When the 2015-16 hockey season begins all eyes will be on Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, both household names across the hockey world, both dubbed generational talents, both set to begin their NHL careers in October. While McDavid and Eichel will most certainly provide entertaining storylines for hockey fans for the next 20+ years there are a number of other NHL prospects suiting up in the CHL who are worth keeping an eye on. Some have serious breakout potential, some will face new challenges and increased responsibility, and some are in need of a bounce back season. Whatever the case, it is my goal that by the time the puck drops on September 24th you have the information and insight you need to follow more than just your favourite CHL team.
6’3” 210 lbs
2014-15 Team: Sarnia Sting (OHL)
Draft Status: Drafted 6th overall by the New Jersey Devils in 2015
The New Jersey Devils have largely failed to draft productive forwards into their organization in the past decade. Sure, in 2003 they nabbed Zach Parise with pick 17, in 2004 they got Travis Zajac with the 20th pick and Adam Henrique with the 83rd in 2008. And yes, it is still too early to determine the impact players from more recent drafts will have, but I’ll go out on a limb and say there isn’t an elite, game-breaking forward in the group. The Devils would vehemently disagree, and they’d no doubt point to Pavel Zacha of the OHL’s Sarnia Sting, a player they drafted in 2015 with the 6th overall pick.
There is no denying that Zacha is a beast; he’s big, he’s fast, he’s strong and he plays on the edge. He has a heavy shot with a lightning quick release that is capable of beating goaltenders from all over the offensive zone. His soft hands make him dangerous in tight and one-on-one while he uses his big body to drive the net while effectively protecting the puck. He doesn’t mind the rough stuff, in fact, he thrives on it and loves to make the big hit. Pavel Zacha has all the tools to dominate the OHL and be an effective pro with topline upside. The thing is, as good as Zacha sounds on paper or looks in isolated viewings, he is a bit of an enigma and didn’t produce the way someone with his skillset is capable of producing. In my opinion the Devils gambled by selecting him at 6.
As good as Zacha was last season he played in only 37 OHL games, a little over half of a season. He missed time due to injury and was handed two suspensions by the league for dangerous hits. In 37 regular season games with the Sting, Zacha scored 16 goals and added 18 assists, totaling 34 points. He had 2 goals and 1 assist in 5 playoff games; meaning that he was producing at a rate of less than a point per game. This is somewhat of a red flag for me and the reason I’ll be watching him closely this season. He has all the tools to dominate in the OHL and there were flashes of this potential domination last season, but he was not always able to translate that dominance into point production the way his tools suggest he is capable. In Zacha’s defence however; it was his first season in North America, and there is an adjustment required in tailoring his game to suit the smaller ice and the North American style of play. Also, as I mentioned, he missed time due to injury, which could have impacted his play and subsequently his production, although this is mere speculation on my part.
I don’t doubt at this point that Zacha will develop into a serviceable NHL player, although I’m not convinced that he is the #1 elite-level centerman that the Devils are hoping for and so desperately need. This season will be telling. If he is healthy, if he can adjust to the North American style, and if he can play on the edge without going over it, then he should dominate and the points should come. If he is unable to improve his points-per-game, it will be concerning for an organization that desperately needs its top forward prospects to develop. If it turns out that Zacha is not the guy, the Devils may be in contention for a top pick this year, and there is some excellent talent available at the top of the NHL Entry Draft in 2016.
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