One month into the 2018-2019 season, and the New Jersey Devils have had their fair share of a revolving player cast going between the AHL and NHL. Joey Anderson, Joel Quenneville, and Eric Gryba were names you probably expected to see on the list—Pavel Zacha? Not so much.
Zacha was never supposed to be the next Wayne Gretzky, but had relatively high expectations when the Devils selected him sixth overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. Until Nico Hischier came along, Zacha was considered the crown jewel of New Jersey’s then-thin prospect pipeline.
Fast forward two years, and Zacha has become a full time NHLer, but isn’t the first round center he was projected to become. In two full NHL seasons, Zacha has yet to tally more than 25 points, and has zero points after 10 games this season—all of which he spent centering the second line. Just a few days ago, Coach Hynes and Ray Shero seemed to have enough, and demoted the 21-year old to the AHL.
While the Devils have had their fair share of problems over the last seven games, Zacha was not one of the obvious ones. The two contests prior to Zacha’s demotion were the two most devastating losses for the Devils in this young season, during which Zacha had a 0 plus/minus rating, while the Devils most productive offensive player this season—Kyle Palmieri, has a rating of -2. Palmieri saw exponentially more ice time, but the way some have vilified Zacha, you would have expected those stats to be worse.
Zacha has also earned his fair share of sympathy from the Devils faithful, from both management and fan departments. Some have noted his strong defensive play after a summer spent training extensively in New Jersey. Although he’s been trying hard to produce all needed goals, Zacha has 10 shots to show for it this season. Assuming he played a full 82-game season, that would put him on track for 82 shots. In last year’s campaign, Zacha only finished with 112 shots.
Defensive centers are a coveted commodity in today’s NHL, but this is a high first round draft pick we’re talking about. It’s easy to look back at the 2015 draft with the eye of a Monday Morning Quarterback. Numerous talented players who’ve accomplished more in their short NHL careers were taken after Zacha. Some notable examples include defensemen Ivan Provorov and Zach Werenski, along with star forwards Miko Rantanen and Matt Barzal. With the 2018-2019 Devils roster in need of solid blue liners, it’s easy to say the Devils should have drafted one of them instead, but remember; back in 2015 most people in the Devils management and fan base thought the future of New Jersey’s defense was in the hands of John Merrill, Eric Gelinas, and Adam Larsson—none of which are even on the team anymore.
If a 21-year-old was sent down by an NHL team to the AHL to refine their skill, it wouldn’t raise eyebrows, but when it’s a former top-ten pick, the word “bust” starts to be thrown around. Best case and the most optimistic scenario is Zacha finds his game in a way he’s never found before, and comes back to the NHL hot out of the gate. If he doesn’t, patience will start to wear thin on the once promising youngster.