Amidst the speculation on what general manager Ray Shero will do to improve the New Jersey Devils this offseason, two unanswered questions have remained in circulation: “Will the Devils bring Patrik Elias back?” and “Will Pavel Zacha be on next year’s roster?”
Both players are in complete opposite states of their careers. Elias is the Devil’s all-time leader in goals, points, and last active player to win a Stanley Cup with the organization. Pavel Zacha was the 6th overall pick in 2015, and Ray Shero’s first draft selection as Devils general manager. The Czech-born center has size and tons of offensive upside, which has made fans eager to see him turn pro. In 51 games with the OHL’s Sarnia Sting, Zacha tallied 28 goals and 64 points, along with seven goals and 13 points in 17 postseason matches. He had a three-game stint in Albany where he recorded just as many points and appeared in five AHL playoff contests, scoring one goal and two assists. Zacha made his NHL debut on the Devil’s final regular season game. He skated on a line with fellow Czech Patrik Elias, and recorded two assists, including one on Elias’ goal.
Zacha made a very promising first impression in the NHL, and I’m sure it’s only a preview of greater things to come. The idea of a seasoned veteran like Elias playing alongside a Czech rookie center like Zacha took Devils fans by storm. The chemistry they seemed to have was enough convince Devils fans of Elias returning next season and Zacha making the opening night roster. I’m sure most fans who became immersed in this mindset haven’t realized their conclusions were based off watching Elias and Zacha play together for just one game, at a time where the outcome couldn’t have mattered less. While I’m a strong supporter of staying on course with the rebuild, I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing Elias and Zacha on next year’s team, only if there’s room on the roster and the arrangement makes sense. When you look at the big picture and compare it to what a projected Devils lineup looks like with these two forcibly included (and on the same line no-less), it paints an apparent picture on how incompatible this scenario truly is.
A line with Elias and Zacha will be one of the offense’s top-three units. Elias would be part of a left wing depth chart that already features Taylor Hall, Mike Cammalleri, Reid Boucher, Joe Blandisi, and Blake Pietila. With Elias in the mix, next year’s top-three left wings would be him, Hall, and Cammalleri, while the fourth is a tossup between Boucher, Blandisi, Pietila, or a more versatile forward like Sergey Kalinin. One must ask who a team looking to come out of rebuilding mode ought to award that No. 3 left wing slot to in this scenario: An injury-prone forward in the twilight of his career (Elias), or one of the aforementioned young up and comers (Boucher Blandisi, Pietila).
The counter-argument is that Elias would be a great mentor for rookie Pavel Zacha. While Zacha has a greater chance of being on next year’s team, one of his biggest obstacles lies in the Devil’s situation down the middle. Ahead of Zacha on the Devil’s center depth chart are Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, Jacob Josefson, and the recently acquired Vernon Fiddler. My personal belief is those four will be the Devil’s centers going into next season, mainly since they’re all signed to one-way deals. Zacha is only 19 and can only benefit from another year in the OHL instead of rushing his way to the NHL. It wouldn’t make sense if Zacha played fourth line minutes, or was shifted to wing just for the sake of making room for him. The Devils have experimented with positional shifts on prospects before that more often than not worked to no avail.
The Elias/Zacha union looks good on paper, but there simply isn’t room on the roster. While it’s unfortunate the timing wasn’t right to see what these two can do together next season, the bigger picture that Shero and Coach Hynes are keeping focused on will benefit the organization in the long run.