The New Jersey Devils are scheduled to take the ice for a 9:30 a.m. matchup against the Boston Bruins as part of the Prospect Challenge in Buffalo. Me – being the sterling corporate employee I am – was prepared to stream the game on my work computer while pretending to be busy. This was until an interesting development came our way. It may only be Monday morning, but the Devils roster might have lost another player.
Seemingly out of left field, it was announced on Twitter that Pavel Zacha agreed to a KHL contract with Avangard. Zacha spent most of the summer as a restricted free agent, but as the Devils saw the likes of Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban, and Nikita Gusev join their ranks, Zacha remained unsigned. Keep in mind, full details of the contract were immediately unavailable.
What Led To Here
Zacha was once the crown jewel of the Devils’ prospect pipeline. This, of course, was back when the Devils farm system was in a much worst state than it is currently. The sixth overall pick of the 2015 NHL draft came with great promise and the potential to be a top-line center. Unfortunately, that has yet to pan out.
Zacha has spent parts of the last few seasons trying to consistently crack the lineup. While he seems to have found a niche as a third-line center and could put up in the range of 20-30 points in a full season, he always flirted with the designation of “draft bust.” When he was sent to Binghamton this past season, criticisms of his production resurfaced. Adding insult to injury, the Devils passed over the Islanders – now superstar – Matthew Barzal to select Zacha in the same draft.
Zacha’s current contract expired at the end of last season and he entered the summer as a restricted free agent. The past offseason has been especially slow for the restricted free agent market, but that could be attributed partly to the holdouts by Mitch Marner Patrick Laine. As the calendar turned to September, the likes of Clayton Keller and Zack Werenski received their new contacts, but Zacha remained unsigned.
The Fine Print
With the news certainly being unexpected, some on Twitter were quick to speculate that Zacha’s KHL deal would include an NHL opt-out clause. This in case the Devils decided to have him stick around. That would be a similar arrangement to Jesse Puljujarvi’s new deal with the Finnish league. Igor Eronko – who originally broke the news to Twitter – was quick to point out that the KHL expressly forbids NHL opt-out clauses.
Important to note through all of this is that it’s only been reported that Zacha and Avangard agreed to “terms of a contract,” and that an official contract has not yet been signed. That leaves flexibility for things to change. Zacha – still a young player – would most likely take an NHL deal of lesser value than what the KHL would offer to stay in the world’s top league. Adding speculation to the fire, Avangard themselves have not confirmed any discussions or deal.
While the news is coming from seemingly reliable sources (Igor Eronko has the all-important blue checkmark on Twitter), we have to take these things with a healthy bit of speculation. After all, this is the Russian media, it would seem much more legitimate coming from an official NHL or North American news source. For example, although Eronko – who initially broke the news – has a blue checkmark, the person claiming that Avangard has not confirmed any contract talks does not.
What This Means For The Devils
Zacha slotted nicely into the Devils lineup as a third-line center last season. Granted, that was well below this projected ceiling as a player, but he found his role and excelled in it. Not to mention, he was the team’s best penalty-killing forward.
But now with the addition of Jack Hughes, that knocked Zacha down to a fourth-line center. That’s a role that Kevin Rooney filled in for parts of the season. While Zacha would be better for the fourth line role – especially on any penalty kill units – the Devils do have replacements if Zacha seeks employment overseas. Granted, it’s not an upgrade, but it is a replacement.
While we were all excited for the offseason the Devils had, their roster is going to be crowded with new arrivals of Jesper Boqvist and Nikita Gusev, just to name a few. In all honesty, there might not have been enough room for Zacha. Once you get past the top two, or even three lines, the parts become almost expendable. It might not be the best way to end his Devils’ tenure, but in the business of hockey sometimes these things happen.
Should the Devils Be Worried?
While they certainly don’t want to see him leave, not having him next year won’t necessarily strike panic the way Parise and Kovalchuk’s departures did. The team’s defense is certainly going to take a step forward. Especially given the additions of P.K. Subban and Ty Smith, and the return of a healthy Sami Vatanen.
Lastly, and most importantly, the bromance between Blake Coleman and Pavel Zacha would be broken up if Zacha’s supposed plan goes through. Zacha and Coleman were the best of Devil friends since Steven Gionta and Adam Henrique. If Zacha heads to the land of ice and snow, I do volunteer to be Coleman’s new golf partner though. I can tell Coleman this: “I definitely can’t beat you in golf, but I’ll be there for moral support on the links and hockey chats.”