New Jersey Devils: The Pavel Zacha Experiment is Over

New Jersey Devils center Pavel Zacha (37) plays the puck during the third period against the Boston Bruins at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
New Jersey Devils center Pavel Zacha (37) plays the puck during the third period against the Boston Bruins at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports /

Just before noon and the start of free agency, the New Jersey Devils traded their longest-tenured forward Pavel Zacha to the Boston Bruins for Erik Haula. Well, Zacha and Miles Wood both made their debuts in the 2015-16 regular-season finale, but still. Zacha has been with the Devils for the better part of six seasons. For Haula, the Devils will be his seventh team in ten seasons. Haula is a solid bottom-six forward that can play all forward positions and will fit nicely on the Devils’ third line. He will most likely be the third or fourth-line center after coming off of a 44-point season with the Bruins.

Analyzing the acquisition of Haula is easy. You know what he can provide, he is reliable and has plenty of experience for a very young Devils team. Looking at the legacy Pavel Zacha left behind in a Devils jersey is much more complicated to look at.

Zacha was the first draft pick for Ray Shero when he took over the general manager position for longtime boss Lou Lamoriello. At the time he was slated to become a top-six forward that would produce and also chip in defensively. It turned out to be somewhat the case. The 2015 sixth-overall pick never fully reached his potential with the Devils.

He never had a 20-goal season, never had a 40-point season, and never had a full season where he was not a minus in the plus/minus category. Looking at that stat line for a sixth overall pick that is not a defenseman, is underwhelming. To look back at who was taken after him, including Matt Barzal, Mikko Rantanen, Kyle Connor, and Sebastian Aho, makes his lack of execution even worse.

Zacha’s Devils tenure was riddled with comparisons to the players listed above and even others. He was a streaky goal scorer that just never consistently got the job done. He was a reliable penalty killer but that part of his game was deemed expendable with the exchange for Haula. Zacha’s tenure with the Devils was filled with negatives. His best season was the 2021 shortened season where teams only played within the division. Just like Janne Kuokkanen, his best season was an outlier. Much like Kuokkanen, Zacha finds himself out of New Jersey.

It is hard to put a positive spin on the Devils’ career of Pavel Zacha. With him, the team made the playoffs one time and was a perennial bottom feeder for the rest of the time he was there. When you draft someone in the top ten, you should expect them to be a game changer, tone setter, and leader. Zacha was none of those things and seemed pedestrian at times. Whether it was consistently missing open nets, taking bad penalties, or just not seeming like he wanted to be involved with the play. It is hard to label Zacha as anything other than him being one of, if not the, biggest draft busts in Devils history.

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Zacha was seemingly well-liked by his Devils teammates and will likely be missed in the locker room. The Devils are preaching that they have a young core that is growing up together and are learning how to win together. With all that being said, it did not seem like the Devils could win if Pavel Zacha was still on the team. He is a serviceable NHL player, however with the sixth overall pick expectations, the success of the players taken after him, and the lack of team success, Zacha was seemingly doomed to fail.