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What to Make of the Zacha Demotion

So you probably heard, but yesterday Pavel Zacha was sent down to the AHL to get his game right. What should we think about this, and how should we as fans approach Zacha moving forward?

New Jersey Devils v Detroit Red Wings Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Well, sadly, the last few days here and elsewhere, a lot of time and energy has been spent discussing one of the bigger disappointments on the New Jersey Devils’ roster over the last couple seasons: Pavel Zacha. It is not enjoyable to say that, but it is hard to argue at this point. And when there is a player who was drafted as high as Zacha was, and he is performing as poorly as he is, especially given the other talent that was taken around him and after him in the draft, it needs to be discussed and analyzed, however painful it might be.

The other day, Gerard discussed the potential of Zacha sitting a game to get his head straight after starting the season pointless over the first 9 games. Well, after the embarrassing loss to Detroit the other night, John Hynes and Co. decided to take it a step further. Yesterday, the team decided to send him down to AHL to get his game straight. As noted by Chris Ryan, this will be his first stint in the AHL since turning pro in 2016, so for him, it is an extreme step in that it is the first time he is being sent down as a demotion due to poor play.

Of course, for fans, it is infuriating as he was the first pick of Ray Shero, who was the newly minted GM of the team at the time, replacing the legend that was Lou Lamoriello. It is not like this was the last anchor that Lou left the organization; while the scouts were still in place from the old regime, this pick was on Ray. And as the 6th overall pick, there were so many other choices out there, and not just in hindsight. Before the draft, John analyzed 37 different mock drafts at the time, including our own mock draft selection at In Lou We Trust. Among those, there were seven different players that mocks had NJ taking. For the 6th overall selection, that is a lot of options. To many at the time, it seemed like the 6th overall pick was the first or second selection in the next tier of players. The previous tier had Mitchell Marner and Dylan Strome, and perhaps Noah Hanifin, but after that there was no real consensus. Mocks had the Devils taking Marner, Zacha, Mathew Barzal, Ivan Provorov, Lawson Crouse, Mikko Rantanen, and even Kyle Connor.

But among those I just listed, the majority consensus was that the Devils should take Barzal, and we agreed on this blog at that time, as he was our mock selection as well. Of the 37 mocks, 18 had Shero calling Barzal’s name, as opposed to only four mocks going with Zacha. And when you look at how well Barzal has done since, and also the success of Provorov and Rantanen especially, the miss that is Zacha really hurts. It is the one major blight on Shero’s record so far. His high point is undoubtedly the infamous “The trade is one for one,” but who can argue that at this point, the low is that 6th overall pick in 2015?

Really quick, to highlight that argument, of all those players that were mocked to the Devils at 6th overall that year and that Shero could have taken (that excludes Marner), look at some of their career and current stats, courtesy of NHL.com and Natural Stat Trick:

Of course, before we even analyze this, I strictly only pulled the stats for players who were mocked to the Devils at that time in 2015. That did not include Zach Werenski, who went 8th that year and is a mainstay on the Columbus blue line, Jake DeBrusk, a potential threat in Boston who went 14th, or anyone else who went even later, like Sebastian Aho to Carolina in the 2nd round, or Brock Boeser to Vancouver near the end of the 1st.

When you look at the stats of all of those players, it definitely is depressing. Of course, it is most depressing when looking at Barzal, who is a rising star on Long Island and has more points than games played at this point in his career. However, had Shero gone with Provorov, Rantanen, or even Connor, there would be improvement over Zacha. Nearly all of those forwards have significantly more points per game played, and even the defenseman Provorov does, and that is saying a lot. The only player who has not produced to Zacha’s standards has been Lawson Crouse. However, his road to the NHL has been much rockier. Drafted by Florida at the time, he was traded to the dreadful Coyotes in the summer of 2016. Therefore, his numbers have been obviously suppressed. In his 11 games in Arizona this year, however, he has been a plus player when it comes to possession, with a really strong relative CF sitting at 3.47. So while he only has 2 goals this year, that is of course two more than Zacha, and he is driving play forward on a team that already has strong possession, Arizona’s CF sitting at 53.08. So while his current NHL stats are worse than Pavel’s, you could definitely argue his future looks brighter at this point.

This then brings us back to the initial question I posited in the title. What do we make of this? There are of course several ways to think about it. In one way, the optimistic view is that he is struggling to find his game, and time away from the spotlight up in Binghamton should help him find his scoring touch once again. Give him some games down there to find success, and let him bring that success back to Newark, where he can then start to add to the secondary scoring that this team so desperately needs. I mean, he was a force in his two seasons for the Sarnia Sting of the OHL, producing 64 points in 51 games in his second season there. He has proven he can dominate offensively, so let him get that confidence back again in the AHL, and then bring that to the NHL.

If you are a fan thinking that way, I give you so much credit, and I hope you are right. Given the tone of how I have been writing this, however, I am sure you can assume I am less optimistic. There have been many players who have not been able to translate success in major junior hockey to the NHL, and it seems to me like Zacha might just be the next in that long line. Yes, Zacha is a quality defender on offense, and has been a stalwart on the penalty kill, but when you are the 6th overall pick, that is simply not good enough. It is one thing for Blake Coleman to rest his laurels on strong defensive play at 5v5 and on the penalty kill, but when expectations are much higher like they were for Zacha, that does not cut it the same way.

And that right there is where I think we eventually need to get to with how we think and feel about Zacha. In the long run, a strong defensive forward who can play on the bottom six and on the PK has value in the NHL. That is someone a team like New Jersey can sign and hold for relatively cheap who can provide some points here and there, but their bread and butter is preventing attempts against. If that is who Zacha really is, then that is who he is. The sooner everyone gets on that wagon, the better it will be for everyone. Perhaps most importantly, it is most important for Zacha himself, who could maybe perform better without all of the expectations on his shoulders. Does it suck if that were all the Devils would get out of that 6th pick when so many others have done considerably better? Absolutely. But it is value nonetheless, and I think at this point, unless we see some drastic change in his game, as fans we need to really change how we think and approach Pavel Zacha. We all appreciate and think Blake Coleman is a good bottom 6 player on this team because we never had higher expectations for him. If we cap our expectations for Zacha as well, maybe we will eventually be able to appreciate the contributions he brings to the Devils.

Now, what do you think about how we should think and approach Pavel Zacha on this team? Am I sadly right that we need to temper expectations and begin to think of him differently? Or am I way too pessimistic in my outlook, and we should still have higher hopes? If so, what do you see in Zacha’s future? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.