One of the benefits of David Krejci’s absence from the Boston Bruins lineup in the last few games is that it’s allowed everybody to see what things might look like with Pavel Zacha in a top-6 center spot for Boston in the near future.
The 25-year-old Zacha hasn’t been perfect, of course. He’s got some work to do in the faceoff circle and some suspect that his defensive work isn’t always up to par, but he finished with two helpers in the Boston Bruins 4-3 shootout win over the New York Islanders on Tuesday night. And Zacha has three assists in the two games where he’s been largely centering Taylor Hall and Jake DeBrusk in a trio that’s been fast, powerful and very effective at both ends during their brief time together.
In all, Zacha has a goal and six points in five games where he’s moved to the middle when Krejci has been out with injuries thus far this season. In all Zacha has three goals and 19 points in 28 games along with a plus-8 rating and is on pace for a career-high 56 points even if the goal-scoring numbers aren’t quite where even the Czech center wants them at this point.
“Having spoken to a couple of coaches that have coached him, they told me that his hockey sense and his vision were really good,” said Boston Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery. “I think the thing that has helped him become an even better player this year is being around players like Marchand, Pastrnak, Krejci, [Patrice] Bergeron, [Nick] Foligno. We have guys that work, and you see the work that goes in day in and day out.
“It’s almost by osmosis you become a more competitive player, and that’s helped him. He’s realized this is what makes these guys so good, and it’s making him better.”
Certainly, that was the kind of message that former New Jersey Devils coach Mark Recchi relayed to the Boston Bruins prior to Zacha being dealt to the Black and Gold in a steal of a deal for a player in Erik Haula that the B’s were looking to unload. Meanwhile, Haula doesn’t seem to be having a great time in Jersey right now.
“I don't know ****, you're asking all all tough questions right now. I mean, I think everything that you're asking is kind of self explanatory to be honest.”#NJDevils Eric Haula clearly frustrated after the game. Left my colleagues name out who asked the question.
— James Nichols (@JamesNicholsNHL) December 14, 2022
There’s also the simple truth that there is some subtlety to Zacha’s game that’s not always going to show up on the score sheet. Even as he’s been encouraged to shoot more pucks and get even more involved offensively than he was during his time with the New Jersey Devils, the 6-foot-3, 210-pounder wins a ton of puck battles and has excellent vision and hands for a player that’s also massive while playing in the middle of the ice.
There was a play a week or two ago where Zacha came out of the pile along the side boards with the puck and had the presence of mind to reverse the puck to the clear side of the ice for an eventual goal. He didn’t get an assist on the play, but it was his board battle and hockey smarts that made everything happen afterward.
And this sauce pass to DeBrusk in Vegas last weekend was as clear an example of hands and offensive skill as one is likely to get from Zacha.
The Zacha sauce and the finish…oh baby pic.twitter.com/n0VEKe8wa9
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) December 12, 2022
Zacha isn’t going to be “the answer” for the long future at the center position for the Boston Bruins when Patrice Bergeron and Krejci eventually retire, but he’s absolutely part of it as B’s management continually works on the long-term picture. It’s easy to envision the Boston Bruins in a competitive situation where Zacha winds up being the second line center while B’s management continues working to find the kind of top line, two-way pivot that’s going to someday step into Patrice Bergeron’s role where anybody is going to come up lacking to one degree or another.
Zacha played a pivotal role in the second period goal that eventually pushed the Boston Bruins into overtime and the shootout when Derek Forbort converted it into a rare shorthanded strike from a B’s defenseman.
“I just dropped it to [Pavel Zacha] and tried to pick a stick, and maybe Zachs was gonna shoot. He made a great play and turned around and saw it was [Derek Forbort],” said DeBrusk. “I didn’t know where that puck was going. But he shelved it. It was a little baby sauce on that. It was a little finesse touch. I was really happy to see it go in. Obviously, it was a snipe. I was very impressed, to say the least. It was a happy thing to see.”
As previously stated, it’s still a work-in-progress for Zacha in the middle, which is fine as Krejci finds himself returning from a lower body injury later this week. Zacha was just 2-for-10 on faceoffs in Tuesday night’s win and has historically come in at under 50 percent on draws throughout his career. It’s something he can surely improve, though, as he keeps working with faceoff artists like Bergeron and Krejci that have turned it into perfection over the years.
The rest is simply playing up to the level of so many talented guys around him on the Boston Bruins roster where points and scoring chances are far more plentiful than they were with the New Jersey Devils in the past.
“It’s been good, I think,” said Zacha. “The guys are coming in [with] speed, getting open, like in the penalty kill goal it was our defenseman who joined the rush there and that helps you a lot, making 2-on-2s, 3-on-2s and odd-man rushes like that. When they’re there they’re open. I’m trying to find them and so far, they’ve been there every time. It’s been good.”
"Having guys like Bergy, Marchy you know, guys who I can talk to every day and see them practice, I think it just helps you mentally and physically."
— NESN (@NESN) December 14, 2022
It’s absolutely been good for Zacha and the Boston Bruins this season, and that is paving the road for expectations that it’s going to be even better for the young player and the Black and Gold moving forward as they work on replenishing their center position on the fly moving forward.