Hours before the explosion of chaos that is the start of free agency, the Boston Bruins made a one-for-one trade with the New Jersey Devils, acquiring Pavel Zacha in exchange for Erik Haula. The team had brought in the 31-year-old forward on the first day of free agency last year, signing him to a two-year deal that carries an average annual value (AAV) of $2.375 million. He has one year remaining on that deal.
Zacha is a 25-year-old center from Brno, Czechia. As everyone in Boston knows, the Bruins have had great success with Czech players in the past. The sixth overall pick from the 2015 Entry Level Draft is currently a restricted free agent (RFA) and is coming off a three-year contract with an AAV of $2.25 million.
The move makes sense for both teams, and at the moment, they both look like they may come out winners in this trade. The Devils get a veteran presence to help mentor their young and talented core, and the Bruins get a younger option at center, something they desperately need. They may also be able to work out a good deal with the RFA and save a little bit of money towards their very rough cap situation at the moment.
What the Bruins Are Losing in Erik Haula
Haula had a good season with the Bruins in 2021-22. After a very rough start where he only registered one assist in his first 11 games, he certainly found his stride in January after moving into the second-line center spot with Taylor Hall and David Pastrnak on his wings. He finished the year with 44 points in 78 games, including 18 goals, and was a plus-19. He finished sixth overall in scoring and also brought decent physical play to the offense, registering 129 hits.
Bruins general manager Don Sweeney made a number of veteran signings last year in free agency. Haula was easily the best signing and became the biggest contributor out of the additions. Losing him will definitely be a hit for the roster, but a necessary one when looking at the current state of their center prospects and the age of their current roster.
The Bruins needed to move to get younger, and Haula was ultimately the expendable piece. He’ll certainly be remembered in a mostly positive light in Boston. He stepped up into the second-line center role after Sweeney failed to legitimately replace David Krejci last year and did better than I think anyone expected. Now he’ll have a chance to play with some really exciting young talent in New Jersey and help mentor the core down there.
What the Bruins Are Gaining — Pavel Zacha
The sixth overall pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft made his NHL debut on Apr. 9, 2016, registering two assists in a win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, and scored his first NHL goal the following season on Nov. 3.
His NHL career has certainly not been smooth sailing up to this point. Zacha has struggled to live up to the reputation of being a top 10 draft pick, especially in the 2015 draft, which was arguably one of the most talented draft classes in recent history, maybe even of all time. Honestly, given how much the Bruins are haunted by that draft, it feels like they should be a perfect fit for each other.
Zacha is coming off the two best seasons of his career. In 2020-21, he registered 35 points in 50 games and followed it up with 36 in 70 this past season. He had eight goals in the first 17 games of 2021-22 and looked to be on pace to do more, but he struggled after being pushed down in the lineup following the return of Jack Hughes after his injury. There is still potential for him to grow. He’s played his whole career to this point in New Jersey, and everyone has seen how much a change of scenery can help a player get to the next step in their career.
At 6-foot-3, Zacha is a big presence on the ice. He has shown that he can step up when other guys are injured. With the state of the Bruins and Brad Marchand set to miss the start of the season, he will certainly have a chance to play in a top-six role to start the 2022-23 season.
The Bruins need a center of the future. While he may not be a first-line guy, he could easily still develop into a great second-line center and buy the team some time to develop the center prospects they took in this year’s entry-level draft. At only 25 years old, this is the perfect time for a reset for a former top-ten selection.
A Win For Sweeney, But Not Done Yet
I have not shied away from critiquing Sweeney, especially in the past few months, but credit where credit is due. This is a good move for the Bruins. Yes, Zacha has not shown yet to generate the same amount of points as Haula, and yes, this team still struggles with generating consistent offense outside of Marchand, David Pastrnak, and Patrice Bergeron. But they needed to go younger at center, and they found an option that didn’t cost them future assets or too much money. Most likely, Haula was going to be out at the end of this upcoming season anyways, and now they have a legitimate option at center beyond the 2022-23 season.
The work is not done yet, obviously. The Bruins still need a defenseman on the right side, need to (hopefully) finalize deals with Bergeron and Krejci, and now they need to sign RFA Zacha to a new contract. Given how little cap space they have, don’t be surprised to see another player on the move in the coming days since it doesn’t seem like Sweeney will go the route of buying out Nick Foligno and Tomas Nosek.
Sweeney could also use another legitimate addition on offense. Given the great moves that the Ottawa Senators have made in the last week and the fact that the Detroit Red Wings aren’t looking too shabby these days, the Bruins should be feeling the heat in the Atlantic Division. It might be a bit more of a fight to get into the playoffs this year than it has been in the past. They may not be able to wait until the trade deadline to make some necessary and aggressive moves.
With the 2022-23 season officially upon us, things are definitely going to be interesting between now and the start of the season in October. Make sure to stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for everything that is about to come.
I’m Hannah Garfield, a graduate of Elon University with degrees in Film and Media Analytics. Currently, I’m pursuing my MFA in Screenwriting at Boston University. I’m a lifelong, passionate Boston sports fan and love all things Bruins.