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When both Pavel Zacha and the Bruins opted to sign a one-year deal in August, it was not a resignation from both parties on a contractual stalemate.
Rather, it was a mutual agreement to kick that fiscal can down the road. With Boston already trying to balance the books with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci’s new agreements, the team needed more time to assemble Zacha’s new payout.
And with Zacha entering the 2022-23 season on a “prove-it” deal, the Bruins had a prime opportunity to see if the 25-year-old forward’s potential could translate into tangible success.
Fair to say, the Bruins liked what they saw.
“When I got the news that I was going to be traded here in the summer, I was hoping that I was going to show myself and will be able to be here for a long time and I’m happy that it happened,” Zacha said after signing a four-year, $19 million contract extension with Boston on Saturday. “It’s a start. It’s my first season and I have to prove myself and show why I’m here and why I’m going to be here for a longer time and it’s just super exciting for me to be part of this.”
In Zacha, the Bruins have an on-ice Swiss Army Knife, capable of both slotting in down the middle and adding two-way acumen on the wing.
His contract doesn’t hold as much weight as a David Pastrnak mega-deal. But Zacha’s pay raise does offer some insight into Don Sweeney’s plans, both in this season and the years ahead.
So what does Zacha’s new deal mean for the Bruins? It’s more than just a logical reward following three months of solid hockey.
Boston is giving itself options down the middle
Barring injuries, Zacha will remain on the wing for most of Jim Montgomery’s various lineup reshuffles this season.
It’s a luxury that Boston has enjoyed for a while. With Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci anchoring the top-six unit down the middle, the B’s haven’t had to fret over finding replacements at critical areas in their forward corps.
But Boston is on borrowed time as far as relying on Bergeron and Krejci’s elite play at the pivot position.
Both Bergeron, 37, and Krejci, 36, are on one-year deals. And even though both forwards are still playing at a high level in 2022-23, the Bruins can’t operate with the assumption that one (or both) of their veteran mainstays will be taking draws in 2023-24.
Boston’s uncertainty at the center position is the most consequential question mark surrounding the Original Six franchise.
On paper, the B’s have a solid foundation in place for the post-Bergeron era. A tandem of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman has been stout all season. Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm are top-pairing anchors on the blue line. Brad Marchand and Taylor Hall are still gifted playmakers. And if Pastrnak sticks around, the B’s have a perennial 50-goal scorer in place.
But the ceiling of this team can’t be maximized if it doesn’t have any adequate replacements for both Bergeron and Krejci.
Zacha is not the 200-foot center that Bergeron is. Frankly, no one is. He doesn’t have the playmaking proficiency of his fellow countryman in Krejci.
But what Zacha represents is a valid contingency plan for Boston if Bergeron/Krejci aren’t part of the picture beyond this year.
“I think we were pretty obvious when we first acquired him; the versatility Pavel brings in playing all three positions and in moving forward, an eye towards center ice that we’re wanting to have to find a way to continue to add to our group,” Sweeney said of Zacha’s spot in the lineup. “I think that his versatility has shown through.
“He plays in all situations in a hockey game and has been a big part of our group … Overall, a very well-liked young man that we’re happy to have going forward, and it addresses a positional need in the future.”
Zacha may not be a proven play-driver down the middle, at least not in a featured role. But the Bruins could make his life considerably easier in the coming years if he logs reps next to wingers like Pastrnak and Hall.
So far this season, Zacha has slotted in for Krejci for five games. During that stretch of action as Boston’s 2C, Zacha posted stat lines of:
10/28 @ Columbus – 16:50 TOI, 1 assist
11/1 @ Pittsburgh – 16:55 TOI, 1 goal
11/3 @ New York – 15:46 TOI, 1 assist
12/11 @ Vegas – 17:58 TOI, 1 assist
12/13 vs. Islanders – 16:43 TOI, 2 assists
That’s not to say that Zacha will go out and cash in at a point-per-game rate in 2023-24. But if Boston needs to start from scratch in its top-six grouping, Zacha stands as a logical (and promising) option for Sweeney and Montgomery.
