Last September, Pavel Zacha was just trying to find a place to fit in on his new team. He had had good seasons during his six years with the New Jersey Devils, but he was still bouncing all over their lineup, and a career high of 36 points wasn’t quite what anyone was hoping for from the 2015 sixth overall pick.
A year later, Zacha finds himself with a much clearer home – he’s one of the Bruins’ top two centers – but also a much tougher challenge. He is being tasked with helping Boston replace Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, both in the short- and long-term.
Zacha is embracing that challenge and all the pressure that comes along with it.
“I love that pressure. I think it makes me a better player, and I think I can handle it,” Zacha said on WEEI’s Skate Podcast (listen to the full interview below).
That isn’t blind faith. Zacha’s confidence grew throughout his first season in Boston after being acquired in exchange for Erik Haula last July.
His 21 goals, 36 assists and 57 points were all career highs. After a little bit of bouncing around the lineup early on, he eventually settled in as the left wing on the “Czech Line” with David Pastrnak and David Krejci. His 28 five-on-five assists tied Krejci for the team lead, and his 43 five-on-five points were second only to Pastrnak. He signed a four-year, $19 million extension in January.
While many would like to forget the end of the Bruins’ season, last spring proved quite valuable for Zacha. He got to play center late in the regular season while Krejci was out injured and in the playoffs when both Krejci and Bergeron missed games.
Zacha wound up centering a line with Pastrnak for 145 five-on-five minutes between the regular season and playoffs. During those minutes, the Bruins outscored opponents 11-8 and out-attempted them 171-129 (57% Corsi).
Zacha is expected to start this season with Pastrnak once again. Last year, during those games when Zacha centered Pastrnak, it was usually either Tyler Bertuzzi or Taylor Hall on their left. Both of them are gone, though.
Their new left wing hasn’t been locked in yet, but all indications are that veteran free-agent signing James van Riemsdyk will get the first crack. Zacha and van Riemsdyk have been skating together during the early part of training camp, but Pastrnak has been on a different line because coach Jim Montgomery likes to mix veterans and young players together early in camp.
Zacha is encouraged by his early chemistry with “JVR.”
“He's a great, great person off the ice, too. I think coming in, he’s a great add to our team,” Zacha said of van Riemsdyk. “I think what we need, something like a great net-front presence, he's really smart around the net, can score goals. Playing with me, and if he played with Pasta, the net-front presence is going to be huge there, too. And I think he's a really smart player, makes plays, and so far it's been good.”
Montgomery, meanwhile, is encouraged by what he’s seen from Zacha so far this camp.
“Just continuing his ascension into what we believe is an excellent two-way pivot that can add offense and then play real good defense,” Montgomery said of Zacha on Friday. “I mean, we have a lot of belief and confidence in him, and I think where his game’s at, you could tell the way he practiced that he has a lot of confidence in himself as well.”
Montgomery highlighted Zacha hanging onto pucks more in the offensive zone and closing quicker on opponents in the defensive zone as signs of that ascension and confidence.
Zacha said he’s continuing to work on both of those areas, and much more. He’s putting in a lot of work on faceoffs after winning just 45.3% of his draws last season. While his point totals were right in line with Bergeron and Krejci last season, Zacha wants to keep taking strides towards becoming the 200-foot players they were.
“I try to do the faceoffs as they did, and I think the two-way game is something that they were one of the best players in the league with, and Bergy the best player in the league as a two-way center,” Zacha said when asked about ways he wants to emulate those two.
Zacha knows there are skeptics who doubt whether he, Charlie Coyle and the rest of the Bruins’ centers can be good enough to keep Boston in contention. Asked what he would say to those critics, Zacha said that all they can do is prove them wrong on the ice.
“That's what you have to show on the ice,” Zacha said. “We can be talking about it here and speaking about it, but I think we have a great center group. It’s missing Bergeron and Krejci, but we're not gonna get them back. I think those are two of the best centermen who ever played for the Bruins, and it's gonna be hard. We're gonna miss them, but I think for me and Charlie Coyle, these guys, it's gonna be exciting to step up and try to do our best to be the best players we can be, and that's all on the ice.”
Zacha didn’t know exactly what the future held for him when he first got traded to the Bruins. He was just hoping it would be a better spot for him than New Jersey had been. Not only has Boston been that, but now it’s his long-term home, and he has an opportunity to show he can be the team’s No. 1 center not just for this season, but possibly beyond.
“It's exciting. That's what I was hoping for when I when I got traded here, and now the opportunity is here,” Zacha said. “I think I got a lot of opportunity last year, and even bigger this year. That's what as a player you dream about, especially being on a team like this. And yeah, I'm excited for it. I think it's gonna be a great and fun season.”