Tom Fitzgerald has some important decisions to make on certain players on the New Jersey Devils and where they fit in the next few months. One of those players is Pavel Zacha, who will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights and one year of team control remaining until he is eligible for unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2023.
The Devils have several options in front of them with what they should do with Zacha, but which one makes the most sense going forward? Is Zacha still a player that the Devils should be building around in the future? Let’s dive in and answer those important questions.
Who is Pavel Zacha?
Pavel Zacha was the 6th overall pick by the New Jersey Devils in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. He signed his ELC shortly after being drafted, but didn’t make the team out of training camp in 2015 and was quickly reassigned to the Sarnia Sting. Zacha made the Devils the following season and played the next three seasons on his ELC. After that deal expired upon the conclusion of the 2018-19 season (and following a brief scare of Zacha defecting to the KHL), then-GM Ray Shero resigned Zacha to a 3 year contract extension with a $2.25M AAV. This was a reasonable deal at the time that didn’t break the bank for the Devils. It gave Zacha a healthy raise given his level of NHL production. It also ensured the Devils would continue to control his NHL rights upon the expiration of that deal.
Zacha’s second contract expired upon the conclusion of the 2021-22 season and the Devils would need to offer him a qualifying offer of at least $3M (the equivalent of his base salary this past season) to retain his rights for this upcoming season.
What has Zacha done as a Devil?
Pavel Zacha made his NHL debut in the final game of the 2015-16 regular season, tallying two assists in a 5-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Afterwards, Zacha joined their AHL-affiliate for the remainder of the season and chipped in another six points in eight AHL games until the Albany Devils were eliminated by the Toronto Marlies in the Calder Cup Playoffs that season.
Zacha made the Devils out of training camp prior to the 2016-17 season and has been an NHL regular ever since, sans a brief AHL demotion during the 2018-19 season. Unfortunately, Zacha fell into that gray area in his rookie season where he was too good for the OHL, not good enough for the NHL, and not AHL eligible due to his age. He struggled in his rookie season with the Devils to the tune of 24 points in 70 games, which included a 16 game stretch in the middle of the season where he had zero points. His second season wasn’t much better, although it was around this time he showed flashes of being an effective penalty killer.
As you can see in his career stats (via Hockey-Reference.com), Zacha has gradually improved every season and has earned more ice time every season. His best season, without question, was in 2020-21 when he scored 17 goals and added 18 assists in 50 games and led the Devils in scoring. Zacha carried that performance into a strong start this season with 11 points in his first 14 games, but went through more prolonged scoring droughts and was inconsistent as the 2021-22 season rolled on. Zacha went on to post 25 points over his final 56 games of the 2021-22 season, and while he finished what was technically a “career high” in total points, his scoring rate took a dip, going from .7 PPG and a 57.4 point pace over 82 games in 2020-21 to .51 PPG and a 42.1 point pace over 82 games this season.
It’s frustrating that six years into his NHL career, Zacha is as inconsistent as he is, because when Zacha does show those flashes, he can be fun to watch.
The advanced stats tell a different story as they suggest Zacha had one of his better seasons in 2021-22 (stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick).
Zacha posted career bests in xGF, HDCF, and CF% in 2021-22. However, I would caution that Zacha’s most frequent linemate this season was Nico Hischier, as the two of them played 478:31 together at 5v5. Hischier showed throughout the season that he was capable of elevating the play of pretty much any winger with him, to the point where the Devils gave Jimmy Vesey over 100 5v5 minutes with him and the numbers looked respectable. That’s not to say Zacha didn’t have his moments away from Hischier though. For example, the Devils line of Foote-Zacha-Zetterlund late in the season showed promise, albeit in a small sample size. Zacha’s advanced stats are respectable with most of the other forwards on the team, but it didn’t really translate on the scoresheet in actual games.
This brings us to his defensive play, and while Zacha has always had good size, he’s never been a shutdown defender at the NHL level. I’ve seen almost every game Zacha has played in the NHL and while sometimes he’ll do things at times like win along the boards, use his frame to box someone out, deliver a hit, or make a nice stick play to deny a scoring chance, he doesn’t nearly do it consistently enough where you can rely on that sort of effort night in and night out like you can with, say, Nico Hischier. He’s in a weird spot where he’s not a great two-way player and he’s not good enough offensively to overlook those warts like I might with, say, Jack Hughes at 1.14 PPG this season. I mentioned that the Devils used Zacha on the penalty kill earlier in his career, but they’ve gotten away from featuring him prominently in that role under Lindy Ruff and former assistant coach Alain Nasreddine, who oversaw that unit. Zacha was 6th among Devils forwards in short-handed ice time this past season with 26:40, and the fact his role on the penalty kill unit continued to diminish is indicative of questionable defensive play and the lack of trust the coaching staff had in him.
