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Someone Will Have to Fill the Zajac PK Role

Over the last many years, Zajac was a regular and stalwart force on the penalty kill. With him now retired, let’s see what forwards might help to fill those minutes.

Buffalo Sabres v New Jersey Devils Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

Throughout his long career with the New Jersey Devils, Travis Zajac was known as a strong defensive forward who was who you wanted out there on the penalty kill against the opposition’s top unit. Even in his last season with the Devils, before being traded, he averaged 2 minutes and 22 seconds per game on the kill, 35 seconds more than any other forward on the team. If you expand that and look at the previous 3 seasons combined, Zajac was on the PK for NJ for just under 500 minutes of ice time from 2018-2021. The next most among forwards? Blake Coleman, who managed 368 minutes before being dealt to Tampa Bay in February of 2020. The only other forward who was out on the kill for at least 200 minutes across those three seasons was Pavel Zacha, at 333 minutes.

With Zajac now retired, and of course Coleman long gone, that really leaves one forward left who the Devils have consistently trusted out there on the penalty kill across the last several seasons: Pavel Zacha. When specifically looking at last season, among those who remain on the team, there are only three forwards left who received regular, consistent playing time on the penalty kill: Zacha, Yegor Sharangovitch, and Michael McLeod. That means that this season, there is a rather large opening for a forward that will need to fill the gap left by Zajac and all of the minutes he ate killing penalties. Most likely, you would think that it would be one of those three guys, considering that the biggest forward addition, Tomas Tatar, is not a penalty kill guy at all. So, let’s take a look at these three guys and see which one is the most likely to fill that Zajac PK role.

First, let’s get some data. Here are some of their basic PK numbers from last season, with info coming from Natural Stat Trick:

Just off of the bat, in terms of who they trusted the most last season, Yegor looks like he could have the inside track to gain the most PK minutes. He was out there for 1:47 per game last year, most among Devils forwards not named Zajac. He also was the best among the three at preventing attempts against, with a CA/60 under 90 which is what you want to see among a penalty killer. On the other hand, his expected goals against was over 8, not the threshold he wanted to pass, and he also was the only one of the three to benefit from a positive PDO, albeit he was basically luck neutral. However, compared to the 0.868 PDO of Zacha, he was very, very lucky.

The sneaky choice to gain much of Zajac’s minutes would be McLeod. His CA/60 was just mediocre at just under 100, but he was excellent at preventing high danger attempts against at just under 20 per 60 minutes, and expected goals against per 60 was also excellent, sitting at just over 7. He also was fairly unlucky with a PDO of 0.911, so there is room to grow there and be better.

The one you would initially think to get Zajac’s minutes, given how much he has been used on the PK in the past, is Pavel Zacha. However, last year, his numbers were clearly the worst of the three. He was the worst by far at allowing attempts against at over 104 per 60 minutes, was no better at high danger attempts, and his xGA/60 was up at 8.3. You can debate between Sharangovitch and McLeod who was better and who is more worthy, but just according to last season’s numbers alone, Zacha was clearly number 3. And the coaching staff also seemed to think so, giving him the least amount of minutes among the three.

What also could play a part is what the players do when not on the penalty kill, and this could be especially true for Zacha. Before last season, Zacha was primarily a bottom 6 defensive forward who did not do much else in terms of production for this team. But last year, he broke out offensively and was a huge boon in terms of producing points, both at even strength and on the power play. That could have certainly led to receiving less PK minutes, on top of his not so great numbers, as the coaching staff would rather him out there on the power play or at 5 on 5 producing points. And that is also another nod to McLeod getting Zajac’s minutes. He has a similar role that Zacha occupied up until last season. Bottom 6 forward, energy type of guy who plays a strong 200 foot game and great defense. Makes sense that he would get more time on the kill. However, it’s worth noting that Zajac really wasn’t that type of guy. He was a middle 6 center who, for most of his time in NJ, had a significant role at even strength. So that clearly isn’t the only factor. However, it is one of many factors that could determine who gets those extra penalty kill minutes to make up for Zajac being gone.

Last Night

Since we have one game under our belt, one in which the Devils were killing penalties way too often, let’s get a potential glimpse into what they plan to do. Here is the chart of players who had any time at all on the PK thanks to Natural Stat Trick:

Of course, all three were heavily used last night, but Zacha had the least usage among the three at 2:19, while McLeod and Sharangovitch were almost equal, only 6 seconds separating them. However, of the three, only Yegor was on the ice for a goal against on the PK. In truth, it looks like they just decided to throw them all out there for ample time and let them all pretty much divide up Zajac’s time equally. This could continue moving forward, but I also think this could be like a tryout sort of thing. Give them each similar time for the first part of the season and see who emerges as the best option.

Conclusion

In the end, it will be interesting to see how playing time is divided up among forwards on the penalty kill. You have to think that those three guys will still see strong PK minutes, and someone else will also need to be a part of it, whoever they feel can fill a role, but someone will need to really step up and become the next Zajac of the penalty kill if this unit wants to improve as a whole. Last night, looking at that chart, Nico Hischier also got just over 2 minutes, and the MSG broadcast talked up Jimmy Vesey and his PK role in the preseason, and he did play over a minute and a half last night, so those are both good options to get solid PK time. Although, they did give up two PK goals against last night, so who knows.

The Devils were an atrocious group last year on the PK, and last night, and they need to improve. Can Sharangovitch, McLeod or Zacha take on a bigger role and help to turn this unit around? It definitely is possible, and it will be interesting to see. My bet would be to see McLeod get more PK minutes considering it really fits his game well, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see Zacha’s time on the kill rise, especially if his offensive game falls off somewhat from last season. And Sharangovitch can always be out there as a threat to steal a shorthanded goal, which is never a bad move.

What do you think? Who do you believe is most likely to pick up those penalty kill minutes that Zajac used to dominate? Why do you think that? Which one of these guys do you think has the best chance to shine on the kill? How will that help to improve the unit this season, after the very bad year it had last season? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.