In excellent and exciting fashion, the New Jersey Devils have continued to keep their heads above water, maintaining a wild card position in the Eastern Conference despite some troubling trends and tough scheduling. They have made hockey in the month of March extremely exciting to watch, and that has not necessarily happened over the last several years. That is awesome.
Over the last several games, someone who has played considerably better and needs to be praised for it is someone who often does not get praise for many various reasons: Pavel Zacha. It is easy and understandable to be frustrated when it comes to Zacha. The Devils could have taken several other players who have panned out way better than he has. However, that does not mean he cannot be a productive player for this team, or cannot get to a better level of play moving forward. This has especially been true recently, as he has upped his game when New Jersey has needed it most.
On the surface, it seems like he has, as he has scored 3 points in the last four games, a goal and 2 assists. Considering he only has 22 points in 64 games this season, a 0.343 point percentage, going with a 0.750 point percentage over the last four games is awesome. Of course, however, it also goes deeper than that. Using information and statistics from Natural Stat Trick, let’s look at some other stats that showcase his improved play recently. Considering he did not play between the Montreal game on 3/6 and the Pitt game on 3/23, it behooves us to only look at what he has done since returning to the lineup.
The one area that you can really knock him would be his zone start percentages, which have largely been sheltered with the huge exception of the Tampa game where he had 3 offensive zone faceoffs versus 5 defensive zone draws at 5v5 play.
However, even with some sheltered starts, it was up to him and his linemates to play well against some tough competition. Pitt and Tampa are great teams that are playoff-bound, and we all know Carolina has some great underlying numbers despite some atrocious goaltending. Nevertheless, he has put up some strong showings. In all four games above, he has a positive relative Corsi, meaning that the team was better at possessing the puck and driving play forward when he was on the ice versus when he was off the ice. This was especially prevalent in the first Pitt game, where he was the only Devil to not be a negative in CF%. While he was exactly at 50%, with 14 attempts both for and against while he was out there at 5v5, everyone else was below.
Furthermore, he has done this while being shuffled around perhaps more than any other forward on the team. While Travis Zajac, Stefan Noesen, and Blake Coleman have had a sustained presence together over the last three games, and Nico Hischier and Taylor Hall are almost always together, Zacha has been thrown around all over the place. His most consistent line over the last three games has been him, Palmieri, and Patrick Maroon, but they have only been out there for 5.8% of the time over the last three games. Over the same time, he has also been with: Pamieri and Miles Wood, Maroon and Michael Grabner, Grabner and Noesen, as well as even being with Hall and Palmieri for 2.5% of ice time. That is five different line combinations in the last three games. And despite the constant shuffling for him, he has still excelled, playing well with basically all of them.
Perhaps the best thing for Zacha is that his good play has been paying off. While he received pretty limited ice time in the first three games since re-entering the lineup, he enjoyed 16:44 of ice time on Thursday night, 14:33 of that coming at 5 on 5 play. That is a clear sign of a boost in confidence from the coaching staff. It will be interesting to see if he continues to see increased ice time over the last several games of the season here. The Devils are still in very hot water, and need almost all of their remaining points if they want to be playing postseason hockey. John Hynes will not give Zacha more ice time if he does not earn it, and if Hynes is not 100% comfortable with giving him more shifts. He clearly was the other night against a very good Pens team. Will he continue to show that level of comfort and trust moving forward? For sure, Zacha has earned the look given his play over the last few games.
It can be easy to overlook Zacha and his contributions to this team considering the amazing rookie season of Nico, as well as the play of some others the Devils perhaps should have taken at pick #6 that year. However, that does not mean that Zacha is useless. Given who he is at this point in his career, what he has been able to do since rejoining the lineup on March the 23rd has been quite good. He has been a plus player out there on the ice, and has been a positive factor in the fact that the Devils have gotten 7 out of 8 potential points in those games. Truth be told, if the Devils want to keep winning and want to really give the Atlantic a run for their money if they do hold onto the last wild card position, New Jersey will continue to need Zacha to keep playing well, even if he is not getting the recognition like some of the top line scorers are.
Given that information about Zacha, what do you think moving forward? Do you think he should see increased ice time in the last few games of the season? Or, do you still believe him to be inconsistent and would rather see that ice time go to someone else? What sort of presence do you want to see him get, and what do you need to see out of him to believe that he is playing well? Is it a scoring streak like 16th overall pick Mathew Barzal can enter, or just straight consistent high performance like 10th overall pick Mikko Rantanen has produced this season for Colorado? Please leave your comments below, thank you for reading, and let’s go Devils!