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

Comments

They Should 100%

Be looking to move Zacha off of this nice season. A lot of teams are center-starved around the league. I understand he could blossom into a nice piece, but I have a feeling this could also be the SELL HIGH moment. Especially with Nico and Jack already slotted at 1C and 2C.

I would assume that many teams have analytics departments that can tell them similar things about Pavel Zacha as analyzed by CJ in the spaces above. Or interns who can be asked to peruse blogs such as All About the Jersey to get a different take on things.

I suspect the opportunity to "trade high" on Pavel Zacha has come and gone. He is what he is at this point, and I’m skeptical that too many teams would be interested in doing a deal until the Entry Draft (or Free Agency) as not to have to tie up a Protected List spot on him.

Fair Point

But the amount of headscratching moves that STILL go on around the league tell me those analytics departments and or interns know this, but the people in charge still make the overall decisions.

I don’t think Zacha’s trade value is particularly high, but I think there are plenty of GMs who don’t put much stock into analytics. And you can be certain none are asking their interns to peruse the AATJ archives. People in decision-making positions will ignore the analytics because they think they know better than the statheads. Heck, even a smart guy like Jeff Gorton thought it was a good idea to sign Jack Johnson.

Zacha is 23 years old and has seen his ppg rate increase every single year. He’s got all the physical attributes one would want. It’s easy for one to think he’ll break out once he’s taken off this terrible Devils team.

You’re right about the Management personnel around the League, but that doesn’t mean it’s a sound way to go about the business.

And if Jeff Gorton is so smart — and I think he’s a fair amount more intelligent than a lot of guys who hold his position with other franchises — why does it seem like they’ve gotten progressively worse each year under his stewardship?

Because of the Dolans.

I think Jeff Gorton is smarter than a significant amount of people who held his very position in New York, he also has been pretty lucky to run one of these franchises who happen to be the place a lot of player dream to win with.

I just keep hoping that Gorton is going to pay very high to keep Zibanejad, Strome and Fox just to keep in line with their habits of paying high to reduce the quantity available to them in the long run.

Definitely agree. It’s not like Chiarelli has found a job as GM that we can exploit.

Positives

Zacha has good shot and danger rates with each of the team’s best three centers – Hischier, Hughes, and Zajac. I don’t see him as being a good option at center, and would be better off at wing. I think it’s baffling Zacha-Hughes-Bratt didn’t become a thing after Hischier got hurt.

Also: is this data updated for last night’s game? Zacha, Bratt, and Wood were the best line in terms of shot/xG ratio, and it’s not like this season allows for huge sample sizes. Though, when I go into NST now, it’s showing 0 for everyone’s xG totals, so that’s another weird thing for NST this season.

Leave me alone, I’m a teacher lol. I go to sleep at 10pm and go to work at 6am so my articles are always a day behind. Particularly annoying seeing as I’m "the analytics guy" and my numbers are never updated lol.

No worries, obviously; I just thought his counts with Bratt would probably look different because they were buzzing last night.

Are you a math teacher?

Nothing better than watching hockey nerds drop the gloves. That one was over way too fast.

"over way too fast"

Well, I don’t disagree that Zacha’s underlying numbers have been piss poor at times. I just had a different takeaway than Zacha being a bottom six center at best. I think he’s a top six skill winger at best. I don’t think CJ and I disagree much on Zacha, much, though, when it comes to his play at center.

I also can’t fault him for being a teacher, seeing as I’ll be graduating with an education undergrad degree.

Don’t do it. It’s not too late. Save yourself.

I gotta say, I’ve been observing a teacher this semester and their success in the hybrid style is…suspect.

But I have my reasons for my choice, which I can’t detail in this comment section. There’s a lot to it.

i've been on the zacha is a winger train since the beginning and whole heartedly agree.

the talent/skill is there and i think it’s more to do with how to use him effectively.

I’m not surprised by this, it’s why I asked CJ if NJ should sell high during the point streak. (His answer was no.) I like the player but never understood the whole Couterier comparison, Couterier is excellent defensively (and offensively). I am surprised that the conclusion is that he won’t be a productive center. I think it’s been clear that the team thinks he’s a winger. He’s played center because between injuries and COVID he’s been needed there. I would like to see him get a long run at wing which means that if NJ plans to lose Zajac they need to protect McLeod in the expansion draft and then either hope Maltsev can play bottom 6 center or bring another capable center in.

I also wonder what stats the analytics department uses because they seem to have gone from looking at him as a wing whose minutes need to be managed to a center playing on both special teams, in 3v3 and taking big faceoffs. And when they need offense they put him with Hughes.

Given the play lately, I think it’s become much more likely the team retains Zajac in order to keep Zacha at wing, unless Mercer is ready to play 3C (which he probably won’t be).

That aged really well.

I think the Couturier comparisons were made in earnest due to the amount of time it took Sean to get going more so than a direct player correlation. Couturier Zacha is not. He’s assumed ceiling is probably half of what Couturier is at best.

It does stink that Zacha’s run at wing ended so quickly. His best numbers courtesy of Natural Stat Trick are with Nico and Bratt.

Thanks for giving us another reason to think the Devils stink, Mr. C (Crush) J (Joy) Turtoro. (Does Turtoro mean "dark cloud" in Italian?)

I would try to sell high on Zacha, but I worry that the window to do so might have passed already. Either way, I don’t think that that is a move that is made in the next 5 days. It feels like more of an offseason move.

I agree he’s likely better suited for winger than C and has been playing center out of necessity with Hischier out.

Though, when I go into NST now, it’s showing 0 for everyone’s xG totals, so that’s another weird thing for NST this season.

That's not that surprising. I never expect the Devils to score goals when I watch them, so NST is just ahead of the curve with what my eyes and brain tell me.

I do think this is something that has been overlooked. I also think Zacha is falling on the grenade a bit especially as the 3rd center on this team. When the wingers are playing "away" from Zacha they are playing with either Zajac, who has been a bright spot this season, or Hughes, who is a play driving machine and heavily sheltered.

So I believe there is an undertow and maybe it has not been great – but he has been productive. And the truth is that asking someone to be the third line/choice center on this team is a tall order. We just do not have the depth on the wing and with Zajac playing well Zacha ends up getting the scraps that fall out of the top six and when he does play up in the lineup he brings down his wingers because they are not with hughes living the good life or with Zajac who is playing great.

For us to love Zacha he needs some stability. He is a role player without a role. When he looks great its often a line combo that last for a game or two then he is back with Merkley, Johnsson, or Gusev, you know? If Johnsson was who he thought he might be, the numbers might be different. If Gusev didn’t regress into a shadow of himself, these numbers might look different. Zacha is very versatile and I think that is going to hurt him sometimes on a team that been in a constant search of NHL caliber players often falling down to his flank when they aren’t having a good night.

Zajac has been a territorial laggard this season. He’s not playing great but his line is getting the bounces – they still will not grade out excellent by xGF.

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