Before the New Jersey Devils would go on to be two-time draft lottery champions, having the sixth overall pick in the 2015 Draft was a big deal. Back then, the Devils had an ongoing three-year playoff drought and were searching for something to look forward to after yet another disappointing season. Although the Devils missed out on the chance to draft Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, hopes were high for Ray Shero’s first draft as general manager. Even after McDavid and Eichel were taken, the draft board still had loads of talent.
When the Devils were on the clock with the sixth pick, they selected Czech forward Pavel Zacha. Zacha instantaneously became New Jersey’s top prospect, not that there was much competition after years of poor drafting. His only game of the 2015-16 — the season’s final game — saw him register two points. One game may be a small sample size, but hopes were high for the player expected to be a franchise player or at the very least a top-six forward.
Fast forward the next few seasons, and Zacha seemed to be poorly advertised on his draft day. While he was being overshadowed by players drafted after him, such as Matt Barzal of the New York Islanders who was taken 15th overall. Zacha has never seen a season with over 25 points and AHL demotions were not uncommon. As the summer of 2019 progressed, and rumors of a KHL deal came up, the unfortunate title of “draft bust,” was being thrown around. When it was finally announced that Zacha would remain with the Devils, it was safe to assume expectations weren’t that high.
What Happened This Season
Boy, were we wrong, oh how we were wrong. In the still young season, Zacha has established himself as the team’s best forward. In this small sample size, he’s even flirted with taking that distinction away from Taylor Hall. All statistics still point to Mr. One for One, but Zacha has been the more consistent of the two.
Zacha had his coming out party on a downright embarrassing loss to the Florida Panthers. The regulation loss that I wish I could purge from my hockey memory saw Zacha tally his first three-point game (1G, 2A). In the Devils’ next game, he had an assist on Blake Coleman’s first-period goal in an eventual win against the New York Rangers.
Goals and assists are nice categories, but a few of the other less used statistics play into Zacha’s favor as well. Zacha is one of only eight skaters on the Devils’ roster with a positive plus/minus rating (+1). He has done this while only taking one minor penalty. The best statistic to describe Zacha’s play is his points per game. He ranks third, behind Matt Tennyson who could be counted as an outlier (two points in two games). Even though it’s unlikely he keeps up at his current pace, Zacha’s 0.67 points per game would have him finish in the realm of almost 55 points this season. This would best his previous career total by nearly 30 points.
Areas for Improvement?
In Zacha’s past, one of the few areas of his game earning praise was his penalty kill. While that area of the Devils continues to struggle, Zacha’s plus-minus suggests he’s at least keeping the damage to a minimum. So far, the only game he had a negative rating was in the season’s second game against the Buffalo Sabres. The past two games have seen Zacha hit at least 17 minutes in ice time while enjoying a career-best shooting percentage of 16.70%.
While that shooting percentage might be Zacha’s career-best, it’s still only fifth-best on the Devils. One can only imagine what would happen to Zacha’s numbers if he took a few more shots. With Nico Hischier still out with an injury, that might open up some ice time for Zacha. He has spent most of his time on Thursday on the third line after various stints on the fourth line. While his recent production suggests a spot on the second line might not be out of the question, let’s just hope the “draft bust” continues his trend upward.