One of the key factors discussed by many around the Devils heading into this season was whether the team could generate more scoring depth than 2017-18. Last season, Taylor Hall did most of the heavy lifting with some assistance from Nico Hischier at evens and Kyle Palmieri on the power play. In order to make their success a bit more sustainable in 2018-19, the team needed another scoring line that it could count on outside of that top trio. A quality checking line centered by Travis Zajac came together about halfway though the season and plenty of other players chipped in contributions here and there, but the Devils lacked a consistent secondary scoring unit they could use to spell the top line and create mismatches.
This season, the Devils were hoping the answer to that problem would be able to come from within. Pavel Zacha, the 2015 sixth-overall pick, was entering his third full season in the NHL and while the raw production and point totals hadn’t arrived yet, he had improved his even-strength output and was hopefully taking steps toward being more of an impact player. The Devils remained quiet in the offseason and didn’t bring in any reinforcements down the middle, so the team’s position (or at least de facto position, based on the lack of any acquisitions) was that Zacha was going to be the one relied on to center a second scoring unit for New Jersey.
Unfortunately, to this point, the Zacha as second-line center configuration continues to sputter, particularly production-wise. The unit, which started as Zacha, Marcus Johansson, and Stefan Noesen, had a couple of solid games out of the gate, putting up good possession numbers with some tough matchups, but has provided little in the way of offensive punch. After a rough game against San Jose on Sunday, Noesen was swapped out for John Quenneville during Tuesday’s game against Dallas. Then, still looking for a spark, the team dressed Drew Stafford on that right wing, again to no avail.
Zacha in particular has now been held without a point over his first five games on just seven shots and, after looking solid in his first two contests, has reverted to a rotation between “invisible” and “bad” in his last three. In last night’s tilt against Colorado, Zacha was largely a non-factor (unless you count a brief fight), and even managed to get partially benched in the third period of a game the Devils were already without a top-nine center for — he had one shift in the final 12 minutes after the Avs tied it at three.
For a player the team hoped would step up this season to become a guy who can consistently impact games, its an inauspicious start. He didn’t need to be a world-beater out of the gate, but given his struggles with producing offense consistently, a goose egg in the points column is discouraging. The possession numbers look okay at the surface, as Zacha is above 50% in CF and SF, but the quality chances have been somewhat limited (he and Johansson, who has had an equally concerning start, are the only two players who are below 50% in high-danger chances). In fairness, the unit as a group was likely hurt by the freak injury off a deflected puck in practice that sidelined Jesper Bratt before the opener, but if the unit with Zacha (and Johansson) is going to be the second line in any meaningful capacity, the team needs it to score.
Zacha has been a bit maligned among fans since his drafting by New Jersey in 2015. At the time, the pick felt like a reach at the number six spot, as a number of more productive and more polished options were available at that point. The Devils took a bet on the tools that Zacha had, though, with the hope that he could put his skill and size together to become a dominant center in the future. That has not happened yet, and as that draft has shaken out to become a fairly stacked bunch, the fear that the Devils whiffed in the midst of a sea of impact players has only grown (Mikko Rantanen, taken 10th in 2015, insisted on rubbing it in with a four-point night versus New Jersey last night).
The Devils can change the 2015 draft no more than they can control the tides or the setting sun at this point, though, so they must hope that their guy can find it eventually. His previous two seasons have had their moments, but the final numbers of 24 and 25 points have left a bit to be desired from the young center (and the underlying numbers are still not fully convinced). This is the central conundrum with Zacha. He is capable of making plays and having games that make you think that big time center is in there. Some of the passes he can make are passes that other players just can’t, and it sometimes feels like if he could just be more assertive, he’d be able to have more tangible impact on games.
At some point though, it becomes harder to believe that flip of the switch is ever coming. Zacha is still just 21 years old and has proven that he’s a capable NHLer at a bare minumum, so the clock certainly has not run out by any means. He’s a great penalty killer and, as mentioned before, he has some definite skill as an offensive player, but there’s a long way between “PK specialist who can occasionally chip in on offense” and being a legit top-six center for a good team. The Devils are hoping that gap can start to get bridged soon, but this season’s start has immediately thrown some cold water on those hopes.
If there is a positive to try to take out of this, it’s that five games do not make a season and there’s plenty of time left for Zacha to start becoming a player who can be looked to to move the needle. You can only wait for something so long before it starts to become a fool’s errand, though. Perhaps a healthy Jesper Bratt coming back in the next week or so will be the shot in the arm the line needs but, at some point, Zacha will have to be an effective enough player to produce in non-ideal situations. The team needs a reliable second option outside of Hall-Hischier-Palmieri to match up with the deeper teams in the league (and especially needs a better performance in the event that Zajac is out for an extended stretch). Without Zacha taking a major step forward at some point, that is unlikely to happen in 2018-19. Thus, while it may be frustrating to continue to play “wait and see” with the young Czech center, the list of other options is limited at this juncture. So with that... we’ll just have to wait and see.