Overall, Zacha never quite developed into the scoring power forward the Devils envisioned when they took him sixth overall in 2015. Right or wrong, he has often been maligned from pockets of the Devils fanbase for the player he isn’t, with some fans resenting him because he wasn’t Mikko Rantanen, Timo Meier, Mat Barzal, or any of the other All-Star players taken after him who have had more successful NHL careers to this point. Zacha has 69 goals and 110 assists in 386 career games, but he’s always left you wanting a little more from him. He’s always teased that he’s about to finally turn the proverbial corner and put it all together, only to go on a stretch where he scores two goals in 25 games.
What will Zacha do going forward?
Before we can answer what Zacha will do in the future, its important to ask where he’s even going to be this season?
If Zacha remains with the Devils, he would likely serve a role similar to the one he held this season as a middle six left winger who can shift over to center in a pinch and see some time on both the power play and penalty kill. The Devils already have Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and Yegor Sharangovich penciled in for four of the forward slots in the top six. Behind that, the Devils have a lot of question marks. Is Dawson Mercer a winger or a center next season and where does he ultimately slot into the lineup? Does Alex Holtz make the opening night roster, and if so, who does he play with? If the Devils draft Juraj Slafkovsky or Shane Wright with the 2nd overall pick, where do they fit into the equation next season? Are there any other internal options that could emerge as a wild card, such as Fabian Zetterlund or Nolan Foote? That’s before we ponder what to do with the many wingers already under contract next season. That list includes Andreas Johnsson, Tomas Tatar, Janne Kuokkanen, Nate Bastian, and Miles Wood (assuming he’s back). That’s also not mentioning any external additions the Devils might make. In this game of musical chairs, someone will be left standing when the music stops playing, and it could very well be Zacha.
For now though, let’s operate under the assumption though that Zacha will be on the Devils next season. If Zacha is back, there’s little reason to believe he has another level he can elevate his game to. Zacha, who turned 25 last month, has 386 games of NHL experience. He is pretty much who he is at this point, which is a big forward who doesn’t really utilize his size. He’s a streaky shooter susceptible to prolonged scoring droughts. When he’s going good, he has a good shot and can do damage with it, but he also doesn’t get enough pucks on net. If Zacha can go on a bit of a heater like he did in 2020-21, there’s no reason why he can’t score 20 or perhaps even 25 goals in a full season, but trying to guess when he’ll do that is like trying to guess tonight’s lottery numbers. You might get one of them correct, but more likely than not, its a losing proposition.
I don’t write that to pick on Zacha either, but as Tom Fitzgerald continues to shape this roster, its critically important to consider how every player fits moving forward. If Zacha is maxing out as a 45 point player in his best seasons, is that good enough to not only play in an offensive role, but also be compensated as such? If he’s not trusted defensively now, why would the Devils keep him around if they decide their third line needs to be a “tough to play against” energy, shutdown line? Zacha has experience playing on both the power play and the penalty kill, but his role on both of those units has fluctuated where I would hesitate to label him as a specialist. Fitzgerald gave a lukewarm endorsement when asked about Zacha’s future at his end of season press conference, which raises further questions of whether or not he’ll even be here.
#NJDevils Tom Fitzgerald on the future of Pavel Zacha, RFA:— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) May 5, 2022
"I have to look at the big picture of how we are constructing this team [...] where Pav fits, we'll go through that process. What we need, does he fit [...] But [Zacha] is a really good player."
Who are Zacha’s comparables and what is his value?
Agents will use contracts previously handed out to similar players as a starting point in talks and negotiate off of that. A high profile example of this is when Cale Makar signed for $9 million per season over six seasons on his second contract with the Avalanche. The reigning Norris trophy winner Adam Fox was able to get $9.5 million a year for seven years when he signed his second contract three months later with the Rangers. Who is a reasonable comp for Zacha, who has 6 years (386 games) of NHL experience, will be signing his third contract, and is 25 years old?
Keep in mind that Zacha’s qualifying offer is $3M as well, and that will be the floor of what he can potentially make. For more information on how the qualifying offer is calculated, CapFriendly has a handy tool here. I also wanted to limit our player comps to Zacha to players who have signed a new deal in the last calendar year.
Jake DeBrusk, who was in the final year of a 2 year bridge deal, signed a 2 year, $4M AAV contract extension with the Bruins on March 21st. DeBrusk’s qualifying offer would’ve been $4.85M, so he actually accepted a deal with a slightly lower AAV. Its not exactly an apples to apples comparison, but both players were drafted in the first round of the same draft class and have similar levels of experience. Zacha has more NHL games under his belt while DeBrusk has been more productive with three 40+ point seasons. For those counting at home, that is three more 40+ point seasons than Zacha has.
Robby Fabbri is a year older than Zacha and also has six years of experience. He signed his third NHL contract, a 3 year, $4M AAV contract extension with the Red Wings on December 14th, 2021. Fabbri’s qualifying offer would have been for $3.1M, so he did pretty well on his extension. Fabbri has been slightly more productive at .5 PPG vs. .46 for Zacha over their respective careers, so from a pure production standpoint, this might be in the ballpark of what Zacha might be looking for.
