent plays that Zacha made as well as how good his positioning and all-around play was. The decision to send Pavel back to juniors before the season began last year seems to have paid dividends, as he looked much more comfortable and dominant on the ice against the Toronto Maple Leafs than he did in any of his preseason appearances.

For the Devils to continue progressing as a team, Zacha will need to take the next step in his development; at this point, I don’t think he has any developing left to do with the OHL’s Sarnia Sting, so it’s New Jersey or bust for 2016-17. If the team believes Zacha is best suited as a center, he more than likely begins the season on the 3rd line behind Adam Henrique and Travis Zajac; he may move up as the season progresses, but I don’t think the coaching staff will want to break up the Zajac/Palmieri duo and unless Pavel dominates the entire league, he won’t displace Henrique from his spot.

If they believe he best fits as a left winger, the situation gets blurrier; with Taylor Hall a virtual lock for the top line, the Devils will also be able to choose from Michael Cammalleri, Reid Boucher, Joseph Blandisi and, if he returns, Patrik Elias on the left. In this case, either Patty or Cam would more than likely be in the 3C slot and Zacha either plays on that wing or Zajac’s wing. The Devils would have a lot of parts they could swap in and out in order to find the most effective combinations, but I think a lot of what happens depends on training camp.

2015-16: Less Than a Cup of Coffee

Zacha will need to have a much stronger training camp this season than he did last season; granted, he is now a more polished player than he was prior to 2015-16, but there’s still a large number of left shooting forwards pushing for a spot in New Jersey this season. When he was drafted, the idea of taking Zacha so high was contested among Devils fans; I personally liked the pick with what I had seen of Pavel up to that point but realized at the same time that he wasn’t going to be an immediate solution to the Devils offensive woes.

Flash forward to the 2015-16 preseason and in the limited number of preseason games that were broadcast on TV, I had at least one eye glued to Zacha each time he went over the boards. What I saw was a tentative player that looked afraid to make even the smallest of errors on the ice; Zacha looked exactly like what he was: a rookie. Pavel didn’t even get a 10 game cup of coffee in the NHL as many prospects who are drafted high in the first round do; he was simply sent back to Sarnia to grow his game.

Grow his game he did; Zacha came to New Jersey for the aforementioned Toronto game at the Prudential Center. The difference between that game and the preseason was night and day; Zacha exuded confidence; he showed excellent play making ability and came close to potting a goal or two as well. Now I know some fans will say that it was against a skeleton crew Maple Leafs team, but to be fair was it any worse than an opposing team’s preseason lineup? It’s not as though we were icing an all-star team either, as we still had a mostly scrub-tacular bottom six that night.

Pavel went on to contribute 6 points (2 goals and 4 assists) in 8 AHL games spanning the end of the regular season and the playoffs before an injury (later revealed to be a hip pointer) ended his season early.

2016-17: Higher Expectations

So let’s assume the best: Zacha comes in, dazzles in the preseason, and makes the opening night roster. I will assume that due to his familiarity with the position from juniors, Pavel starts the season as the 3C; not only does this leave him in a familiar spot, but also being on the third scoring line means there’s no pressure to be an immediate contributor in the goal column.

His line will need a stabilizing veteran presence; if Elias returns, it more than likely is his spot. Otherwise, I think Cammalleri makes the most sense to play next to Zacha; it gives him a legit scorer to pass to as well as filling the veteran quota. If the Devils don’t make any further additions, and Palmieri remains with Zajac, then either Beau Bennett or Devante Smith-Pelly would wind up on Pavel’s other side, which would add another layer to that line depending on which player it is.

We’ve talked the subject to death here at All About the Jersey, but I’ll reiterate once more that the Devils’ depth scoring last season could be summed up as atrocious. Giving a talented youngster like Zacha some good wingers to work with could wind up doing wonders to start his NHL career; even if he only contributes a modest 30 points in a 3rd line role (possibly with some 2nd power play unit time), I would consider it a huge success which could push the Devils back towards relevance. If he underwhelms, then we have a problem because the only thing the team could do would be to return him to Sarnia and again I just feel as though Zacha has nothing left to learn at that level; I believe he is not AHL eligible this season, but someone please correct me if I’m wrong.

Your Take

Now I’d like to hear your thoughts on Pavel Zacha joining the New Jersey Devils; is this the year that he joins the roster full time? Do you think he needs to have a stronger training camp than he did last year? Which line do you see him playing on if he makes the team? Who do you see playing alongside him? Do you have high expectations for Zacha as I do? Do you have higher or lower expectations? Leave any and all comments below and thank you as always for reading!