Last season was somewhat of a breakout year for New Jersey Devils’ Pavel Zacha. The much maligned former #6 overall selection was able to improve fairly significantly in point percentage, going from 0.49 points per game in 2019-20 to 0.70 points per game this past year. He reached a new high in goals, potting 17 across 50 games, when his previous best was only 13 across 61 games in 2018-19. It was also only his second time to reach double digit goals, and to do it in a shortened campaign speaks to the growth he showcased.
This year, I think most fans would be happy with simply a repeat performance. Despite being in the league for five seasons now, he is still only 24, so growth is not out of the question. However, if he were to produce 0.7 points per game once again, but this time across a full 82 game slate, you have to think everyone would be thrilled. He would most likely surpass 20 goals, and a 0.7 point percentage is good for around 57 points.
However, is that entirely reasonable to expect? Perhaps, perhaps not. Let’s take a look at some points that could both help and hurt Zacha heading into this season.
One big knock against him repeating the success we saw last year is that his shooting percentage basically has to face some real regression. Last year, Zacha shot at a 16.5% clip. There was only one other season where he was able to shoot even above 10%, and that was when he had 13 goals and shot at 13.13%. His career average, with those two bloated seasons, sits at 10.9%. Before this past season, his career average sat at 9.53%. That is how much of an outlier this past year was in terms of sh%.
This year, therefore, you have to expect some regression. If you believe he has truly improved, and did not just have an outlier season last year, then you could perhaps expect it to fall close to 11%, around his new career average. Last season, if he had shot at an 11% clip, he would’ve had somewhere around 11 goals, 6 less than he produced. That is a big number. So simply expecting him to improve more this season and perhaps challenge for 20 goals is most likely not reasonable. It would require a serious jump in shots, another outlier year in shooting percentage, or a real improvement in underlying numbers like possession. Is it possible? Yes, but perhaps not crazy likely.
Going off what I just mentioned, last year Zacha did shoot more than he has ever shot before, taking a new role for himself in this offense. He had 103 shots across 50 games, good for 7.2 shots per 60 minutes. That ranked 9th among all Devils with at least 200 minutes of time on ice. His previous best was 6.78 shots per 60, so it was a marked improvement, although perhaps not drastic. Given that he did this under the current coaching staff and with similar players on this team, there is a decent chance that he can repeat this performance and maintain a higher shot rate in his game. That would inevitably lead to higher point rates than he generally had over the first several years of his career. It might not lead to the 16.5% shooting percentage, that’s highly unlikely, but assuming he can continue to shoot at least over 10 percent, then you have to like him to at least retain some of the improvement we saw last season.
Given that Zacha really slots to be a bottom 9 forward in this team, and was that last season as well, you would think that given the improvements to this roster, and maintaining a healthy roster with players like Nico Hischier, would lead to better linemates for Zacha this upcoming year. However, that most likely will not be the case. According to Natural Stat Trick, Zacha spent the most time last season with Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier. In terms of having a strong linemate to help you produce points, there probably isn’t anyone better to have on your line than Nico. And Bratt is a solid middle 6 guy that can definitely help Zacha play a better style of game. So realistically, unless Zacha is going to play on a line this year with like Nico and Tomas Tatar or something, then don’t expect him to have better linemates.
What does that mean? Well, we most likely cannot expect him to have a better quality of teammates than he did last year. And that could lead to fewer opportunities to produce points. And combine that with a more realistic shooting percentage, it could lead to regression this year. Last year, he also spent over 100 minutes with the likes of Miles Wood and Nicholas Merkley, quality of linemates that are definitely not on the same level as Hischier and Bratt. If he has guys with him that are similar to that this year for more minutes, that 0.7 point percentage might not happen again.
Power Play Success
Last season, Zacha had some real power play success, to the point that he was given the second most power play minutes of any player on the Devils, behind only Jack Hughes. And he produced with that time. He had the most points per 60 on the power play of any Devil on the team, sitting at 4.95. There was only one other player that was over 4 PP points per 60, and that was Jesper Bratt at 4.4. No one else was even remotely close to what Zacha was able to produce.
Given that success, you have to think that Lindy Ruff will continue to utilize Zacha heavily on the power play. And if that is true, you also have to think there is a decent chance that the power play unit as a whole will improve this year, thanks to Dougie Hamilton being a power play quarterback, perhaps a full healthy season from Nico, and Tatar hopefully replacing what Kyle Palmieri used to do. That isn’t to mention any improvement from young kids like Ty Smith or Jack Hughes either. If that all works out, then there is little doubt that Zacha can and will score a solid amount of power play points, with good minutes this year. That will definitely boost his point production and help to keep it near 0.7 points per game.
In the end, I am sure there are other reasons both for and against Zacha continuing to produce points at a higher clip, but these are some solid points that provide pros and cons. I personally think that the shooting percentage is perhaps the biggest negative against him, and really could indicate a regression is in order, but if he can buoy that regression with more shots or better power play opportunities, then it could work out. Even if he regresses only slightly, and still produces over a half point per game, that would be a nice boost for the Devils on like the third line to go along with the power play. With production from the top 6 and the defense, it would lead to a much improved season for New Jersey overall. But if he regresses back to like 25 points in 61 games or so, where he was a few years ago, then that could be a downer that the team would find difficult to make up.