There are several restricted free agents that the New Jersey Devils will need to make decisions on this summer, including their former sixth-overall pick Pavel Zacha. Normally, a decision to re-sign a 22-year-old forward should be pretty straightforward, but that may not be the case for general manager Ray Shero as the offseason approaches.
While Zacha did end the 2018-19 season coming off arguably the best stretch of his NHL career, scoring two goals and adding six assists in the team’s final eight games to match a career-best 25 points, there’s still a level of uncertainty when it comes to the young Czech center.
Let’s not forget how putrid the start of the 2018-19 season was for the youngster. After breaking out of training camp as the team’s second-line center, Zacha began the season without registering a point in 12 games, earning him a demotion to the AHL’s Binghamton Devils in early November. To his credit, when he was called back up, he finally found the scoresheet, recording four goals in his first three games back. However, he followed that up with another pointless stretch through the next 13 games.
Zacha started to pick up his play at the midway point of his third season and managed to finish strong, putting up 20 points in his final 30 games, leading some to believe he might finally be turning the corner and solidifying himself as a top-six center.
However, winning the draft lottery changes everything for the Devils and their offseason approach.
While nothing is written in stone, all signs point to the Devils drafting Jack Hughes – the consensus No. 1 prospect. Drafting the USA Hockey NTDP product will give the Devils a one-two punch down the middle of Hughes and Nico Hischier, pushing Zacha further down the depth chart at center.
Is Left Wing an Option?
With Travis Zajac still under contract for two more seasons, you can make the argument that this pushes Zacha down to the fourth line as a center, where his offense will become of little to no use.
One option John Hynes and his coaching staff can explore is moving Zacha over to the wing. He does have some experience at left wing under his belt, and this will likely give him a better opportunity to play in the top-six up front if he can show a consistent improvement during 5-on-5 play over the course of a full season.
Zacha Excels on Penalty Kill
One strength Zacha and his agent can take into negotiations this summer is his strong play on the penalty kill. According to Evolving Hockey, Zacha ranked ninth in the entire NHL with 2.4 SHGAR (shorthanded goals above replacement) last season with over 131 minutes spent down a man. Only Andy Greene and Ben Lovejoy posted better penalty kill stats for the Devils, solidifying Zacha as the top forward when down a man for Jon Hynes and his coaching staff.
His 5-on-5 production, on the other hand is less than stellar. According to Hockey Reference, Zacha been a negative Corsi player as well as a negative scoring chance player in each of his first four seasons.
All in all, Zacha needs to show a longer period of sustained success and more evidence of being effective at 5-on-5 before the Devils should entertain any long-term contract offers.
While bridge deals aren’t as common as they used to be, that might just be the approach the Devils take with Zacha. Perhaps a contract in the two to three-year range with an AAV around $2 million would be appropriate to see if Zacha can consistently show his playmaking abilities and offensive prowess on a nightly basis, and to prove to Shero that he belongs in the future core of the New Jersey Devils.
Time will tell.