New Jersey Devils: Don’t Lose Faith In Pavel Zacha Just Yet

Pavel Zacha, our beloved John Hynes-hater and penalty killer, is always getting scrutiny from fans and media alike. His lack of production consistency and his sporadic reliability in all three zones are what subject him to said scrutiny. With every season that goes by, There are more opinions and voices pleading for the organization to move on from him. Unfortunately for those voices, it seems Zacha’s trade value is too low to consider, and he is under contract with the New Jersey Devils for two more years.

Fortunately, there are many reasons to not lose faith. As a Devils fan today, it’s not easy to just sit back and “enjoy.” There are often many aspects of play to nitpick, and many players to chastise. Zacha is always among the first on that list. Even at his best, Pavel Zacha is ALWAYS out of position. It baffles the mind that he was able to make it to the NHL with how little he plays to his position assignment, especially in the defensive zone.

That’s likely why John Hynes didn’t like Zacha. But, think about it – Pavel Zacha was a 6th-overall draft pick. There were, and still are, many aspects of his game that overcome his positional problems. His skill with the puck and his ability to explode up ice like he is shot out of a cannon are rare. Why has he only maxed out at 32 points accompanied by a -12 +/-? Why does he seem to play better on the penalty kill than any other situation?

Pavel Zacha has played for only two coaches since his NHL debut: John Hynes, and former assistant to John Hynes, Alain Nasreddine. It is very possible that Zacha’s woes and growing pains throughout his development in the league can be attributed to the Hynes system and attitude. John Hynes got the Devils nowhere, outside of that one playoff run that lasted five games. There is some dispute to be had on what, or who, exactly was responsible for that outlier season, but most seem to agree that Taylor Hall or Keith Kinkaid had a lot more to do with it than John Hynes.

So, what does this have to do with Pavel Zacha? Who better than an NHL head coach to teach a young and foreign how to play the game in the states? Prior to his experience in the Devils organization, Zacha’s only North American hockey experience were two seasons with the Sarnia Sting of the OHL.

Zacha clearly did not take to John Hynes’ coaching style, and it showed. Hynes made it obvious he did not like the way Zacha played, and his playing time suffered immensely because of it. Since Zacha didn’t really have a coach to turn to in order to learn better positioning in the NHL, he’s looked lost. This is the reason he still can’t consistently flourish on NHL ice.

The one part of his game that everyone agrees is solid is his penalty killing. Why does he do best here? Why does he even generate scoring chances on the PK? Because it is amongst the simplest parts of the game. You have one assignment while penalty killing: don’t give up a goal. The system in the defensive zone is usually either a box or a diamond, dependent on the power play system of their opponent. In a box, all Zacha has to do is cover his point man, and break up any seem passes or high shots the opponent may attempt. From there, he can clear the puck, or rush up the ice. It’s at this point we see his skill with the puck breathe. He can do what he does best, skate fast and shoot. He can use his size to cover a lot of ice while forechecking but not overcommitting. If he does get a rush, his explosiveness is hard to match. He breaks away and gets a shot, which he releases with pinpoint accuracy.

Sounds simple, right? Sadly for Zacha, this is only one part of the game of hockey. 5-on-5 situations often bring more variability and require more experience and focus, whether it be offensive, defensive, or neutral zone play.

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Zacha racked up 32 points in 65 games this year, which is his career-high. However, his advanced statistics dropped from last year. Is it safe to say that, with a coach that plays a more open system while more clearly defining positional assignments to young players like Zacha, he will definitely improve? With an underachiever like Zacha, often change brings improvement. I’d say yes, as I have high hopes for his line with Jesper Bratt and Nikita Gusev in the future.

As for the verdict on the question of the article: Pavel Zacha is not a bust, not yet at least…