Anthony Beauvillier was another former first round pick in 2015 coming off of a bridge deal when he signed a 3 year deal worth $4.15M per year with the Islanders before the 2021-22 season. Beauvillier matched Zacha’s point per game production at .46 PPG at the time the contract was signed and has a similar level of NHL experience, so this might be our best comparison yet.
Let’s look at what a potential ceiling on a Zacha deal could be. Sam Bennett has a similar profile to Zacha as a former top draft pick who didn’t live up to expectations. Bennett was traded from the Panthers to the Flames during the 2020-21 season and immediately made an impact for the Panthers with 15 points in 10 regular season games and 5 points in 5 playoff games. Even with that strong first impression in Sunrise, Zacha’s .46 PPG tops Bennett who was at .37 PPG at the end of last season. Panthers GM Bill Zito rewarded Bennett with a 4 year deal with an AAV of $4.425M. The early returns on that deal look good as Bennett had a career year in his first full season in South Florida. Granted, this is Bennett’s fourth NHL contract, and I have my doubts the Devils would go to those lengths to keep Zacha, but its not impossible Zacha could see a similar deal from a team hoping to get more out of him than the Devils did.
Kevin Fiala might be the most extreme example of a ceiling comp. Zacha’s .46 PPG doesn’t quite measure up to .58 PPG for Fiala when he signed a 1 year, $5.1 million deal with the Wild after a 40 point season in 2020-21. His qualifying offer was $3.5 million, so he did well to easily top that and bet on himself with a one year deal. Fiala will hit RFA one more time after this season as his ELC slid twice, and needless to say, he’ll be handsomely rewarded by somebody after a 33 goal, 52 assist campaign.
As for Zacha’s value, opinions vary. Through his model, Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic has Zacha’s value at $3.4M, which isn’t too far off from his $3M qualifying offer. Dobber Hockey’s Alexander MacLean projects Zacha’s cap hit to be $2.12M, which seems comically low and would be a paycut. As inconsistent as Zacha is, I don’t see him taking $2.12M at this stage of his career.
I believe a reasonable deal for Zacha would be a 3 year deal for somewhere around $4M AAV. If I were his agent, I’d be looking to top what Beauvillier got given the similar experience and production, which would likely necessitate a three year deal for around $4.25M annually. Whether or not that’s a good idea for the Devils is a different story altogether.
What would I do with Zacha and what do I think the Devils will do?
My general philosophy in a hard salary cap league like the NHL is that you give term to your star players to lock up their prime years and look to save money and avoid giving term to average players. I view Zacha as an average role player and not a star, so I wouldn’t give him term for the reasons I’ve pointed out throughout this article.
If the Devils let me make the decision of what to do with Pavel Zacha, I would trade him to try to find some help elsewhere on the roster or acquire asset(s) that I can use to find that help. I’m not naive enough to think the Devils can trade him straight up for a goaltender or a goal scorer like Brock Boeser. Could Zacha be part of a trade package with multiple players and/or picks outgoing for an upgrade? Sure, I suppose. Zacha probably isn’t the centerpiece of any package, but he could be part of a deal. I believe any team dealing for him would be doing so believing there is still some untapped potential and sign him to a multi-year contract extension similar to the ones I outlined above. Vancouver and Montreal were two of the teams reportedly interested in him at the trade deadline, so perhaps they still have some interest.
If I couldn’t make a trade, I would be content to simply offer Zacha the qualifying offer of 1 year and $3M. I’d expect Zacha and his representation to file for arbitration, presumably at a number greater than $4,538,958 for one season. In the off chance that this goes to a hearing and an arbitrator awards Zacha his desired salary, I’d simply walk away at that point, let him hit UFA a year early and reallocate that money elsewhere. Why pay Zacha $4.5M a year when you can spend similar money and get a better player in, say, Andrew Copp or Valeri Nichushkin?
I don’t think it’ll come to this though as I think its very likely he’s traded early this offseason. I suspect the Devils approach will be similar to mine, in that they’ll look to shop Zacha first and bring him back short-term if the market isn’t to their liking.
Pavel Zacha is a fascinating RFA case. He enters the 2022 offseason with arbitration rights and a year away from unrestricted free agency. Given that Zacha was the subject of trade rumors prior to this year’s trade deadline but ultimately was NOT moved, I think there’s a good chance the Devils revisit those discussions this offseason.
I’d expect Zacha to receive a qualifying offer. If the Devils trade him, I think its possible he agrees to an extension with his new team somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 or 4 years and over $4M annually. If they don’t trade him, I think the Devils go short-term and are ok with letting Zacha walk after 2023, and perhaps sooner if they don’t like what they hear from an arbitrator ruling. I don’t think the Devils should be interested in him on a multi-year deal under any circumstances.
What would you do with Pavel Zacha? Would you look to sign him long term, and if so, why? Is he still a building block for this team going forward, or will he continue to be passed by other forwards on the depth chart both internally and externally? Do you think he has another level to his game and there is still some untapped potential, or is Zacha who he is at this point? Is now the right time to trade him or do you believe he deserves another year to show what he can do? Please feel free to leave a comment below and thank you for reading!