Don Sweeney didn’t have much flexibility to improve his squad this off-season.
Aside from potentially bringing back Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci on short-term deals, many pundits didn’t expect the Boston Bruins to add many external pieces given their $2.3 million of salary cap space.
But Boston’s general manager managed to acquire a versatile forward and at least temporarily shed some salary cap space on the first day of free agency.
The Bruins made one of the first splashes of the day after acquiring Pavel Zacha from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for forward Erik Haula.
Though he struggled with consistency at times, Zacha showcased some upside during his six seasons in New Jersey. Arguably, his best year came during the 2021 pandemic-shortened season, where he tallied 35 points (17 goals, 18 assists) in 50 games.
Zacha appeared on pace to eclipse those numbers last season, notching eight goals in his first 17 games. But Jack Hughes’ return from injury prompted the 2015 first-round selection to a middle-six role where he struggled to generate similar production, notching seven goals in his next 53 contests.
Haula gave the Bruins a needed spark on the second line with Taylor Hall and David Pastrnak following their COVID-19 break. He became Boston’s proverbial swiss army knife, providing stability on the penalty kill and displaying a solid two-way presence after the Bruins struggled to fill the middle-six hole following Krejci’s departure to his native Czech Republic.
But Haula wasn’t an ideal long-term candidate for that second-line center spot. He struggled to produce timely offense in their first-round series with the Hurricanes after Pastrnak reunited with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand for a few games.
The 31-year-old Haula has one more year left on his contract. At 25, Zacha gives the Bruins a little more stability for the post-Bergeron era.
The Bruins will have to negotiate a new deal for the RFA Zacha. The Czech-born power forward earned $2.25 million in his previous contract. The Haula-Zacha trade freed up $2.375 million, giving the Bruins a hare over $4.7 million in salary cap space.
With Krejci and Bergeron potentially back, Haula became expendable. But the Bruins needed to get younger up front and find a long-term solution with or without Krejci or Bergeron.
Zacha provides the Bruins with a decent blend of size and skill in the middle of the lineup. He’ll likely start the season as a second or third-line winger with Bergeron and Krejci barring unforeseen last-minute developments with the two veteran centermen. Without Bergeron and Krejci, Zacha will likely enter training camp as the team’s top-line center.
Zacha would undoubtedly benefit from skating with Krejci or Bergeron. He showcased growth in a top-six role last year in Newark before Hughes’ return.
Even if he winds up on the third line, Zacha should still see more minutes in Boston from his 16:51 time on ice in Newark a year ago. He’ll likely see time as a net-front presence on the power play and as a secondary option on the penalty kill.
Zacha doesn’t hesitate to create quality scoring looks on odd-man rushes. But, even at his 6-foot-3 frame, he struggled to finish plays in front of the net. Perhaps Jim Montgomery’s system will help improve Zacha’s net-front work without sacrificing his transitional playmaking traits.
Even with Zacha notching a career-high 36 points a year ago, Sweeney made a bit of a gamble acquiring the former Devil. Perhaps there’s still some untapped potential with their newly acquired forward.
At the very least, they know Zacha will enter a decent environment compared to his New Jersey days. Whether or not it helps the Bruins get over that playoff hump is anyone’s guess, however.
Tim Rosenthal serves as the Managing Editor of Bruins Daily. He started contributing videos to the site in 2010 before fully coming on board during the Bruins' Stanley Cup run in 2011. His bylines over the last decade have been featured on Boston.com, FoxSports.com, College Hockey News, Patch and Inside Hockey. You can follow Tim on Twitter @_TimRosenthal.
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