After flirting with the KHL recently, Pavel Zacha has decided to stick around in the NHL. The New Jersey Devils have signed the young restricted free agent to a three-year deal that carries an average annual value of $2.25MM. GM Ray Shero released this statement on the signing:
We are happy to have finalized this three-year agreement as Pavel is an important part of our team. He has established himself as someone who can play in any situation and we are looking forward to his continued growth as a player.
Zacha will still be a restricted free agent when the deal expires, but will be arbitration-eligible. The full breakdown of the deal is as follows:
- 2019-20: $1.75MM
- 2020-21: $2.0MM
- 2021-22: $3.0MM
Once again it is important to note the back-loaded nature of an RFA contract, meaning the Devils will be forced to issue a $3MM qualifying offer in order to keep Zacha’s rights at the end of the deal. At that point he would be just one year from unrestricted free agency, meaning he could essentially turn this into a four-year, $9.75MM deal and walk himself right onto the open market if he chooses. Still, getting it done now will allow Zacha to have a full training camp to try and finally become a bigger part of the New Jersey offense.
Though the cap hit is still relatively low compared to some of the other free agent numbers being thrown around, it seems in this case as if Zacha’s KHL threat may have actually resulted in a stronger offer from the Devils. In 201 NHL games the 22-year old has just 29 goals and 76 points, unable to register more than 13 goals in any of his three full seasons. In contrast, Anthony Beauvillier, a player selected 22 spots after Zacha in the 2015 draft, has scored at a much higher pace (48 goals in 218 games) and recently agreed to a two-year deal worth just $2.1MM per season. Obviously buying out the third year is what bumped up the AAV in Zacha’s case, but the fact that he was able to secure it with such little production may have something to do with his (apparent) willingness to play overseas.
There’s no getting around it, Zacha has been a disappointment to this point in his career. Selected ahead of some of the most productive young players in the league, he’ll continually be compared to names like Timo Meier (selected 9th), Mikko Rantanen (10th), Mathew Barzal (16th) and Kyle Connor (17th). While his draft pedigree shouldn’t matter at this point and the comparisons aren’t exactly fair, the Devils have to hope they can coax more offense out of him while still developing Zacha into the strong defensive center he showed at times last season. Now that Jack Hughes is in town to pair with Nico Hischier in the top two pivot spots, Zacha has a chance to be a difference-maker on the third line if he can just take a few steps forward in his development.