Boston doesn’t view Zacha’s strong start as a flash in the pan
The timing wasn’t exactly on Zacha’s side the night he signed his new contract.
Just an hour before the deal was announced, Zacha missed an open net during Boston’s win over the Maple Leafs. Unrealized O-zone production was one of the knocks against Zacha during his six seasons with the Devils.
But the former first-round pick (No. 6 overall, 2015) rectified his scoring blunder just two days later. During Monday’s win over the Flyers, Zacha lit the lamp twice, including a one-time howitzer that beat Carter Hart clean.
“I guess if you sign for $18 million or whatever it was, you play with a little more pep in your step,” Montgomery joked postgame.
Be it the change in scenery or a stronger supporting cast, Zacha has made strides in his offensive game with Boston. After scoring a career-high 36 points last season in New Jersey, he’s already up to 29 points through 44 games. His 19 5v5 assists lead all B’s skaters, including star talents such as Pastrnak and Marchand.
“It’s a teamwide philosophy that we’re trying to play a faster game in all three zones,” Sweeney said. “Whether that’s closing or whether that’s transition… It’s certainly something that Monty preaches all the time, and then having guys of the quality of player like Pav and the players that you mentioned, to be able to play a little heavier, a possession game in the offensive zone, has added another layer to our hockey club.”
Montgomery is still trying to prompt Zacha to shoot more in high-danger ice. The versatile forward has a knack for deferring too often, even though he wields a heavy wrister.
But even in New Jersey, Zacha was projected as a player due for a breakthrough, given his transition talents and history of favoring quality over quantity with his limited attempts.
(Zacha scored 15 goals in 70 games last season with New Jersey, with 65 percent of his shots coming in and around Grade-A ice.)
Things are starting to fall into place for Zacha in 2023. His $4.75 million annual payout is a solid bump, but falls in line with the market in terms of offensive output. Entering Wednesday’s game against the Islanders, Zacha was on pace for 53 points in his debut season with Boston.
Last season, 113 NHL forwards posted 50 or more points. In that sizable pool of talent, 78 accounted for a cap hit of $5 million or more. And in that group of 35 forwards making below market rate for their scoring contributions, seven were skaters on rookie contracts.
Boston might have to take a long look at their fiscal situation next season. But Zacha’s new deal isn’t an overpay when weighed against his projected stat line.
A cap crunch is all but inevitable
Zacha’s extension isn’t re-setting the market. His presence gives Boston options at center moving forward.
But that $19 million contract further illustrates the financial headache that the Bruins will need to sort through this summer.
Even with eight contracts coming off the books this summer, the Bruins’ heaps of cap space might dissipate quickly. Be it Pastrnak’s new contract or the $4.5 million in bonus overages from Bergeron/Krejci’s deals that will land on next year’s books, Boston doesn’t have nearly as much wiggle room as one might expect.
And that’s not even counting the potential of Bergeron and Krejci returning, and what those new contracts could entail. And when you add in Sweeney’s efforts to inject more talent into this win-now roster, Boston will need to get creative in order to stay under the cap’s upper limit.
“You’ve got to hope you stay healthy, and I think we have a good hockey team. I think we’re deep, but we’re probably going to have to continue to add and supplement,” Sweeney said. “We’ve been blending in some of the players that have played particularly well down in Providence and earned an opportunity, so we’re going to continue to evaluate that if the opportunity presents itself.
“There haven’t been a lot of trades up until this point. We’ll have to see going forward. It’ll take some creativity for clubs like our own that have some cap challenges, but chances are that most of the teams that are hopefully going to get an opportunity to play in the playoffs generally have cap challenges, and we’re no different. We’re going to try to do our best to put the best team we possibly can.”
Boston might be all-in on this season. But such a mentality means that some hard decisions await as far as cap-related roster tweaks.
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