By Steve Lichtenstein
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Though these posts are often filled with my vitriol toward the losing teams for whom, against all logic, I root, I have not been immune to occasionally making some overly optimistic, fan-biased predictions.
I fear one such call was my assurance that Devils rookie Pavel Zacha was destined for NHL stardom.
A question mark should now end the previous sentence.
The change has nothing to do with the 19-year-old’s talent or work ethic. Nor does his mere eight goals and eight assists in 52 games this season scream “bust,” despite his pedigree as New Jersey’s sixth overall selection at the 2015 draft.
Despite the limited production, Zacha’s skill with the puck on his stick is readily apparent on this team, which struggles so mightily to create offense five-on-five. Given time, he could develop into an elite player.
The issue, unfortunately, is that “time” is the variable.
Zacha returned to the Prudential Center ice Sunday, in a dreary 3-0 loss to Columbus, after missing the previous four games due to a concussion he suffered when he was blasted into the boards from behind by Ottawa’s Derrick Brassard on Feb. 21.
This was Zacha’s second concussion — the other occurred while he was playing junior hockey with Sarnia early in 2016. Any competent doctor will tell you that multiple concussions put you at an increased risk for more.
While it’s not as hot of a topic as in football, concussions have prematurely ended many NHL careers, including stars Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya. Marc Savard, who happens to be on the Devils’ 2016-17 payroll as a cap stash following a preseason trade that also gave New Jersey the Panthers’ second-round pick in 2018, stopped playing five years ago after what he estimated to be his sixth concussion, according to a story by SBNation.com.
The Devils, to their credit, have been careful with Zacha, following standard return-to-play protocols.
“We took our time with it,” said Devils coach John Hynes. “I think he really worked hard in his rehab coming back and he really felt comfortable as the player really wanted to play today. We gave him a couple of extra days even though he was cleared to play (earlier). We still wanted to push him through some hard situations in practices and see how he would respond.”
Zacha was starting to get it when he got hurt. He registered six goals and three assists in his previous 14 games. Four of the goals were scored while serving on the Devils’ resurrected power play.
Speaking to WFAN.com following Sunday’s loss, Zacha didn’t seem concerned about heading right back into the fray.
“It was exciting for me to go back on the ice and play the game instead of practicing by myself,” Zacha said. “It was a little bit easier for me to get back (after this concussion) because I knew how to get ready. The first one was more scary — I spent like four weeks off. If you want to play hockey, you need to know that some things can happen any game.”
Zacha was credited with one shot on goal in nearly 17 minutes of ice time against the Blue Jackets.
“I thought (Zacha) had good jump,” Hynes said. “He had some offensive opportunities. He looked comfortable with the puck. I thought he did a good job going down on forechecks and touching pucks first and getting into battles.”
Zacha still has more work to do in understanding how the game is played in his own end. He was a bystander as Oliver Bjorkstrand skated into the slot and ripped a shot past Devils goalie Cory Schneider to give the Blue Jackets a 2-0 lead in the second period. His minus-15 plus/minus is tied for the second-worst among the team’s forwards, one goal better than the departed P.A. Parenteau.
Ah, but the vision, the creativity and the quick hands are what make Zacha such an intriguing prospect. I was enthralled when he made a cameo in the Devils’ final game last season. He was all over the ice, generating scoring opportunities unseen all year at the Rock. He recorded three shots on goal and picked up a pair of assists. He was even a plus-four on the evening.
Eleven months later, the Devils are no farther along the league’s pecking order. With 62 points in 65 games, they are destined for a fifth consecutive playoff-free season. All they have is hope for a brighter future, and at the moment, Zacha’s potential shines brightest.
My initial knee-jerk reaction about Zacha’s NHL career could still prove correct. It would actually be a shame on the league if I’m not.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1