Not every player joins the NHL and lights the league on fire, and to expect every young player to have an impact on their team like Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid is unrealistic at best. Some will take longer to develop than others. Some are forced into more duty than maybe they are ready to handle. Others will develop slowly and eventually pan out (see: 28-year-old Josh Bailey – 9th overall/2008 NHL Draft by the New York Islanders and this season is having a career year).
The New Jersey Devils drafted Pavel Zacha sixth overall in the 2015 NHL Draft with hopes that he would one day become their franchise center. This season, his second in the league, has been filled with ups and downs including watching from the press box as a healthy scratch at certain times. But lately, he’s showed signs of some progress and has found some success alongside fellow second-year Devil Miles Wood.
Showing Signs of Improvement
Anyone who’s seen Wood play over the past year knows that his speed is his greatest weapon, and can sometimes change the course of a game or shift the momentum of it. On a line with the young speed demon Zacha has had to quicken the pace of his own game and the two players, who are good friends off the ice, have found a bit of chemistry. “Pav’s been a good friend of mine for a year and a half now and playing alongside him has been a lot of fun,” Wood told The Hockey Writers after a two-goal performance in a home win over Anaheim. “Hopefully we can continue our success.”
The coaching staff was hoping that Zacha would accelerate his game alongside Wood, and in the process maybe eliminate the thinking from the young Czech’s game and get him to just play reactionary hockey. “Yeah they’re good together, I think Woody brings so much speed,” New Jersey coach John Hynes explained. “He and (Blake) Coleman are two guys that I feel like I can put them with anyone because they play the same game. They’re strong, competitive, have great speed, find ways to get pucks and they’re probably fun guys to play with because you know what you’re getting every shift with those guys.”
Zacha admitted to THW that he has really enjoyed playing on that line and that Wood’s presence, and their friendship, has helped get him out of whatever rut he was stuck in earlier this season. “We’ve played a lot together this year and I think we’re really starting to click. I know where he is on the ice and what he needs, I think he’s a really good goal scorer; a really fast player,” said Zacha. “The first part of the season we were trying to figure out how to play with each other but now we know where we are on the ice and things are working. It’s been fun to play with him and (Drew) Stafford on a line.”
Jedi Mind Tricks
There’s still a ways to go for the 20-year-old who hasn’t even played in 100 NHL games yet (97 and counting at press time), but he is making progress and that’s a step in the right direction. “I tell Pavel, ‘just calm down, you’re talented out here, and just make the plays that you can and things will work out,’” Wood said. Zacha has put up three points (all assists) over the past five games, fired eight shots on goal and the Devils went 3-1-1 over that span.
“Tonight he played with a stronger focus level and that’s what we’ve talked with him about. The thing with him is he needs to have a strong focus on how he needs to play and he needs to play hard – if he does that – he’s an effective player,” Hynes said of Zacha after the come-from-behind win against Anaheim. “Tonight he did that, I thought he skated well, moved the puck pretty well and he looked pretty good in his puck battles – and we still need some progress there. That’s what allows him to be able to get to his skill set and I thought tonight he did a good job of that.”
The first game of this recent five-game stretch was Zacha’s first back in the lineup after a series of games where he was a scratch, and he seems like he’s now in a better place mentally than he was just a month or a few weeks ago. Remember, it’s a long season. “I’m trying to make something happen every shift, you never know how many shifts you’re going to get a game and I’m just trying to make an impact every shift I go on the ice,” said the rejuvenated Czech. “I was overthinking everything too much, I think, at the start of the season. Now I’m just trying to play, have fun, be hard to play against, and that has to be my game every shift.”
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) December 19, 2017
He’s not even 21-years-old yet, and in the current overreaction generation era that we reside in, sometimes players aren’t given the fairest of chances by the fans, media, and maybe coaches too. But it’s also a good learning experience for him and as his linemate can attest to – it can light a fire underneath a player as well. On opening day in front of a sold-out Prudential Center crowd, Wood was a healthy scratch. He’s played in every game since then for the Devils. “Absolutely (it motivated me),” he told THW. “I think if you don’t play that sets a fire in you and that’s what it did.”
New Jersey is almost at full health for the first time all season and that means that there will be players that will be left on the sidelines that maybe could be playing, or have been playing. That’s another motivation for the players on the roster right now — the healthy, internal competition of not wanting to come out of the lineup, and making choices harder for coaches to sit players.
“For everyone, not just me. Everyone knows they have to play great every game to stay in the lineup and I think it drives us at every practice,” Zacha said. “We’re a team that works hard every practice and every game, it drives us. It’s fun to be part of a team that is winning and everyone wants to be a part of that.”
If the Devils keep winning they, and their fans, are going to have a lot more fun as we turn our calendars to 2018. And if Zacha stays on course and in eight years becomes something close to what Bailey has become — that’d be another win.
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.