Is Pavel Zacha's breakout finally upon us?

Pavel Zacha is having a wonderful season for the Devils. Photo Credit: New Jersey Devils

Five-and-a-half years ago, an unsuspecting brace-faced kid was in Sunrise, Florida for the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, his third consecutive draft being in attendance, waiting to see who the Devils took with the sixth overall pick.

With the pick, the Devils selected Sarnia Sting forward Pavel Zacha. A few audible 'who?' could be heard in the BB&T Center from the Devils faithful that made the trip, but I, as a naïve 15-year old, was excited after seeing his size and stats with Sarnia.

After heading out onto the concourse to relax and take in the draft day experience, I noticed that all the guys that were drafted before him would walk by us on the concourse and head up to a lounge. I watched as guys like Connor McDavid, Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner all walked by with a ton of media attention, especially with McDavid. There was hope that I could maybe get a picture with one, and I secretly hoped it would be Zacha.

I headed away to get some food when my godfather, who is also a Devils fan and allowed me and my dad to stay at his house in Kendall, called my name and told me Zacha was over there, and I sprinted back over as he motioned to Zacha and asked for a picture (Jay, if you're reading this, thank you for that).

I got a picture with Zacha, thinking in my head that he would be the savior and instantly gel with other Czech forward and true legend Patrik Elias. You could see how happy I was in the picture. I don't think I had ever smiled that big in my lifetime.

Me and Pavel Zacha on draft day

Fast-forwarding five-and-a-half years, that certainly has not been the case for him, as it has been an upward climb. Even Elias had the end of his career come faster due to some tough injuries. However, this season, Pavel Zacha is on a tear, and it finally might be his long-awaited breakout season at age 23.

Pavel Zacha's career to date

It has been a rollercoaster career for Zacha. Especially after being drafted before guys like Mathew Barzal, Brock Boeser and Mikko Rantanen, he has had a lot of expectation and negative reaction from a Devils fanbase who has been starved for success. However, I have always been high on Zacha and am so happy that this season, he is silencing the critics and having a heck of a year.

The future looked bright for Zacha after he suited up for the 2015-16 season finale against the Leafs, and subsequently Elias' last game as well. He racked up two assists in that game, and it seemed to be a changing of the guard of sorts for the Czech star on the team. For a brief period, Pavel Zacha held the highest points-per-game, minimum one game played, in NHL history with 2.0, outranking Gretzky and Lemieux.

I also thought it was so cool that Zacha was wearing 37, the number I wore throughout travel hockey. 15-year-old me was so happy that a great player on the Devils wore my number.

He made the opening night roster in 2016-17, scoring an assist to extend his point streak in the first game, but what followed for Zacha was a struggle. He scored just 24 points, including a 15-game stretch where he recorded exactly zero. In his first full season, at age 19, people were not too wary of what was happening since he was so young and it takes time for players to develop, especially European players. The player he was compared to, Patrik Elias, scored 37 points in 74 games during his first full season at age 21.

2017-18 was another low-scoring season for Zacha, scoring another eight goals and increasing his assist total by one to finish the year with 25 points. He was a healthy scratch several times and became frustrated with the lack of play. His production did not matter during that season as the fanbase was enamored by rookie Nico Hischier and MVP-winning Taylor Hall carrying the Devils to the playoffs for the first time since their cup run in 2012. Zacha, still just 20 years old, played in all five postseason games and did not record a point as the Devils were bounced by the Lightning in five games.

2018-19 was not kind to Pavel Zacha. He went pointless for the first twelve games of the season and altogether did not look confident on the ice. He was recalled and sent down to Binghamton several times, and finished with yet another 25 point season, setting a career-high of 13 goals as the Devils underachieved without Taylor Hall. The fans started to get impatient with Zacha.

In the shortened 2019-20 season, a glimmer of hope occurred. Zacha spent the whole season on the roster and he started to show signs of the player he could be. He scored in spurts, finishing the season with a career-high 32 points including four in the last five games of the season.

One thing that sticks in my mind about the struggles of Zacha through his first few seasons is the coaches he had. John Hynes and Alain Nasreddine played him sporadically in weird spots, and there was no chance for Zacha to thrive under their offensive systems. However, under Lindy Ruff, things look bright.

Zacha was also rewarded with a three-year extension during the offseason. He deserved it, as his play continued to get better.

This season, Zacha looks like a changed man. The late-bloomer clause can apply to him, as he has points in the last eight Devils games and is on pace for his best season of his career, including his beautiful overtime winner against Buffalo the other day. Through 15 games, he has five goals and seven assists. Over a 56-game season, that translates to around 45 points, which would be a career-high. Over a full 82-game season, he would have 65 points.

Bottom line, I have been thoroughly impressed with Zacha's play this season, and I think Devils fans agree. He looks a lot more confident in his game under the Ruff system and has played so well.

I never stopped believing in you, Pavel Zacha. I can't wait to see how you do for the rest of the season.


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