Today, the news surrounding the New Jersey Devils focused on the still unsigned restricted free agent, Pavel Zacha. In a sentence I never thought I would write in the near future: there is actual drama surrounding his contract situation. Normally when one considers drama and Pavel Zacha, it is usually referencing the Devils fans debating amongst themselves about Zacha’s worth. Not today.
It all started this morning with this tweet by Igor Eronko, a hockey reporter for Sports-Express in Russia. He tweeted from a KHL source that Zacha has come to terms with Avangard Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League. This was out of the blue as there has not been any indication or rumor that Zacha was looking to go to Russia rather than signing with New Jersey. This could also be seen as an exit as the KHL does not allow clauses that allow players to go the NHL. A signed contract with the KHL means the player is playing in the KHL.
However, the news was not that Zacha signed with Omsk. Eronko wrote he has “come to terms” with Omsk. The phrase “come to terms” is crucial here. As he explained on Twitter and at his post at Hockeybuzz, this may be more of a move to try and gain some leverage with the Devils. Zacha may have a deal in place with Avangard Omsk but until he signs, he can still negotiate. He can go back to the Devils and state that he’s being offered X amount of money and/or Y amount of seasons and that he wants the Devils to match or exceed that. As Zacha is a RFA without arbitration rights, he has little control to force a deal to happen outside of extreme measures such as threatening to leave the NHL entirely or holding out.
Things got a little more confusing in the morning when Aivis Kalnins, a KHL insider, tweeted that Avangard Omsk have not confirmed the reports that Zacha agreed to terms with them. This seemingly contradicted the news, although it was a not denial. Kalnins did note from Omsk that the situation was “premature.” Hold that thought.
Now comes the interesting part: Ray Shero was asked about this development. Here is what Mike Morreale reported at NHL.com (item is second on the list, pay no mind to some guy scoring for some blue team):
“His agent told me a couple days ago (that he could sign in the Kontinental Hockey League), but I’m hopeful we’ll get something done over the next few days entering training camp,” Shero said Monday at the Prospects Challenge in Buffalo. “I think we’re trying to find the right term and based upon his age. He’s a real good fit for us and a good player, he’s a young guy whose game is evolving. I think we can get something done, hopefully, but I can’t control what he does. If (the KHL) is the route he likes, it’s going to be a long road back to the NHL.”
Shero’s quote is a diplomatic and professional way of stating that Zacha is making a mistake about going to the KHL. It is also a more boring statement than the other quote about the situation. From the Associated Press, Stephen Whyno tweeted this spicier statement from the Devils GM this afternoon:
Devils GM Ray Shero to AP’s @john_wawrow on restricted free agent Pavel Zacha: “I don’t give a (expletive) if he signs with the KHL or if he signs with (expletive) Brampton. I don’t give a (expletive) where. We hold his rights.” https://t.co/4mRe5Yh126— Stephen Whyno (@SWhyno) September 9, 2019
Whoever said Ray Shero cannot be candid was proven very wrong today. You can use your imagination - and not share it in these comments to this clean website - what the expletives were. They do not matter. The larger point is that Shero is clearly not all that moved by this KHL threat from Zacha. I think Shero would like Zacha to stay in New Jersey. Should Zacha bolt to the KHL, the Devils would still have Zacha’s rights. He would either have to sign a new deal with the Devils to come back to the NHL, or trade those rights elsewhere. Short of excellent performances, there may likely be little trade value for the former sixth overall pick in 2015. Even then, the Devils would have control of the situation from a NHL perspective either way.
More important than that, the Devils have players who can take over Zacha’s role on the team, which was going to be a question for the coaches to figure out in camp this year. Zacha going to the KHL may not mean the Devils would lose a whole lot. Zacha was excellent on the penalty kill and his offensive skills flashed some greatness from time to time; however, he is not a irreplaceable player. He is a bottom six forward on this roster as currently constructed. The Devils have plenty of candidates to take his spot. The Devils could pencil in Jesper Boqvist to take Zacha’s spot and they may receive about the same amount of value. Zacha being out of New Jersey will also likely boost the odds for Kevin Rooney, who was also quite good on the PK last season, to stay the roster. (Speaking of the PK, the Devils could plug Nico Hischier in and likely get good results from him too.) Other centers and/or left wingers - like Michael McLeod and Brett Seney - would also have more of an opening to fight for in camp. To repeat: the Devils have players who can step in for Zacha right now. I hope he and his agent know that.
So is that where it ends today? No. Remember Kalnins? This evening, he tweeted out that Avangard Omsk and Zacha are trying to get a deal done. The deal would allow Zacha to play in the KHL this season too. This means those talks are real and something of substance may come out of it. I remind you that the KHL does not allow out clauses. A signed deal with any KHL team means Zacha will not play for New Jersey until the contract ends. Since he is out of contract now, it would be very likely he would have to sign with the Devils to get back in. If the result is that they come to terms, then like Cordell wrote earlier, this is about leverage.
I think that this is what it is all about. Given Shero’s reaction, I doubt that it will work totally in Zacha’s favor. Perhaps an actual set of terms from Avangard Omsk will change his tune. I still have my doubts because the Devils can easily find his replacement in New Jersey and the Devils will still have his rights at the end of the day. All the same, if this all forces a deal to be made more quickly, then great. I would prefer to see this get sorted out before training camp begins. We shall see.
Do you think this KHL-threat will work for Zacha? Will it lead to the Devils and Zacha coming to terms in the next few days? Would you rather see Zacha go to the KHL? If Zacha goes go that route, who do you think will take his spot on the roster? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about today’s Zacha drama in the comments. Thank you for reading.