Pavel Zacha is now five games (four this season) into his NHL career, and while he isn’t lighting it up in the points column (one assist this season, two last season) like Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine or Connor McDavid, he hasn’t looked out of place with the New Jersey Devils. In fact, he’s seen some time on the team’s penalty kill which is somewhat of an uncommon occurrence for a 19-year-old at this level, and even there he hasn’t looked like a rookie. He’s tall (6’3”), lanky, and with a long reach/stick, he has broken up some passes on the PK.
For now, though, it appears this won’t be a normal thing, as the coaches will give and take minutes from him when they feel he is getting a little fatigued. “Pavel was good. It was a situation where we came into the first two games and gave him huge minutes with power play, penalty kill, and five-on-five,” coach John Hynes explained following the Devils first home game and win. “And we thought he played well. But we felt over the course of some games he wore down a little bit, so we’ll try to manage his minutes a little bit better.”
— Devils Report (@devils_fanly) October 10, 2016
At some point during New Jersey’s training camp, the question of whether or not Zacha would make the roster became a moot point, but he is still eligible to go back to the OHL. It seems unlikely, but he isn’t taking anything for granted. “I still don’t know if I have a job here,” he said, grinning. “I still have a couple of more games to go, so we’ll see about that. It’s great that I have a chance to play here and we’ll see how I play over the next couple of games.”
“This was my first home opener so it was something special, it’s a once in a lifetime experience for me. It’s great, and we won the game, which we waited for two games to do. From Florida, we played much better against Tampa, and tonight, was our best game yet; we’re getting better,” said Zacha.
New Jersey won 2-1 against the Anaheim Ducks, who boast one of the biggest and heaviest teams in the NHL, and Zacha went head-to-head multiple times against NHL veteran centers like Ryan Kesler, Antoine Vermette, and Ryan Getzlaf – who are two of the best in the biz.
“I thought he played a really strong game against some veteran centermen that he was going up against all night,” said Taylor Hall who netted both goals in the win. “I think that’s a really good experience for him; and the fact that he was not only able to keep up with them, but win face-offs and play strong. I think that’s a really good sign going forward.”
“They’re a heavy team so it was good, we skated fast and cycled in their zone and that’s what they don’t like,” Zacha said. “It was really great (experience) and we won the game but now we have to focus on the game against Boston, which will be really hard, but this win against Anaheim was really good.”
It’s likely that, during the next year or two, Zacha and Hall will make up two-thirds of New Jersey’s top-line; with Michael McLeod on the other side? We’ve already seen little glimpses of what the two talented skaters can do alongside one another early this season, and it seems like the potential could be unlimited if the Czech center continues to develop and adapt to the NHL game.
“We played a couple of shifts in the preseason, and now a couple of games too so, it’s great,” said a smiling Zacha. “He’s a fast player, we just had some shifts in their zone and some scoring chances. (Hall) played great tonight, two goals.”
Teach Me Your Ways
Zacha admitted to The Hockey Writers that he has had help as he continues to learn the ins-and-outs of being an NHL center over a full season; and if you’re going to seek out help, the Devils now employ one of the craftiest veteran centers. “It helps having these guys playing with you, especially a guy like Vern Fiddler to learn face-offs; he tells me what to work on. He taught me a lot of stuff about it because I was not good, so it helps me a lot. I think every young player needs someone like that, someone to help you; I think it helps everyone.”
His coach has been keeping close tabs on him and has generally liked what he has seen throughout the first two weeks of the season. “He played well (tonight), you could see he made some good plays, he’s strong on the puck, he moved his feet well,” said Hynes. “That line with Devante Smith-Pelly and Beau Bennett was probably our most productive line five-on-five as far as scoring chances and territory. It was nice to see those three guys work well together.”
Zacha played a lot of hockey last season – OHL with Sarnia (plus playoffs), one game with New Jersey, and then playoffs with the Albany Devils. “It helped me out because they told me when they sent me back last year that I need a lot of ice-time, just play one more season. I had big ice-time, played everything (all situations) and when I came here for one game (the Devils last game of the season) it was a great experience. When I came back for camp here I felt much better with the guys, you know everyone. Playing in the pro hockey playoffs, it was amazing too. They have a really good team in Albany, it was a great experience and I think it helped me a lot.”
Pavel Zacha does all the listening while veteran Jim O’Brien does all the talking during a playoff game in Albany in April:
— Dan Rice (@DRdiabloTHW) April 23, 2016
A Passing of the Torch
For those that don’t know, Zacha’s favorite player growing up was Patrik Elias and he even showed us a picture after New Jersey drafted him of him as a young boy in 2003 when Elias brought the Stanley Cup back to the Czech Republic. So this past April, in the last game of the Devils’ season, it was a dream come true for the teenager to play on the same team (and line) with his hockey hero.
Currently Elias – a lifelong Devil – is without a contract and while he is determining if he can make a comeback at some point this season, he has been skating on the ice at the Prudential Center on his own (before or after the team practices) and still sits in on team meetings. Whether Elias plays again or not, just his presence alone is huge for Zacha as he embarks on what he hopes is a long, and successful NHL career.
“Patrik is here in the locker room every morning, we talk all the time,” Zacha told THW. “Especially today, he told me he watched the games (in Florida and Tampa) and tells me what I can do a little bit better and stuff; what to focus on. It’s great, he’s watching the games, watching our team. I think we all hope that he is going to come back this season; he’s feeling better so hopefully, he’ll be back soon.”
The future is getting brighter for Devils fans with the additions of players like Zacha, McLeod, and the emergence of some (perhaps) hidden gems like Blake Speers, Miles Wood, and Joe Blandisi. So far a lot of the moves the new regime has made have worked out, and patience will be key for all parties involved.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.