During the condensed 2021 season, Pavel Zacha was one of, if not the best forward on the New Jersey Devils roster. He contributed a respectable 35 points in the 50 contests he appeared in, and could seemingly be counted on to help turn the tide when the Devils needed him to. Unfortunately, one player cannot bear the load of an entire team, and even with Zacha producing his best and most consistent season to date, the Devils, as we all know, were still a bad team.
Jumping forward to this season now, we saw Zacha start his 2021-22 season pretty much from where he left off. In his first 14 games, Pavel notched seven goals and four assist for 11 points. With Zacha continuing to put points on the board and the Andreas Johnsson - Jesper Bratt - Dawson Mercer line firing away as well, things were looking good for the Devils. Even with Jack Hughes sidelined, the team still had players, including Zacha, that could light the lamp and carry the momentum forward.
And then the past 17 games happened.
While the team has seen themselves slip down the standings due to poor on-ice performances, Zacha has also seen his point total take a hit. After posting 11 in the first 14, Zacha has only recorded a point five times in the past 17 contests, with all of them being single point games. Suddenly, one of the Devils that could be most counted on over the past season plus has been practically invisible; so what gives and what problem are we addressing here?
We’ll get to the “what gives” in a moment, because the problem that we’re addressing leads into it. Simply put, if the Devils want to make a push back towards contention, the team needs to play a more consistent game, both in terms of scoring and defensive responsibility. While Zacha is a player who the Devils could use to rely on in all zones of the ice, they need him to be putting up points with consistency. This stretch he’s going through right now is reminiscent of some of the struggles earlier in his career, which led to criticism of him as a player before. I think the good news is that Zacha has turned the corner before, and I think he needs to just look back to even the beginning of this season to work on fixing it.
One thing I’ve noticed about Zacha that shifted from the start of the season to now is he is using his physicality less. I’m not saying Zacha is going to shift to being an enforcer anytime soon, but he used his large frame more to his advantage earlier in the season. He would assert himself in front of the net, or use his strength to either muscle a player off the puck or past them; that’s been seen less and less as his struggles have mounted. While it may not exactly be his forte as we’ve stated, I don’t think it hurts when you’re one of the bigger guys on the ice to use that advantage to your...well, advantage!
Additionally, I think with the Devils starting to get players back, the team can hopefully stop juggling lines as often. Find some things that work in practice and stick with it. If things stop working, try juggling the pieces that aren’t cohesive (instead of mixing up all the lines) or scratch some lesser guys while bringing up players from Utica. I get that a lot of this section isn’t specifically a “Zacha problem” but finding consistent linemates can alleviate scoring woes. When you play with the same guys, you wind up getting to know how they see the ice and where they like to go, which helps with anticipating where allies on the ice are and how to make the most of what each player brings to a line. I know this seems like basics, but in reality the coaching staff is juggling lines so often that guys aren’t really getting a chance to get used to one another.
The last thing I can suggest that winds up being more Zacha-centric is what Bryce Salvador winds up saying on a lot of Devils broadcasts: just simplify the game. Have a chance to shoot the puck on net? Do it. Open guy to pass to while you’re covered? Make the pass! Zacha is far from the only Devils guilty of complicating the game (the number of extra passes when a player could’ve just shot the puck in last night’s game alone was baffling), but I think he could be one of the ones who reaps the most rewards if he gets back to basics.
The New Jersey Devils have been a terribly inconsistent team in a lot of regards this season. While a few players (mostly Jesper Bratt and Jack Hughes) have managed to contribute regularly, there’s quite a few others who are stumbling. Pavel Zacha getting back on track and putting up points regularly could be a step towards righting the ship overall.
What are your thoughts on Pavel Zacha’s game this season; do you think he can get out of this slump to become a regular contributor like he was earlier this season? Do you think there’s parts of his game to simplify or things he did earlier that he needs to reincorporate? Are you more of the thought process that this is who he is as a player? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!