To me, what has gone on with Pavel Zacha this season has been hard to really pinpoint. On the surface, it is easy to say that he has been underwhelming in his first full season for the New Jersey Devils, and there is certainly an argument for that, one that CJ touched on in mid-January. Indeed, 12 points in 45 NHL games, to go along with a 46.6% Corsi rating, is not exactly what anyone was hoping for when he was drafted 6th overall in the 2015 draft. However, when you take some time to really dissect what has been happening this season, to me it is not altogether clear that the situation is entirely disappointing. When looking at some comparisons, and when thinking of a bigger picture, you can begin to see some positive happenings with his season as well. Let’s take a look from both perspectives here today, breaking down some of the arguments for both sides.
The pessimistic side, and the one I would probably say is more outwardly notable, is that his season has really not lived up to the standards that fans were hoping for. At this point in the season, he has a 0.267 point percentage, which is quite poor for someone that the Devils drafted to score points. There were quality defensemen on the board at #6, guys like Ivan Provorov and Zachary Werenski that could currently be providing quality play on the blue line that the Devils desperately need. In fact, it is hard to say that I would take the play of any current Devils defenseman over how Provorov and Werenski have played this year. To even put a little more sting into it, both Provorov and Werenski have more points than Zacha so far, Werenski with 31 and Provorov with 22. I would gladly take either of those as compared to Zacha’s 12.
Furthermore, if you remember right, after Mitch Marner went at #4, the consensus feeling in that draft was that the next batch of forwards were all very similar in potential, and it would be finding the right guy. The Devils had the first crack at that next batch, given that Noah Hanifin went 5th overall. Well, given how some of these guys have played so far in their careers, it seems that the Devils may have not chosen correctly. Specifically, Mikko Rantanen, who went 10th to Colorado, has produced 21 points in 44 games so far. Travis Konecny, who went all the way down at 24th to Philly, has 22 points on the year and a 51.6% Corsi.
Then, if you want to compare how Zacha has done to the best of the draft class, it’s not even a debate. Let’s not even discuss Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, they were projected to be transcendent players, and clearly that is true. The one that really compares poorly is with Marner, who is just raking it for Toronto. His play is nearing a point per game, with 44 in 50, which is better than any Devils skater by a large margin (Taylor Hall leads the team with 35, 9 less than Marner).
These comparisons do not even get at the heart of Zacha’s play with the Devils, which when dissected alone, does not look overly excellent. Despite a definite opening in the top 6 for anyone to take advantage, Zacha has not played well enough to claim that spot as a regular. In fact, he has spent the majority of the season in the bottom 6, mostly on the third line. Over the last 10 games, he has spent almost all of his time being centered by Jacob Josefson on the third line, playing alongside either Stefan Noesen or Beau Bennett. When you look at the entire season, Zacha has not played consistent enough in the mind of John Hynes to really have a permanent position on any line. Of the top 10 line combinations that the Devils have used this year, Zacha is on a grand total of zero of them. While some of that blame can and should definitely fall on the coaching staff for not giving him consistent line mates to develop alongside, some of the onus is also on him to showcase to the coaches that he deserves a consistent spot in the top 6 or even top 9. I mean, 12 points in 45 games, along with a negative relative Corsi despite playing on a very poor possession team, is not very good.
Despite all of what I just said, however, there is optimism to look at from this season so far. The biggest point of optimism, and one that is not at all negligible in my mind, is that at least he has been decent enough to play the entire year with the big club. His stats may not be great, his enhanced numbers may not be great, but he has shown enough to tell the coaching staff that even if they cannot find a consistent spot for him, he deserves to have some sort of spot in New Jersey. This is in stark contrast to some of the other skaters drafted around him in his draft class. While I mentioned a couple others who have greatly outperformed him this year, there are way more forwards who have not even showcased enough yet to be playing in the NHL.
The biggest positive comparison for Zacha in this category is against Dylan Strome, the 3rd overall pick. Despite also playing on a bad NHL team (Arizona), he was sent down after only 7 games in the desert, playing the rest of the season so far up in the OHL for the Erie Otters. Timo Meier, 9th overall to San Jose that year, is up with the club now, but spent 18 games in the AHL first, and since his call up, has only 4 points in 21 games (although he does have a dominant Corsi, something Zacha does not, so that comparison may be somewhat equalized). Lawson Crouse, 11th overall pick to Florida, has played the entire season with Arizona after being traded in the offseason, but he has even less points than Zacha does. He is rocking 8 points over 47 games played in the desert, and with an even worse 45.6 Corsi. The player that most of us wanted here at AATJ (at the time ILWT), Mathew Barzal, played only 2 games for the Islanders this year before being sent back to the WHL. And there are other forwards, like Barzal, who have not really even tasted NHL action, including Denis Guryanov (12th overall, Dallas), Jake DeBrusk (14th overall, Boston), Zachary Senyshyn (15th overall, Boston), and so on. Most of these guys were considered to be in a similar tier to Zacha on draft day, and went not long after him, but they are currently not getting experience cutting their teeth at the NHL level like Zacha is, and that should be a huge benefit to him that these other skaters don’t yet have.
Also, when compared to other Devils of the past who turned into quality forwards, Zacha’s numbers as a 19 year old are nothing to be disappointed in. The most obvious comparison would be to fellow countryman Patrik Elias. Elias did not even play in his age 19 season, seeing action in only 1 NHL game that year. It took until his age 21 season for him to see a full slate of games, and that year he had 37 points in 74 games, a half point per game. Zacha may not be on that pace yet, but he has two years, and I would put money on the fact that in two years, if his progression continues at a positive rate, he will be outperforming 0.5 ppg when he is 21. Similarly to Elias, Zach Parise did not play in New Jersey until his age 21 season, and he scored even less that Elias did, 32 points in 81 games for a 0.395 ppg average. With a hot streak this year, Zacha could beat that percentage this season. I don’t even need to mention Zacha against the likes of Josefson or Mattias Tedenby either, there is no comparison there.
I understand perhaps the desire to want him to perform at the level that someone like Petr Sykora did, dropping 42 points in 63 games as a 19 year old for the Devils in 95-96, but that is definitely the exception, not the norm. Zacha may not be lighting the lamps regularly, may not have a regular top 6 role, may not be a strong possession player at this point in his career, but the simple fact is that he is playing well enough to gain experience playing on a nightly basis in the NHL, not for Sarnia in the OHL. If he is playing at the same level next season, I would absolutely understand the feelings of discontent that the Devils squandered another first round pick (what else is new), but that is far from the case at this point. He is playing regularly, logging quality minutes, gaining great experience, and doing it all as a 19 year old with many years to improve.
So there you have it, both sides of the Zacha conundrum. I can definitely see both sides of the argument, and I am not sure what side I fall on more. As I was writing the pessimism side I felt strongly for it, then I wrote the optimism side next and now I feel more strongly for that one. That is what makes it so interesting; the jury is out so far on what to make of Zacha this year, at least in my opinion. What is your opinion? Do you fall on the pessimism side of the argument, or the optimism side? Why do you fall on that side? What other arguments did I miss for either side? Please join the debate by leaving your comments below, and thank you for reading.