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Friday, January 27, 2023

What Pavel Zacha’s New Contract Says About Bruins’ Plans In ’23, Beyond

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“I think if you signed for $18 million or something, you’d have more energy in your pace.”

Pavel Zacha is expected to score more than 50 points in his first season in Boston. Winslow Townsend/AP

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When both Pavel Zacha and the Bruins opted to sign a one-year deal in August, it wasn’t a resignation due to a contract impasse.

Rather, it is a mutual agreement to resolve fiscal issues in the future. With Boston already trying to balance the books with new deals from Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, the team needs more time to put together Zacha’s new payout.

With Zacha heading into the 2022-23 season on a “prove it” deal, the Bruins have an excellent opportunity to see if the 25-year-old forward’s potential translates into tangible success.

To be fair, the Bruins liked what they saw.

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“When I got the news that I was going to be traded here in the summer, I wanted to show myself and be here for a long time, and I’m glad it happened,” Zacha said. He said after signing a four-year, $19 million extension with Boston on Saturday. “It’s a start. It’s my first season and I have to prove myself and prove why I’m here and why I’m here for a longer period of time and it’s very exciting for me to be a part of that.”

In Zacha, the Bruins have a Swiss army knife on ice, cutting in the middle and adding two-way acumen on the wing.

his contract is not that important Huge deal as David Pastrnak… But Zacha’s raise does give us some insight into Don Sweeney’s plans for this season and the next few years.

So what does Zacha’s new deal mean for the Bruins? After three months of solid hockey, it wasn’t just a logical reward.

Boston gives itself a choice in the middle

Barring injury, Zacha will remain on the wing for most of Jim Montgomery’s lineup adjustments this season.

It’s a luxury Boston has enjoyed for a while. With Patrice Bergeron and David Craig anchoring the top-six down the middle, the B team won’t have to fret about finding replacements in key areas up front.

But Boston is on borrowed time in terms of relying on elite play from Bergeron and Kreche at the center.

Bergeron, 37, and Krejci, 36, both signed one-year contracts. Even if those two forwards remain at a high level in 2022-23, the Bruins can’t assume one (or both) of their veterans will be tied in 2023-24.

Boston’s uncertainty at center is the most significant question mark surrounding the original Sixers.

On paper, the B lays a solid foundation for the post-Bergeron era. The pairing of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman has been solid all season. Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm are top pairing anchors on the Blue Line. Brad Marchand and Taylor Hall are still gifted playmakers. If Pastrnak sticks around, Team B will have a perennial 50-goal scorer.

But the ceiling of this team cannot be maximized without enough backups to replace Bergeron and Krech.

Zacha is not a 200-foot center like Bergeron. Frankly, no one is. He doesn’t have the organizational skills of his compatriot in Krejci.

But what Zacha represents is Boston’s effective contingency plan if Bergeron/Krejci doesn’t show up after this year.

“I think it was obvious to us when we first acquired him; Pavel brought versatility playing all three positions and moving forward, and we wanted to find a way to continue adding to our team, ’” Sweeney said of Zacha’s place in the lineup. “I think his versatility has shown.

“He’s played in all situations in the game of hockey and has been a huge part of our team…Overall, he’s a very popular young man and we’re excited to move on, it’s Addresses future location needs.”

Zacha might not be a proven center, at least not in a featured role. But if he records reps next to tight ends like Pastrnak and Hall, the Bears could make his life a lot easier for years to come.

Zacha has made five appearances for Craig so far this season. During that stint as Boston’s 2C, Zacha released the following stats:

10/28 @ Columbus – 16:50 TOI, 1 assist

11/1 @ Pittsburgh – 16:55 TOI, 1 ball

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 Zacha will be out and making money at a scoring-per-game pace in 2023-24. But Zacha would be a logical (and promising) choice over Sweeney and Montgomery if Boston needs to start over in its first six.

Boston doesn’t see Zacha’s strong start as a blip

The night Zacha signed his new contract, the timing wasn’t entirely on Zacha’s side.

Just an hour before the trade was announced, Zacha missed an open goal in Boston’s win over the Maple Leafs. Unrealized O-Zone production was one of the hits Zacha took during his six seasons with the Devils.

But the former first-round pick (No. 6 overall in 2015) corrected his scoring error just two days later. In Monday’s win over the Flyers, Zacha lit the lights twice, including a one-shot howitzer that beat Carterhart.

“I think if you sign for $18 million or something, you’re going to get a little more pep in your step,” Montgomery joked after the game.

Whether it’s a change of scenery or a stronger supporting cast, Zacha has made great strides in his offensive game against Boston. He has scored 29 points in 44 games after scoring a career-high 36 points in New Jersey last season. His 19 5v5 assists lead all skaters on B, including star talents like Pastrnak and Marchand.

“We’re trying to play a quicker game in all three areas, that’s the philosophy of the team,” Sweeney said. “Whether it’s off or in transition … that’s definitely something Monty has been preaching, and then having the quality of a player like Pav and the guys you mentioned, being able to play a little bit heavier, play the ball in the attacking zone, Adds another layer to our hockey club.”

Montgomery is still trying to get Zacha to take more shots in high-risk ice. The versatile forward has a knack for stalling often, even with heavy wrists.

But even at New Jersey, Zacha was considered a breakout player because of his switch talent and history of putting quality over quantity in limited attempts.

What Pavel Zacha's new contract says about the Bruins' plans for '23 and beyond

(Zacha, who scored 15 goals in 70 games for New Jersey last season, took 65 percent of his shots on Class A rinks.)

Zacha starts on track in 2023. His annual payout of $4.75 million is a solid increase but in line with the market in terms of offensive output. Against the Islanders on Wednesday, Zacha was on track to score 53 points in his debut season with Boston.

Last season, 113 NHL forwards scored 50 or more points. Of this vast pool of talent, 78 have reached the salary cap of $5 million or more. Of the 35 forwards with below-market scoring contributions, seven are rookie-contract players.

Boston may have to take a hard look at their finances next season. But Zacha’s new contract isn’t an overpayment compared to his projected stat line.

Salary cap tightening almost inevitable

Zacha’s expansion didn’t reset the market. His presence gives Boston options at center.

But the $19 million contract is a further illustration of the financial dilemma the Bruins will need to address this summer.

Even with eight contracts expiring this summer, cap space for the Bruins could disappear quickly. Whether it’s Pastrnak’s new contract or the $4.5 million bonus overrun from the Bergeron/Krejci trade that will land on next year’s books, Boston doesn’t have as much wiggle room as one might expect.

And that doesn’t include the potential for Bergeron and Krejci to return, and the implications of these new contracts. When you add in Sweeney’s efforts to inject more talent into a win-now roster, Boston will need to get creative to stay under the cap.

“You’ve got to want to keep yourself healthy, and I think we’ve got a good hockey team. I think we’re deep, but we’ll probably have to keep adding and replenishing,” Sweeney said. “We’ve been incorporating some players who have done particularly well in Providence and earned opportunities, so we’ll continue to evaluate if opportunities arise.

“So far, there haven’t been a lot of deals. We’ll have to wait and see. For a club like ours facing salary cap challenges, it will take some creativity, but most teams that want to have a chance at the playoffs usually face wages. cap challenge, and we are no exception. We will do our best to assemble the best team possible.”

Boston could go all out this season. But that mentality means some tough decisions await as far as salary-cap-related roster tweaks are concerned.

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