New Jersey Devils forward Pavel Zacha has a lot to work on, including his bluffing. His freshly minted three-year $6.75 million deal is proof positive of that and how general manager Ray Shero is not a man you want sitting across from you at the poker table.
Zacha vs. Shero
In the end, Zacha may have gotten what he had been seeking, namely back in with the Devils, but he’s not necessarily in their good graces, having just played hardball with limited leverage. Zacha, through agent Patrik Stefan, raised the possibility of a move to the Kontinental Hockey League as a free agent, prompting an expletive-laced response in the media by Shero.
In the process, Shero may have thrown Zacha a bone, saying he is an important player. Make no mistake, though. Just as Shero explained in no uncertain terms, he doesn’t really need to care. Technically, Zacha is a remnant of the Lou Lamoriello era. So, Zacha playing hard to get? It doesn’t necessarily reflect badly on the GM.
Nor do the Devils themselves really need Zacha, either. Following a summer in which the Devils arguably transformed into contenders, Zacha is a nice-to-have. That’s all. They’ve got three potential centers in Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes and Travis Zajac already, with at least a fourth, Jesper Boqvist, knocking at the door.
So, Zacha had little leverage heading into negotiations, if the fact he was a restricted free agent to begin with wasn’t enough. Taking into account how he has failed to crack the 30-point plateau in three seasons so far, he should be glad he got as much as he did. After all, New York Islanders forward Anthony Beauvillier ($2.1 million) just signed for less per year despite being 22 years old too, but having earned a slightly higher point-per-game average.
Zacha vs. Nichushkin
To be fair, Zacha obviously still has untapped potential at 22 years old. Just four years after he went sixth overall to the Devils, it would be an undeniable shame if he bolted. Just take a look at Colorado Avalanche forward Valeri Nichushkin, who couldn’t make it work with the Dallas Stars despite his similarly high draft-pick status.
After spending two years in the KHL following the conclusion of his entry-level deal, Nichushkin failed to impress this past season. The end result? He was just forced to take a sweetheart, team-friendly one-year deal to prove himself. In other words, the KHL as the second-best league in the world may seem like a step forward in the present if you’re not gaining traction in the NHL, but it could just as easily set you further back if you’re still developing as a player.
There could have been some truth to reports Zacha had actually signed in the KHL. However, the news ultimately turned out to be little more than a negotiating tactic considering the outcome. However, what did Zacha really gain other than a three-year bridge deal at a slightly favorable cap hit?
Shero Gets What He Wants
Look at it from Shero’s perspective. As Zacha drops on the Devils’ depth chart, Shero has just:
- Kept potentially distracting negotiations from spilling into the season,
- Completed his roster by signing the last free agent he conceivably had to and
- Secured the rights of a secondary scorer with upside, clearly grateful to still be here, who likely understands time is running out on him, unless he starts producing.
Remember: Zacha reportedly came within a hair of being a KHLer. The fact that he signed with the Devils should make it crystal clear it’s where he would prefer to be. The deal reflects that, seeing as it’s hardly the massive win the optics make it seem. He couldn’t refuse it, because there wasn’t much else the Devils could have realistically offered if he had turned it down.
Sure, Zacha theoretically got the Devils to “blink” as a result of his shenanigans, but you know what they say? The second-greatest trick the Devils ever pulled was convincing the world to that effect. Shero and the Devils got what they wanted. Zacha only got what he so badly needed, another chance in the NHL. It’s time for him to get to work. The bluffing is the least of his concerns now.