Now a quarter of the way through the season, the Devils still sit near the top of the Metropolitan Division and are playing some exciting hockey. Among the biggest storylines to come out of this season thus far have been the great starts for many of the young Devils who are leaving their mark 21-games in. First overall pick Nico Hischier, college free agent pickup Will Butcher, and sixth-round surprise Jesper Bratt have all had a major hand in the Devils’ early success with stretches of good and even great play. Through all of that, one young player stands out thus far as a significant disappointment, though: second-year Czech forward Pavel Zacha.
Zacha, a sixth-overall pick from 2015, is now in his second full season in New Jersey. His first season in 2016-17 was, at times, a little underwhelming but ultimately he seemed to improve in the second half and had an okay year for a 19-year-old player thrust into a lousy NHL lineup. Coming into 2017-18, Zacha was expected to take a step forward toward becoming a true NHL factor and in a successful preseason where he was featured on the team’s top line for a lot of the time, it seemed like he might be able to do just that. In truth, Zacha was among the main list of reasons to think the Devils were going to be better this season, with him being penciled into a new-and-improved core group for the top six. With the Devils now 21 games into the campaign, that step forward has yet to come and, if anything, things might be headed in reverse for the young forward.
A look at Zacha’s statistical season thus far does not paint the most encouraging picture. A glance at his standard counting stats show a player, not necessarily unfairly, who is not making much of a mark on the scoreboard to this point. In the 17 games he has appeared in thus far, Zacha has just 2 goals and 3 assists for 5 total points. And it’s not as if he’s been particularly snakebitten; Zacha has only managed 20 shots on goal in those 17 games, meaning that hes shooting a perfectly reasonable 10%. Both of the goals he does have came in the Devils’ third game of the season against Toronto, meaning we’re now a month and a half and 14 appearances removed from the last time he found the back of the net. Making this more glaring is the fact that Zacha hasn’t really taken up the role of playmaker in the midst of that lack of goal-scoring punch. Where many other Devils have felt impactful at times even without finding the scoresheet, there are long stretches of games where you might not be positive that Zacha is even playing.
To push forward the point about his struggles to make an impact, the underlying numbers aren’t all that friendly for Zacha, either. Via Natural Stat Trick, Zacha is 13th out of 14 Devils forwards with 100 5v5 minutes in CF% at 43.7. Following from that, he is also 12th out of 14 in SF% and 11th out of 14 in the share of scoring chances with him on the ice. Combining these underlying numbers with his lack of offensive contribution, the coaches’ decisions to reduce his ice time and even healthy scratch him for a stretch of games make some definite sense.
At just 20 years of age, though, it’s hard to say anyone should be writing him off at this point. The Devils do need to figure out the best way to get him going for his sake and for theirs, but it’s definitely not too late for Zacha to come around. Plus, digging into the statistics a little more, there are a few mitigating points to be found in there. For one, despite the other poor possession numbers, Zacha is actually sailing along at a very strong 55.6% in high-danger scoring chances at 5v5, which actually leads all forwards with 100 minutes. Also, even though his assist numbers overall are underwhelming, he is actually tied for third in forward primary assists per 60 at 5v5 despite his inconsistent deployment. That is admittedly undercut somewhat by his last-place goals per 60 among Devils forwards in the same state, but it’s at least a positive to point to. And from an eye-test perspective, there are certainly times when Zacha makes an impressive play and you can point and say “that’s what we need from him.” The problem again is that those moments aren’t coming often enough.
What is the Plan?
The question for the Devils at this point continues to be how to get Zacha going to become a consistent contributor for the team. As was the case when he was drafted, the Czech forward remains a series of ‘tools’ that haven’t yet coalesced into a complete player. My instinct at this point is to send him to Binghamton where he can focus on putting together his game and fulfilling his potential, rather than worry about the day-to-day pressures of making an impact and staying in the lineup.
What I don’t think is likely to be helpful is the way the team has utilized him over the past couple weeks, with him being a healthy scratch for three straight games after actually finding the scoresheet in Chicago and then playing 10 minutes or less after drawing back in. If he isn’t going to put in a spot to make an impact, the Devils should reconsider whether it makes sense to even have him in the NHL right now. He is still ineligible for waivers, so now that he’s 20 and beyond the clutches of the CHL-AHL agreement, there is nothing restricting his movement to the A to find his game. I’m not saying that is a perfectly ideal scenario, but it strikes me as better for a player’s development than healthy scratches and 10 minutes of play on jumbled up lines in New Jersey.
However, with the injury to Kyle Palmieri once again cutting into the Devils NHL depth, the team may feel that that option is off the table for the time being. At the very least, though, I think he needs to see the ice in the NHL if he is destined to stay up. If the team wants him to find his game, they have to know that him languishing in the scratch suite is unlikely to get him there. Even if conditions aren’t ideal, hopefully, Zacha can start to put it all together sometime soon. One has to hope that the message has been received with his reduced time over the past couple weeks and he will maybe find some energy and a role he can thrive in on the ice. And if he doesn’t, sooner or later, the question will start to become not when he will put it together for the Devils, but if he can at all.