Yesterday was the last game of the 2016 Prospects Challenge in Buffalo, New York that brought together top prospects with the Devils, Bruins, and Sabres, in an effort to showcase their readiness for the NHL. Pavel Zacha was one of New Jersey’s prospects who attended the Challenge, but only played in one game against Buffalo on Saturday night at the HarborCenter.
In the 2015-16 season, Zacha gave Ray Shero, the Devil’s general manager, a taste of what he’s made of. In three games, Zacha notched three points with the Albany Devils, and two points in one game with the New Jersey Devils. This is just one of the reasons why so many fans think he’s NHL-ready now, and it’s also why some think he might have been ready a year ago. Based on his stats alone, it looks like Zacha doesn’t see a difference between playing in the Junior and professional leagues at all, but on the contrary, he sees there being a handful of differences.
In an interview with The Hockey Writers on Sunday night, Zacha had this to say:
I think it’s more about the system. There’s really good defensive play in the NHL. In Junior, it’s a little bit different, but it’s faster in the NHL, and there’re more creative players. It’s hard to say what’s the biggest difference. The speed is probably the biggest. – Pavel Zacha
Pavel Zacha Started with Wooing OHL Coaches First
RECAP | Sting tie franchise record with 5-2 victory over @OHLRangers
— Sarnia Sting (@StingHockey) March 19, 2016
The 2015-16 season was also Zacha’s second season playing with the OHL’s Sarnia Sting, but it was his first year playing on the penalty kill with them. He ended up being named best penalty killer in the western conference by coaches, and his team ended up having the best penalty kill too.
When I was playing back home in the Czech Republic, I was more on the penalty kill than power play. When I came to Canada, I was just playing on the power play, and I liked it… there’s a bit more opportunity to score on the power play, but when you play as many penalty kills as we did last year, my ice time and everything went up… Usually, you play seven, or eight penalty kills… so it was great I played both; the power play and penalty kill. – Pavel Zacha
One of the biggest questions circling conversations about Zacha is if he’ll make the transition to playing in the NHL full-time this year. After all, Noah Hanifin was drafted one spot ahead of Zacha in the same draft at No. 5, and there’s really not a whole lot of other differences between them. They’re both six foot three. Zacha is roughly four to five pounds heavier, and about two-and-a-half months younger. Yes, one plays defense and the other plays forward, but that really shouldn’t have much to do with it.
I played one game last year. It was a great game, and then I played in Albany, and the coaches there were happy with how I played. Now, it’s all about doing really good in the camp, and there’s a lot of pre-season games, so I can show again that I can play in the NHL. I feel more comfortable this year than I felt last year because I was more nervous. – Pavel Zacha
There it is. One of the biggest differences between Hanifin and Zacha is that one was born on this continent, and the other wasn’t. European players coming overseas to play have one more step to take in their journey to the NHL, and that’s adapting to a brand new culture, miles away from home.
You just want to show everyone you’re ready enough to play in the NHL, you know. I was trying to focus on too much stuff… I watched him (Noah Hanifin) a lot this season, and he played really well. It has a lot to do I think, with the mental thing, that I wasn’t even ready for it last year. I was over thinking when I was playing on the ice. I was thinking, don’t do that and this on the ice. This year, I’m just trying to have fun, and just do my best… that’s why at the end of the season last year when I got a chance to play, I wasn’t nervous to play the game, I was more excited about it, and that helped me to play my best. – Pavel Zacha
Now that Zacha has spent two seasons playing with the Sarnia Sting and consequently living in Canadian culture, he’s become more comfortable both on and off the ice. It’s possible that he could maintain that 2.00 point-per-NHL-game rate he has going on because the barriers are gone.
I think this year it’s more about how I play in the camp because if you’re a good player, and you play really good, they need you. Every team needs good players, I mean, it’s more about me now, and how I perform in the games. If I’m able to play this year, then it’s going to be… if I don’t play good enough, they’ll probably think that I need one more year in Juniors or something, so it’s more about me, and how I play. – Pavel Zacha
European Culture Influences North American Fashion
I find one of the most interesting things about hockey today is the effect globalization is having on it. Thanks to new media, cultures are meshing, and European players are creating reputations for having top tier fashion sense. Of course, this subject has become a key interviewing point of mine reserved for the European players I speak with.
So I listen to hip hop and rap, but I’m not dressing like that. I’m trying to wear more classy stuff, like shoes, and jeans… everyone’s telling me I wear European style, and they can tell in the way I dress. On my team, there’s Mozik, and he’s from the Czech Republic too, and we go shopping. There’s my sister who’s living in Germany – she always sends me stuff. Her boyfriend, who’s playing soccer there, he knows how to dress too, so she is buying us stuff, and she’s dressing me up a little bit. – Pavel Zacha
Over the next decade or so, we’re going to see Zacha looking good both on and off the ice, and a part of that does have to do with his European heritage. Whether or not European players need a little bit more time to get mentally prepared for the NHL is irrelevant, and most general managers are willing to exercise patience. Especially if it means getting an immediate impact player versus a bust.
I’m a Hockey Journalist based out of Barrie, Ontario, a Contributing Writer for The Hockey Writers covering OHL, and NHL prospects with an insatiable thirst for all things LA Kings, and PR gal for Abel Sports Management.