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Should the Devils Keep Pavel Zacha?

Today’s continuation of the “Should They Stay or Should They Go” theme here at AATJ has us looking at a polarizing New Jersey Devils forward. Yes, I am indeed talking about Pavel Zacha. the former 6th overall draft selection in 2015 who has been all over the Devils lineup since joining the team. Initially seen as one of the big pieces moving forward, the offense has yet to come consistently for Zacha, leading for some to see him as a player who could be dealt in a “change of scenery” deal. This feeling intensified as the Devils added Nico Hischier (in 2017) and Jack Hughes (in 2019) as a pair of first overall selections. Is Zacha really an expendable piece though? Let’s delve a bit deeper.

Pavel Zacha’s Time in New Jersey So Far

Zacha has spent four seasons now playing for our New Jersey Devils, and while he put up a promising 24 points in 70 games during his 2016-17 rookie campaign, the offensive totals never seemed to grow. Despite prominent top line auditions, including talented linemates at different times, Zacha’s totals stayed fairly flat with 25 points in 69 games in 2017-18, 25 again in 2018-19 (although in eight fewer contests), and a small increase to 32 this past season in 65 contests.

This will be the only part where I bring up draft position, as it’s no longer relevant now that four years have passed. Perhaps he was taken too high; perhaps things haven’t panned out the way everyone would have liked. Heck, perhaps they should’ve taken someone more high touted instead. It’s all inconsequential now as what was done five years ago is done. While the point totals are lower than we all would want, Zacha is at the very least an NHL player. You wouldn’t know that however from his stats this past season.

His stats from the truncated 2019-20 campaign (courtesy of Natural Stat Trick) paint the picture of a forward who put up some points on a bad Devils team, but wasn’t actively contributing to improving the run of play, as the chart below shows.

While again, Zacha’s point totals were good this past season, they seem inflated by his linesmates, as the rest of his rankings all rank near the bottom for the team’s forwards. Additionally, the most common names under him were either players lambasted by the fan base (John Hayden, Miles Wood) or players who weren’t really put in roles to succeed (Jesper Boqvist) due to their position on the depth chart.

More worrisome is that Travis Zajac, who just completed his age 34 season, consistently ranked above Zacha, if only by a bit, in most of the categories. That puts Zacha at the level of an older forward whose offensive skills have clearly begun to decline, but without the defensive responsibilities that Zajac shoulders. Consistently being deployed against the top opposing players has an impact on Travis’ numbers; Pavel doesn’t have that excuse. His mostly low rankings should be worrisome sign for his ability to positively affect the run of play going forward.

What do the Devils do With Zacha Long-Term?

This is the million dollar question right here, as many saw Zacha as a solid third line center behind Hughes and Hischier moving forward. His advanced stats, however, show him to be one of the Devils’ forwards being hemmed in and generating little for the team. Most, if not all of the articles that I have personally written for the site this summer have discussed needing players who “move the needle” or have a positive impact on play. I’m not sure Zacha can be part of that solution.

The encouraging news would be him putting up the highest point total of his career this past season; again though, much of it seemed to come after he was paired with Nikita Gusev and Jesper Bratt. It seems as though his increased production was more of a byproduct of being paired with them.

If I had to make a call as to what to do with Zacha going forward, I would listen to trade offers for him, but I would be hesitant to make a deal, unless there was an overpayment coming back for him. He has two years left on his current contract, and will still be an RFA when the deal comes to an end, which could make him attractive for the right team. However, he’s also been a very good penalty killer, and that effectiveness while being able to be placed in a bottom 6 role combined with cost control makes it difficult to jettison him.

Unless there’s an overpayment as mentioned above, I think Zacha remains a Devil for the near future. I do believe the organization will eventually draft/develop or acquire a player who does what he does, but better, and that will be when they part ways with him. Until that time comes, however, I think Zacha would best be suited as a New Jersey Devil.

I see Zacha at least playing out his current contract, but he could be dealt as early as prior to his next NHL deal. Unless he breaks out during the duration of his current deal, I do not view him as a long-term piece. He’s an elite penalty killer, but does not bring much else, needing players who can create offense around him to boost his totals. Again, when the Devils find a superior offensive player who brings comparable defense, Zacha’s time in New Jersey should come to an end.

Your Take

Now I want to know what you think. How long do you think the Devils will keep Pavel Zacha? Will his current contract be his last with the Devils or will he be re-signed past 2021-22? Can Zacha put together a better season than his 2019-20 campaign? Leave your thoughts an comments below and thanks as always for reading!

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