(Editor’s note: Stats in this post were compiled prior to Saturday night’s games.)
The Bruins’ summer acquisition of Pavel Zacha, traded from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Erik Haula, was met with a mostly lukewarm reaction from fans.
Zacha, a 25-year-old sixth-overall pick, had underachieved compared with expectations in his six full seasons with the Devils but was not a complete bust.
He was also a restricted free agent and needed a contract – which he eventually signed after arbitration.
Haula, who is six years older than Zacha, was coming off the second-best season of his career. He played a key role as the Bruins’ second-line center, mostly between Taylor Hall and David Pastrnak.
A quarter of the way into the season, this trade has subtly turned out well for both teams. Still, it’s worth exploring who’s winning the trade so far with the early returns in the books.
The Bruins and Devils are both defying expectations to different extents. While most experts had Boston as a playoff team, considering their early injuries, no one thought they’d be undefeated at home through 14 games and have the league’s highest points percentage in early December.
Most pundits thought the Devils would be a bubble playoff team at best, probably challenging for a wild card spot. The fact that they are leading the Bruins (by a point with two more games played ) for the President’s Trophy race and have only lost one game on the road is even more shocking than the Bruins’ start.
Neither Haula nor Zacha have been the most significant reasons for their team’s respective successes, but they’ve both been good and played similarly understated roles.
With three goals and 12 assists through 22 games, Zacha is on pace to surpass his career best in points with 56 (20 more than his career high last season).
Haula has produced at a slightly slower pace than Zacha, tallying a goal and 10 assists through 24 games.
Both guys have managed to stay injury-free at this point, putting each on pace to play a full 82-game season (or close to it, depending on late-season breaks).
Both players get penalty kill time on strong penalty-killing teams, and neither player scores an overwhelming amount of power-play points, although both spend about an equal amount of time, on average, on the power play (1:37 for Haula, 1:38 for Zacha).
A deeper look
Haula has been an asset for the Devils, specifically when it comes to helping maximize Jack Hughes.
Haula has played up and down the lineup, but most frequently with Hughes. When Haula and Hughes have been on the same line, the center position has been somewhat undefined, but one thing is for sure: Haula has been taking the faceoffs, and for good reason.
In spite of being listed as a center, Hughes has only taken 99 faceoffs at 5-on-5 and 116 at all strengths, winning only about a third of his attempts in either situation. That is not a sustainable percentage for a forward who leads the Devils forwards in time-on-ice.
Enter Haula, who takes the faceoffs when on the ice with Hughes and wins them at a much more successful 60.74 percent at 5-on-5.
With an emerging offensive superstar like Hughes, possession is key, and winning faceoffs are important in gaining that possession, which makes Haula’s presence so valuable.
To put it in the simplest terms, a player on a standard shift only has about 45 seconds to exert his influence on the game; wasting any time trying to get the puck back hampers that effect.
Zacha’s game is understated. He isn’t out there dangling or posting up at the “elbow position” blowing one-timers by goaltenders, but he’s having a positive effect in more ways than one.
People love when Zacha plays with the Czech Davids, Krejci and Pastrnak, but it goes beyond that. He’s capable of playing center, like when Krejci missed time earlier this season. He can play wing up and down the lineup, whether with the Czechs or alongside Charlie Coyle, providing more scoring depth down the lineup.
The underrated part of Zacha’s game has been his clutch production. Of his 15 points this season, 10 have come on either the first goal of a game or on a game-tying or game-winning goal.
Zacha hasn’t been the type of player to pad a big lead or score a meaningless goal late in a contest when a comeback isn’t in the cards.
Haula fancier than Zacha
If you’re interested in the “fancy stats,” at least the popular ones, Haula has fared much better, although neither player has been poor in that department.
Zacha’s Corsi for percentage at 5-on-5 sits at a very respectable 54 percent, and his expected goals percentage is 55.8, again very respectable. When he is on the ice, the Bruins have had the higher proportion of the possession and the scoring chances than their opponents.
Haula’s numbers are exceptional. He sports a Corsi-for percentage of 60.8 and an expected goals percentage of 63.1. His faceoff-winning ability has helped those numbers.
The early verdict
Time will tell who truly won this trade - and what happens with each player at season’s end will help determine whether one makes a long-term impact on his new team or both are just flashes in the pan.
Even though both teams seem to be benefitting right now, Haula feels like the more important player on his team.
Yes, the flexibility and depth that Zacha gives the Bruins are key, but without him, the Bruins would still have an elite top-6 forward group and with the way Nick Foligno has played, a very good top-9.
On the other hand, if you took Haula’s faceoff ability and centering experience out of the equation, the Devils would probably be in a tougher spot.
Overall, it seems like a “both teams win” trade at this point in the young season - and that’s never a bad place to be.
How would you rate Pavel Zacha’s play so far?
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