The New Jersey Devils didn’t get a lot of positives from last season, but three clear positives came from former 1st-round centers who started to live up to expectations. Jack Hughes became the Devils’ certified star. Michael McLeod scored his first goal and kept going from there. Possibly the most surprising was the season Pavel Zacha put together.
2021 was Zacha’s fifth season in the NHL. It was by far his best. He scored 17 goals in 50 games last season. He scored 37 goals in 266 games prior to this. His career-high came in 2018-19 when he had 13 goals. Fans were starting to believe again, but he struggled in 2019-20 with 8 goals in 65 games. Now, he was tied for the team lead in goals with Miles Wood.
This seems like a new leaf from Zacha. There are some major holes in his 5v5 game, but as a special teams player, Zacha definitely delivers. The Devils power play is going to be much better. Their penalty kill literally couldn’t possibly be worse than last year. Zacha will play an important role on both units. He might even find himself with a spot on the first power play with Jack Hughes, Dougie Hamilton, Tomas Tatar, and Yegor Sharangovich.
Zacha led the team with five power-play goals, but he was sort of lucky. He only had five individual high-danger chances on the power play. Nico Hischier had nine individual high-danger scoring chances in literally less than half the power-play minutes. So, Zacha made the most of his opportunities. That’s not a bad thing, right?
Sometimes that has been an indicator of a drop off in performance, but it’s likely the Devils go into next season with lots of different lineup plans for the top six. It’s possible that head coach Lindy Ruff is looking at the top six as what he had last year while adding Tatar. It looked like this at the end of the season:
The Devils also have a gaping hole at the third-line center. Travis Zajac was traded along with Kyle Palmieri to the New York Islanders and he was never replaced. The Devils tried Zacha at center about a dozen times, and it’s never worked as they hoped. Would they go for lucky number 13? It’s definitely an option for them.
It’s probably best to go into next season with minimal expectations for Zacha. Expecting him to be a 20 goal scorer is just not in the cards. Could he do it? Sure, but to put that as the expectation is asking to fail. There was a lot of luck involved in his goal-scoring last season. He is probably a 15-20 goal scorer moving forward. That’s fine as long as he plays better on the penalty kill.