I for one was excited when the Boston Bruins traded Eric Haula for Pavel Zacha. Many Bruins fans however were not and it’s probably because they listened to too many New Jersey Devils fans on hockey message boards about the type of player Zacha was for them.
In fairness to those Devils fans though, I may have been focusing too much on his days in the Ontario Hockey League with the Sarnia Sting and what I thought he was capable of from watching him in those early days.
For whatever reason, some players need a change of scenery. Some other players just need a certain style of coach. Others just need to feel more comfortable about where they are living. And others just need to be surrounded by the right leadership group, teammates and linemates. Zacha could fall under all the above.
Zacha was originally selected with the 6th overall pick of that infamous 2015 NHL Entry Draft and Devils fans hate that draft as much as Bruins fans do but hindsight is 20/20. Zacha wasn’t a bad selection in the top-10 of the draft. I can assure you several teams had him ranked there. However, the top-10 in a draft is a crapshoot just like the rest of the draft – it doesn’t always pan out.
When the Sting selected Zacha with the first overall pick at the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft, Zacha was excited about coming to North America. What did I see that season?
Zacha made an immediate impact with an excellent combination of size and speed. His decision making was at a level approaching elite. He was a superb passer who can make hard, accurate passes regularly. He possessed an NHL caliber shot although he could play with more selfishness. He played with physicality and regularly looked to finish his checks. His defensive game needed some hard work. Flying the zone early was in his repertoire too often and showed little to no interest in supporting the puck carrier on zone exits.
We’ve seen Zacha’s defensive game come a long way now, to the point where it’s safe to say it is a strength in his game. We’ve seen those playmaking skills he had in junior regularly in Boston. He’s on pace for 42 helpers on the season, easily the best total of his career.
To me, Zacha’s issue has been what it has always been: looking to pass instead of taking the shot himself. It’s difficult to complain about when everyone is having the success they are. You also can’t argue the fact that he is on pace for just 12 goals this season, the lowest of his career to date and a far cry from the 17 he scored in 50 games during the 2020-2021 season – which was a 28-goal pace.
All in all, the trade has been a positive for the Bruins in every aspect except cap flexibility since Zacha carries a larger cap hit. Sure, there will be those that will complain about that because they value cap space above all else. I challenge anyone to explain to me how the $1,125,000 extra the Bruins are paying Zacha over Haula (which by the way is the same amount they Bruins are saving by burying Chris Wagner in Providence) is hindering the Bruins cap wise.
It is 35 games into the season and things could change by the end of the year, but at this point I take Zacha every day of the week and it just goes to show what a difference a change can make for a player. The things that don’t show up on the score sheet – the defensive game, the hard back checks, the strong forecheck, the puck support in both directions are all where they need to be right now. I would even say his playmaking is there as well.
If there is one regret its that the Bruins couldn’t lock him up for more than the one-year $3.5 million contract he signed on August 8, 2022 because his next contract could well be worth much more.