Nico Hischier was the Devils #1 center as an 18 year-old and this year he will look to ascend towards the league elite at the position. In fact, I argued that he was among the best 5v5 skaters already last year (even though he had troubles defensively). His playing time will likely be towards the top of the lineup, and if he gets PP1 time, he should be second only to Hall. This actually was NOT the case last year. Not even close. Travis Zajac, aided by special teams roles, played over a minute and a half more the Hischier and the most of any Center on the team.
According to Hockey-Reference, Pavel Zacha played 11:57 a game at 5v5 and Travis Zajac played 13:36 — virtually identical to Hischier’s 13:35. You might be inclined to think, with Zacha being only 20 years old, that these numbers may be biased as he continued to improve and gain new responsibility. According to the line charts from Dr. Micah McCurdy, it appears the opposite may be more accurate.
Zajac is the bright green and Zacha is the black. As you can see Zacha settles comfortably into his 3rd line center role from game 55 on or so. Around the same point, Zajac’s time in the bottom 6 effectively ended and he was jockeying with Nico for the most ice time. It’s clear that the coaching staff considered the centers of their top 6 to be Nico and Zajac.
So it’s clear what the coaching staff DID do last year. Is that what that should have done? Furthermore, is that what they should do this coming year? Zacha is 21 which is 12 years younger than Zajac, and comes with a top 10 draft pedigree. Does he deserve time to figure it out in the top 6 with genuine scoring talent on his wings?
There are now 3 popular WAR models out there, Manny Perry’s (explanation), Chace McCallum’s (explanation), and Luke and Josh Solberg — aka: EvolvingWild (to be presented at RITSAC). I’ve recorded all three models appraisals of Zacha and Zajac over the last two years.
In every model, both years, under every unit of time, Zajac outperformed Zacha. WAR models aren’t always in line with our intuitions and there are sometimes doubts to be had (for example: Manny’s judged Sami Vatanen as the worst of our 6 defenders). However, for there to be this universal a consensus, it seems difficult to dispute the notion that Zajac has been better than Zacha the each of the past two years. Seeing as these were Zacha’s first two years, and Zajac is a season vet accustomed to a career’s worth of 1st line minutes, that is hardly surprising, I suppose. What should be troubling is the fact that Zacha actually got worse this past year according to the two more rigorous WAR models, and actually seems to have cost the Devils goals on Perry’s model.
Zacha show flashes of brilliance last year including some really impressive creativity with the puck and a physicality and aggresiveness that was new to his game this year. But his first season’s two point totals (24, 25) would be Zajca’s worst two totals in a full season and it’s not just because he’s thinking on a level his linemates can’t match. In almost 200 minutes with Kyle Palmieri last year — his most common right wing, by the way — Zacha was a negative CF%Rel and produced 5 points, (1.53 P/60). Apply that rate to his year totals and you get the exact same 25 points he ended up with anyway. Now, this past year, Zajac actually was even worse with Palmieri, but he later found his stride from an unlikely source: Blake Coleman and Stefan Noesen. The “TNT” line (Travis and the Texans), had an excellent finish to the season — so much so that Mike lobbied to keep them as a unit moving forward. That line was better than anything Pavel Zacha has been a part of as a Devil.
And that puts us into an interesting situation here.
Travis Zajac is likely the 2C headed into next season. But if we want to keep the TNT line together, does that mean we are ready to give Coleman and Noesen 2nd line minutes? And who get’s bumped out? Assuming the first line is returning as Hischier-Hall-Palmieri, that leaves Marcus Johansson on the outside of the top 6 looking in along with Zacha and whoever the other winger is — Bratt possibly. If it were my team, I’d give those two lines roughly the same playing time, and raise one if it became clear it was playing better. The Zajac found his stride with Noesen and Coleman and has consistently outperformed Zacha. I hope Pav proves me wrong and has his breakout year — and I’m not ruling it out. But if we are in a game we need to win and we are going with our best guys, Travis should get the minutes, because, until Zacha proves otherwise, Zajac is our 2C.
What do you guys think? What would you do with Zacha and Zajac next year? Are you conforatble handing the 2C job to someone who’s never produced a 30 point season? If not and you think the TNT line should stay together, are you comfortable giving top 6 minutes to two guys perceived as depth, possibly AHL wingers coming into last year? What would your top 6 look like and how would you divvy up the minutes. Thanks for reading and leave your thoughts in the comments below