When the New Jersey Devils drafted Jack Hughes with the first overall pick, Pavel Zacha was the center who benefited the least. Nico Hischier was asserting himself as a fixture in their top six, and there was no way Travis Zajac would be anything less than a third-line center. That meant Zacha was likely heading for a spot as a bottom-six forward, and so far, that’s been the case.
Even though the Devils are using Zacha differently, it seems to have benefited him. He has four points in his first seven games and has gained the trust of head coach John Hynes to play in different situations throughout the game. His defensive play has been as expected, and if he manages to find some consistency on offense, he could become one of the Devils’ most important players.
The Devils’ Swiss Army Knife
The Devils needed Zacha to play a significant role this season, and he’s answered the bell to this point. His four points in seven games is a big step up from a season ago when he had no points in his first 10 games, which forced the Devils to send him to the AHL. But it’s Hynes’ use of Zacha in multiple spots throughout the lineup that’s given him the most value.
There’s a reason Hynes has been able to do that, too, as Zacha has stood out defensively at five-on-five. And that can’t be said about a lot of the Devils’ forwards during their 2-4-2 start to the season. Here’s how his on-ice rates against per 60 minutes — Corsi against per 60 (CA/60), scoring chances against per 60 (SCA/60), high-danger chances against per 60 (HDCA/60), and expected goals against per 60 (xGA/60) — rank among the Devils’ forwards:
- CA/60: 46.44 (third-best)
- SCA/60: 21.72 (fourth-best)
- HDCA/60: 8.24 (ninth-best)
- xGA/60: 1.80 (fifth-best)
Because of his sound defensive game, Zacha has seen anything from top-line minutes to a shutdown role on the fourth line. With Hughes struggling in his first two games, Hynes moved Zacha to his wing, and it helped Hughes put together some of his best games at five-on-five in his young career.
With Hischier missing the last couple of games with a minor upper-body injury, Hughes moved up to the top line with Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri. But Hynes was careful of Hughes’ deployment, and on defensive zone faceoffs, it was Zacha who took most of the draws instead of Hughes because of his defensive responsibility. And that’s a trend that should continue for a majority of the season if not all of it.
An Elite Penalty Killer
A lot of things went wrong for the Devils last season, which is how they ended up with Hughes on their roster. But even with their struggles, the penalty kill was one area that thrived, as it finished fourth in the NHL. Zacha isn’t the main reason the Devils’ kill was one of the best, but there’s no doubt he plays a big part in its success.
What makes Zacha a great penalty killer is his ability to suppress shots and chances when he’s on the ice. Here’s where his CA/60, SCA/60, HDCA/60, and xGA/60 rank in the NHL since his first full season in 2016-17 (min. 100 minutes played):
- CA/60: 75.76 (fifth-best)
- SCA/60: 35.53 (fifth-best)
- HDCA/60: 13.18 (fourth-best)
- xGA/60: 4.75 (fifth-best)
There’s a good argument for Zacha as one of the best penalty killers in the league. And while his numbers are not quite there to start this season, there’s a good chance he ends up finishing 2019-20 as one of the league’s top penalty killers.
What’s most interesting about his start to the season is that he’s actually generating more offense killing penalties than at five-on-five. To date, he has four shot attempts, four scoring chances, and three high-danger chances while on the kill, the latter of which is two more than he has at five-on-five. He also has an individual xG of 0.4, which is double what he has at five-on-five.
Zacha has been doing the little things on the penalty kill, too. He’s getting his stick in the passing lanes, and he’s breaking up opponents’ rushes in the neutral zone. When the opportunity to apply pressure on the forecheck arises, he’s been able to do that and help kill more time. And those are things that will help the team’s penalty kill to get back on track after a rough start to the season.
How Zacha Can Sustain His Start
Killing penalties, and doing so effectively, is a good way to stay in the lineup every night. But Zacha needs to become a more productive offensive player at five-on-five. He’s never finished with more than 25 points in a season, which is well less than what you need from someone who was a top-ten pick a little more than four years ago.
If there’s an area where Zacha needs to find consistency, it’s shooting the puck. He may have four points in seven games, but that’s thanks to a three-point effort against the Florida Panthers. Otherwise, he has just three shots on goal, three shot attempts, and three scoring chances at five-on-five. The Devils aren’t asking him to be their primary scoring threat down the middle. But they’ll need him to put up more points moving forward, so he’ll need to get more aggressive with the puck on his stick.
With all that said, Zacha has gotten off to a much more encouraging start than he did a season ago. With Hischier, Hughes, and Zajac occupying the top three center spots in the lineup, there’s less pressure on Zacha to be a top-six scoring threat. That seems to have benefited him, and if it helps him find more offensive consistency, he’ll be an invaluable player the rest of the way.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017