The New Jersey Devils aren’t serious playoff contenders … yet. But hopefully for them and their fans that is the path they are on, and why it makes sense that rookie Pavel Zacha has been on the roster all season long. The 2015 first round pick is gaining valuable experience today that will help him over the next few years when he will be, again hopefully, the centerpiece of a complete-looking team.
Over the next year to two years, joining Zacha as the young core will likely be some combination of the following: John Quenneville, Blake Speers, Blake Coleman, Alexander Kerfoot, Miles Wood, Steven Santini, Michael McLeod, Nathan Bastian, Brandon Gignac and Yegor Rykov. This does not include anyone that New Jersey will be drafting at the 2017 NHL Draft, a draft in which at press time the Devils own 10 picks in.
— James Brahaney (@JamesBrahaney) September 19, 2016
Over his first 48 games this season, Zacha has compiled 14 points (6G-8A); half of those points have come via the power play and four of his six goals have been with the extra man. The 19-year-old Czech has seen a lot more time recently on the man-advantage after starting the season getting ice-time on the penalty kill. The time on the PK earlier in the season was a strategy as coach John Hynes explained.
“We see Pavel down the road and think he can play (on) both (sides of) special teams; early in the year, offensively, he wasn’t playing with a lot of confidence, wasn’t using his shot. You could see he was tentative offensively so we wanted to use him on the penalty kill to give him more opportunity to play,” Hynes told The Hockey Writers.
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) February 7, 2017
“Now I think he is getting more touches, is better 5-on-5, you can see he feels a lot better on the power play and he’s much better on it than he was earlier in the year. Down the road, as he continues to develop, we feel like he can be a Zajac or a Henrique where they play quality 5-on-5 minutes and they’re smart enough, good enough to be able to play both special teams.”
Zacha has been much more noticeable the past five games – and it’s shown on the scoresheet with his five points. Over that same time period, he has spent time on a line with Jacob Josefson and Stefan Noesen (who was claimed on waivers right before this five-game streak). “He’s a really smart player,” Zacha said, raving about the addition of Noesen, “he works really hard in the corners and battles for pucks – that’s what we needed the most on our line.”
Zacha Goal https://t.co/tG9ryDi5m4
— xz-Cass (@CassieMoiser) February 7, 2017
“When you play more and more games, you’re more confident. I think as a line, and as a team, we started playing much better and we’re winning,” he added. “It’s tough when you’re on a losing streak, it was tough going for me as a young player. I’m really happy that we’re winning now and our team game is getting better too.”
As the rookie admitted, he went through a tough stretch, but it helps him tremendously to have (A) a coaching staff that is willing to work with him and teaches him how to be better, and (B) his hockey hero just a phone call away. Hynes often raves about how quickly and eagerly Zacha picks up on things they want from him in order to improve, and the young Czech checks in with Devils’ legend Patrik Elias after every game either via text or phone call.
“We talk every time he’s here and we talk about everything. I’m going to text him after this game because we talk a lot after every game. It’s great that he’s still here, that he’s around,” Zacha told THW of Elias who still skates/works out at the Prudential Center and has a stall in their locker room as well. “When he’s around our locker room it’s great, any time you can talk to him in your own language, it just helps. Everything he says you take seriously because he’s a great player – when you’re able to talk to him about these things it’s great and I’m happy that he is here.”
Following the rookie’s first two-point game since Oct. 25, Hynes was asked what he has noticed different about his game from earlier in the season to the present day. “It all starts with Pavel, he’s competing. I think when you watch the games you see his skating is a factor, he has a lot more puck touches so you notice him more, he’s a lot harder on the puck to be able to get it back to the offensive zone. Now you see he’s using his shot; he gets an opportunity to shoot the puck and he does it,” Hynes said.
“Even when you see on his goal on the power play, it’s two feet in front of the net in a rebound situation that he gets home. It’s maturity, but he’s just a lot harder player than he was earlier in the year and those are the things that we are trying to teach him throughout the year. To his credit as a player and person, he went through some adversity and he’s a talented player, but until you learn in this league how hard you have to work every night, you can’t get to see your skill. Now you’re starting to see his skill because of his work ethic.”
— ČT sport (@sportCT) January 3, 2017
It’s also been noticeable to his teammates, many of whom know all too well what it is like to come into the NHL and try to find your way as a teenager playing against men. But Zacha is showing that he is strong enough mentally to hang in there, and the physical side will continue to get better as he gets older and adds muscle to his 6-foot-3 frame.
Czech Finds Chemistry
“He’s just playing with more confidence I think, obviously he’s a very skilled player. I think sometimes young guys take a little bit of time to grow, grow your game overall; where you can play in every zone, in all situations,” Adam Henrique said following the Devils’ third win in four games (3-0-1). “You can see it throughout the season, he’s been getting better – we all go through tough stretches at times. I think he’s done a good job responding here and he’s really been stepping up lately, as have a lot of guys too. We’re going to need that down the stretch.”
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) January 27, 2017
That line that was thrown together has worked well, with Zacha and Noesen creating havoc with their size and skill and Josefson winning more faceoffs than he is losing, and as Hynes points out, Zacha is showing that he can be versatile playing either on the wing or at center if needed.
“I think the wing does help him, and Josefson is playing really well,” the Devils bench boss said. “I think with Pav at center or wing right now his competitive level is where it needs to be – we’ve used him at times when we’ve had injuries, even in games or after certain situations we put him back in the middle and I think the way he is playing and the confidence level he’s playing with now, I think he can play either position.”
Credit to @S7HDesign for the idea. Devils prospects pic.twitter.com/zZPzFgzXCE
— dan (@dmoff_) June 26, 2016
Two years from now, Zacha will be just 21-years-old and hopefully, he will be infinitely better than he is today. Things change pretty fast in the NHL, but there is some slight chance that the Devils’ top-six includes Zacha, Taylor Hall, McLeod, Quenneville, Henrique and Speers — or maybe it’s completely different. Who knows? That’s why they play the games and we watch them to see how it all unfolds. Regardless, Zacha belongs in the NHL at this time as that is what is best for his development at this time – for him, and the Devils.
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.