Devils’ Zacha Breaking Out to Start 2020-21

If you had told me Pavel Zacha would be the New Jersey Devils’ leading scorer through 15 games of the season, I wouldn’t have believed you. But after a three-point performance that included the game-winning goal against the Buffalo Sabres last night, he now leads the team with 12 points in 15 games. 

It’s been a long road coming for the former sixth overall pick. This is Zacha’s fifth full season in the NHL, but he’s never totaled more than 32 points in a season, which he set in 2019-20. If he keeps it up, he’ll be on pace to finish with 45 points this season, a 66-point pace over 82 games. 

And with last night’s performance, Zacha has 10 points across his last eight games. Let’s take a look at the young forward’s play and what’s led to the sudden breakout. 

Zacha’s Out of the Blue Performance

Zacha has never shown the potential to be a top scorer for the Devils before. If anything, he showed he could be a bottom-six forward who plays solid two-way hockey while providing some depth scoring. Prior to this season, he had never averaged more than 1.48 points per 60 minutes (points/60) at even strength, not exactly indicative of a high-end scorer. 

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But suddenly, Zacha has become the Devils’ go-to offensive threat. Not only does he have 10 points in his last eight games, but he’s played at just above a point-per-game pace over his last 11 games. It shouldn’t be a surprise given his past production, but it’s the best stretch of his career, without a doubt. 

During his scoring surge, Zacha’s even-strength numbers have seen a dramatic uptick compared to previous seasons. He has a Corsi-for percentage (CF%) of 51.9 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 55.5 percent. And for what it’s worth, he has a CF% of 50.1 percent and xG% of 51.9 percent for the season. The points aren’t really a fluke; he’s legitimately playing well.

Pavel Zacha New Jersey Devils
Forward Pavel Zacha has been one of the New Jersey Devils’ top forwards (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

One thing that may have helped Zacha is head coach Lindy Ruff switching him to left wing from center. He’s played both positions before but was primarily a center up until this season. Now, he’s getting more time at left wing, and he’s producing. 

In the Devils’ most recent four games, he’s played on a line with Nico Hischier at center and Jesper Bratt at right wing. The early returns weren’t great, but it all came together last night in the Devils’ overtime win. The team had a CF% of 73 percent and xG% of 76 percent when they were on the ice at five-on-five. They were arguably the team’s best line and would not have won the game without them. 

What’s Changed for Zacha?

In last night’s postgame press conference, Zacha was asked by Robert Aitken Jr. of The Bergen Record (about 3:10 into the video), “what has been working so well for you, personally, to have so much success?”

Zacha responded by saying, “It starts with the coaches and trying to battle in corners, how to win pucks and how to play for my line. I’m just trying to find open areas, which Bratt and Nico are finding me there. It’s just fun to play like that and keep going.” (From ‘Pavel Zacha’s surge continues, helps Devils outlast Sabres in OT to end three-game skid’, The Bergen Record – 2/25/2021)

Zacha’s response is pretty interesting in a couple of regards. His ability to win battles in corners has improved, but his ability to win pucks has stood out, as well. Hischier’s go-ahead goal in the third period wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Zacha winning a one-on-one battle that allowed him to get the puck to the front of the net to Hischier.

New Jersey Devils Pavel Zacha
Pavel Zacha has noticeably improved to start 2020-21 (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Likewise, the Devils’ first goal doesn’t happen without Zacha creating spacing just along his blue line. That allowed Bratt to gain speed through the neutral zone, where Zacha hit him with a crisp pass. That caught the Sabres’ defense off-guard and gave Bratt all the space to fire off a wicked shot.

The changes in Zacha’s play are noticeable. He’s not the same player he was two or three years ago, or even at this time last season. He looks closer to a player that was a top 10 pick about five and a half years ago. If he keeps making plays as he did last night, then he should continue to have success. 

With that said, there probably is some regression coming for Zacha at some point. His shooting percentage is just under 18 percent, though he does have a pretty wicked shot himself. Still, that percentage is likely to come back down to Earth a bit at some point. He’s also producing at a higher rate than his career averages on the power play. At the same time, he’s logging the most power play minutes he ever has in his career. So his production there could be sustainable moving forward.

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There have been plenty of good stories to the Devils’ 7-6-2 start, but none of them have been better than Zacha’s. He’s gone through plenty of adversity in his young career (it’s easy to forget he’s still only 23 years old). 

There were plenty of expectations placed on Zacha after being the sixth overall pick at the 2015 Draft. They hadn’t been met to this point, but that seems to be changing now. Whether he can maintain his play remains to be seen. But either way, he’s been a feel-good story worth soaking in during a 2020-21 NHL season that’s already had its fair share of difficulties

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