Devils Have Better Options Than Canadiens in Zacha Trade

Pavel Zacha’s name has been in the rumor mill for a few weeks now, and that will continue with the trade deadline less than a week away. Yesterday on The Jeff Marek Show (about 13:30 in), Elliotte Friedman suggested that he thinks the Montreal Canadiens are “one of the teams in on Zacha for sure.” That’s in addition to Zacha already being linked to the Vancouver Canucks by Marek a few weeks ago. 

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Zacha, who turns 25 at the beginning of April, has 13 goals and 28 points in 55 games — a 19-goal, 42-point pace over 82 games. He’ll be an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent this offseason and would be a fit for the Canadiens, who need center depth. But do they have the trade chips to get a deal done with the Devils? Let’s take a look. 

Despite Regression, Zacha Is Having a Decent Season

Zacha had a breakout year, so to speak, in 2020-21, finishing with 17 goals and 35 points in 50 games — a 28-goal, 57-point pace over 82 games. He’s regressed quite a bit this season, but that hasn’t been an unexpected occurrence. He shot 16.8 percent in 2020-21, which was well above his career average of 10.9 percent. This season, his shooting percentage of 10.8 has fallen right in line with his career average of 10.9 percent. 

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Though his production has regressed quite a bit, Zacha’s actually played relatively well at five-on-five. His Corsi-for percentage (CF%) of 54.31 percent is third on the Devils, while his expected goals percentage (xG%) of 53.41 percent ranks seventh. A big reason for the improved on-ice results at five-on-five is because he and Nico Hischier have played very well as linemates this season. 

Pavel Zacha New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils forward Pavel Zacha (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

But even when Zacha hasn’t played alongside Hischier, his on-ice results have been solid. His CF% without Hischier slips from 54.97 percent to 53.36 percent, a marginal drop. There’s a bit more of a dip in his xG% — 54.9 percent to 51.68 — but it’s still comfortably above water. It’s not like Zacha’s time away from Hischier has come alongside Jack Hughes either; they’ve played fewer than 100 minutes together. When Zacha isn’t on a line with Hischier, it usually means he’s centering his own unit instead of playing on the wing. 

Zacha’s improved analytics will likely be a selling point for Canadiens president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton, who is looking to expand the Canadiens’ use of analytics. But Zacha’s contract status is probably also a bit of an appeal. He’s under team control and has a reasonable qualifying offer of $3 million. Even if re-signed to a long-term deal, he should not cost much more than that annually. The versatility to play wing or center doesn’t hurt either. He would help the Canadiens, but do they have anyone the Devils would consider in return? 

Canadiens May Be Short on Attractive Selling Points

The Canadiens have been playing much better hockey since firing Dominique Ducharme and naming Marty St. Louis as the interim coach. With that said, the writing has been on the wall for the Canadiens since Christmas. They’re not going to the playoffs. They don’t exactly have players with team control that would appeal to the Devils, either, which is what they’d be looking for in return for Zacha. 

The one player of interest would be Artturi Lehkonen, who will also be an RFA with arbitration rights this offseason. Coincidentally, Lehkonen has the same counting totals as Zacha this season (13 goals, 28 points in 55 games), but that’s where most of the comparisons stop. Though he has never been a high-end scorer, he impacts the game in other ways more consistently than Zacha has in his career. 

Lehkonen’s value comes from his two-way game, as he’s been one of the best two-way wingers in the league over the last three seasons, specifically defensively. And though Zacha has scored more than Lehkonen over that stretch, Lehkonen has actually been the more efficient five-on-five scorer, averaging 1.78 points per 60 minutes to Zacha’s 1.42. Overall, Lehkonen ranks in the 80th percentile in wins above replacement (WAR) among his peers: 

Artturi Lehkonen
Artturi Lehkonen player card, via @JFreshHockey

Aside from the penalty kill and finishing, there isn’t much that Lehkonen struggles with. The Canadiens are reportedly seeking a first-round pick for him. But with Zacha as part of the package, a second-round selection might be enough to get a deal done, especially if there’s another asset such as a B-level prospect or another later pick. 

After Lehkonen, it’s slim pickings for NHL talent that would make sense for the Devils. Players like Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki are obviously off-limits, and any other NHL talent the Canadiens trade will likely be rentals heading to playoff contenders. Montreal has a strong farm system, meaning the Devils could go for a futures trade. Prospects to consider are Jan Mysak, Jordan Harris and Mattias Norlinder. Both Norlinder and Harris could be second- or third-pair defenders, while Mysak could be a middle-six/second-line winger.

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Harris is interesting in that he returned to Northeastern University for his senior season, which gives him the option to become an unrestricted free agent in August. If the Canadiens don’t believe he’s going to sign with them, they could look to move him. But it’s only March, and that’s something they might not do until the offseason when they get a better sense of his intentions. Plus, the Devils would have to be sure he’d sign with them instead of opting for free agency.

There’s no doubt there’s a fit for Zacha in Montreal. They need NHL talent down the middle, and despite the flaws he has, a forward on pace for 19 goals and 42 points is someone who can help. The problem is it’s hard to see a scenario where the Canadiens have what it takes to meet what the Devils are looking for in return unless Lehkonen comes the other way. Otherwise, the Canucks would be the smarter bet as a destination for Zacha, at least from the teams publicly known to have interest in him. And the Devils would more than likely get the NHL talent (Brock Boeser or Conor Garland) they seek in return from Vancouver. 

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