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Trouble Beneath the Surface of Pavel Zacha’s Breakout Season with the Devils

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Zacha’s underlying numbers should sound alarms about his seemingly encouraging season.

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

After several years of frustratingly mediocre production, Pavel Zacha has been a scoresheet revelation this season. His team-leading 22 points was highlighted by a 10-game point streak in March — the longest of his career and the 6th longest of the NHL season (tied with McDavid and Draisaitl). He’s also taken the most faceoffs on the team and played more minutes than every Devils forward not names Jack Hughes. Most importantly, in a season plagued by lack of finishers, he’s been the most reliable producer. Overall, he’s been one of the biggest bright spots of yet another forgettable season. So, naturally, I’m here to defecate all over it.

It won’t surprise many to learn that Zacha’s impact before this season was underwhelming (to put it nicely). Over his entire 266-game career entering 2021, the Evolving-Hockey GAR metric had valued Zacha’s career as worth approximately 5 total goals of impact more than that of replacement-level player. And, at even-strength, he was actually even worse. But in this, his transformative year, he’s gone all the way from a slightly over replacement-level player, too ...

... a slightly under replacement-level player?

How is that possible? He’s never been more than a bottom-six forward for the Devils and this season he’s been the 2nd most played forward on the roster and has produced accordingly. What the hell is happening during Zacha’s shifts when he’s not scoring? As it turns out ... BAD stuff. Below is his isolated impact according to Micah McCurdy’s Hockeyviz.

When we adjust for the context of his usage, opponents are actually expected to generated 11% MORE dangerous chances against the Devils when Pavel Zacha is on the ice. And the offense isn’t making up the difference. In fact, the Devils generate 6% fewer of their own chances in Zacha’s shifts.

As a sanity check for these surprising results, I looked into NaturalStatTrick’s linemate breakdown numbers (commonly referred to as WOWYs) and it’s offers convincing support of that pessimism. In the chart below, I’ve marked whether or not players benefitted from playing with Zacha. If the “Just Player” column containes a green arrow, it means the player was better in that metric without Zacha. Red means they were better with Zacha. Yellow is inconclusive.

This is a bit messy, so let me simplify things. Take a look at the first “Just Player” column under “Shot Ratio”. You see how there are 6 green arrows in a row to start that column? That means that, of the 6 players Zacha has been on ice with the most, ALL SIX saw better results without Zacha on the ice than with him (in terms of shot share). There isn’t a red mark in the whole column which means that, in the few cases where the player benefitted from playing with Zacha, Zacha benefitted even more from playing with them. And if you look at the top 3 players — Bratt, Wood, and Palmieri — you’ll see that they’re all better off without Zacha in all 3 metrics. By a LOT. Zacha has hurt the on-ice results of virtually every Devils winger he’s played with.

Let’s zoom in on just one example to drive home this point. We’ll use his most common linemate, Kyle Palmieri. Here are the shot (CF/CA), goal (GF/GA), and danger (xGF/xGA) results for Zacha and Palmieri when they are together, apart, and off-ice entirely.

When they are both on the ice, they are getting outscored 11-2. When Zacha plays without Palmieri, he continues to get outscored 18-12, but when Palmieri is taken away from Zacha, the Devils outscore opponents 12-5! It’s a stark enough difference that it makes you wonder if our perception of Palmieri’s season to-date is being flavored a little by the ineptitude of one of his most common linemates. When looking at other players, or when looking at shot and chance numbers, these effects are less pronounced, but still bad. On a team-widescale at 5v5, the Devils are outscoring opponents 50-41 when Zacha is on the bench, and getting outscored 29-14 when he’s on the ice.

Of the 16 NJ forwards that have played minutes this season here is how Zacha is performing in some popular on-ice metrics (5v5, SVA) according to NaturalStatTrick, and his rank among those 16 NJ forwards.

Pavel Zacha performance and rank among NJ forwards

*covers mouth to hold in vomit*

Yeah ... it’s rough.

Listen, I want nothing more than to tell you Pavel Zacha has finally figured it out and will be a productive center for the Devils moving forward. I’ve even written hopefully about it recently. But with his on-ice results looking remarkably similar to the past 4 years of replacement-level data we’ve collected on him, I think it’s pretty safe to say that, if there’s a fluke in the assessment of Pavel Zacha, it’s the point totals. Pavel Zacha actually is what coaches always seem to think Jesper Bratt is — a highly-skilled player on the puck who hurts the team with poor 200-ft play. He continues to be a good special teams gadget player, but as it pertains to his 5v5 value, the return of captain Nico Hischier should relegate Zacha to bottom-six role where he should probably stay for the rest of his career, if the rest of his career is in the NHL.