A ‘fresh start’ with Bruins helped Pavel Zacha reach his potential


“It’s almost like a team that hates losing the most.”

TORONTO, CANADA - MARCH 04: Pavel Zacha #18 of the Boston Bruins celebrates a goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on March 4, 2024 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Bruins defeated the Maple Leafs 4-1.
Pavel Zacha has posted two 50-point seasons in his two years with the Bruins. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

ARLINGTON, Va. — Pavel Zacha was able to breathe a sigh of relief.

When pro athletes get word that they’ve been dealt to another organization, the initial excitement or lamentation usually gives way to logistical headaches. In the span of just a few days, flights are booked, new living quarters are scoured over, and one’s whole life (along with their family) is packed away and shipped out.

In Zacha’s case, a trade to the Bruins in July 2022 was a bit easy to manage — especially with the deal struck with the Devils in the middle of the offseason.

But it wasn’t like Zacha needed to pack his bags, either. 

As he noted in his first press conference with Boston, the Czech-born forward lived in the Boston area for several years before even donning a black-and-gold sweater. Starting in 2017, he began working out in the summer with his then-Devils teammates, Brian Boyle and the late Jimmy Hayes, at Edge Performance Systems in Foxborough. 

And with several of his fellow countrymen already in place within Boston’s dressing room, it didn’t take long for Zacha to ingratiate himself to his new team.

“I already had a place to live there and everything,” Zacha told of adjusting to Boston. “Just knowing a lot of guys helped, too. I never played with Czech players, and just coming in with (David Krejci), (Tomas) Nosek, (David Pastrnak), (Jakub) Lauko, (Jakub) Zboril, we had a lot of guys that I could kind of talk to and they told me before the season of where to go, stuff like that. So it was just a very, very easy transition for me at the beginning.”

With close to two full seasons now in the books with Boston, it’s easy for Zacha to look back on his trade to Boston with rose-colored lenses.

When he was dealt from the Devils, Zacha’s growth in the NHL was seemingly stagnant. Over his first six seasons with New Jersey, the former 2015 first-round pick averaged 29.5 points per year — with his 36 points in 2021-22 standing as his career high.

The results speak for themselves when it comes to Zacha’s surge in production since arriving in Boston.

But even before skating in his first game with the Bruins, Zacha felt as though a role with Boston offered a prime opportunity for him to show that he had more to give at hockey’s highest level.

“I think for me, it was kind of refreshing. I think I needed a new start,” Zacha noted. “I think in Jersey, they knew that I needed a new start there, too. And it was good, because you can be traded to places that you don’t really want to go — especially when it’s not in your control.

“I think being traded to Boston was great for me. … Just knowing also that I was wanted on a team like this. They’re a winning team and I was wanted there from the beginning. It was kind of told from management and it was a big help for me mentally, kind of going into a new place and getting the support that I needed.”

It doesn’t take long to see why the Bruins were intrigued with unearthing more potential with a young forward like Zacha.

The sixth-overall pick in his draft class, Zacha boasts a heavy (albeit underutilized) shot, a sturdy 6-foot-3 frame, poised O-zone instincts, and a still-developing two-way skillset.

Of course, slotting him next to two proven offensive conduits in Krejci and Pastrnak was going to lead to stronger returns on the scoresheet — with Zacha surpassing his previous career-high in scoring by 21 points in 2022-23.

But Zacha’s ability to drive play by his own merit when filling in for Krejci and Patrice Bergeron down the middle quickly opened the door for more opportunities — both last season and the years ahead.

In 12 games where Zacha slotted over at center in place of either Bergeron or Krejci, he scored four goals and posted 10 points.

“We saw him take a huge step in his confidence in November [2022],” Jim Montgomery said earlier this year of when he knew Zacha could hold his own as a top-six center. “Just in his belief to fight through stuff. Then we saw him when we started using him at center because of Bergy and Krech. … He really relished the opportunity to play more minutes.”

Just over 40 games into his tenure with Boston, Zacha was awarded a four-year, $19 million contract extension — some welcomed security for a player who once weighed a career pivot to Russia’s KHL.

But it didn’t take Zacha 40-plus games to discern that the Bruins’ culture and contender status were going to bring the most out of his game.

“I was lucky enough to be able to talk to players who played there when I was training in Boston about the winning culture and how they hold each other accountable,” Zacha said of what he knew about the Bruins before getting dealt. “It was a very high standard for practices, games. It’s almost like a team that hates losing the most.

“We always had that problem I think in Jersey a little bit. It was we’re kind of okay with losing sometimes, it’s a long season. And here, it’s a very short memory. Everyone’s very focused on how we’re gonna get better all the time, even if we’re winning.”

With the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs less than three weeks away, Zacha is playing his best hockey at an ideal time. Over his last 13 games, he’s scored six goals and 15 points. 

A reworked top-six line of Zacha, Pastrnak, and Danton Heinen has carved up opposing defenses over the last month — with Boston outscoring opponents, 11-4, in their 123:24 of 5-on-5 ice time together.

“He’s taking more hard minutes because he’s used in every situation and he’s been matched up against top lines all the time,” Montgomery said of Zacha’s growth in his first full season as a top-six pivot. “So that’s probably taken a little bit away from his offense, to be honest. But what … him and Charlie Coyle has given us are two top-line centers.”

Zacha’s path towards a featured role on an Original Six team was far from linear, especially during those early years on a rebuilding Devils team.

But after a few detours, Zacha seems to have finally found a home — both on and off the ice.

“I think just overall, coming in to the team last year … it just kind of clicked, everything,” Zacha said. “With the coaching staff and everything, I kind of knew what they expected from me and was put in good situations to succeed — playing a lot of minutes, power play, penalty kill. So I just think as a player, that was a very good challenge for me to come to a team like this.”

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