The last time a Czech prospect was selected among the top 10 at an NHL Draft was in 2006 when the Columbus Blue Jackets drafted Jakub Voráček sixth overall. Since then, the only bigger success for a Czech draft class was a year ago, in 2012, when two forwards, Radek Faksa and Tomáš Hertl, were selected by Dallas and San Jose respectively in the top 20. And, while the 2013 NHL Draft was a huge disappointment for the Czech Republic, this traditional stronghold of hockey is expected to come back.
And not just for one year. It is true that Swedish-based forward Jakub Vrána, who is eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft, is one of the best the country will have to offer anytime soon. A year after Vrana, though, another offensive prospect is expected to make a splash at the draft. Talked about as a future star and a sure first-rounder, 16-year-old Pavel Zacha may be too young to be judged, but definitely shows a lot of promise.
The reason why Zacha is turning heads is his size. At 16 years of age, the versatile youngster is 6-foot-3 and weighs in at roughly 190 pounds. And he's still growing. One can only guess how big he'll turn out to be, but one thing is for sure – he has a very good shot at being as big as Milan Lucic or any other elite NHL power forward. Zacha also plays physical hockey and is totally dominating in his age group. Zacha is already much bigger than Vrána, who also is a gritty player, and he's competing well for his young age.
Zacha started playing hockey in Velké Meziřičí, but left for a bigger organization in Brno soon after to become a part of an extremely strong youth hockey dynasty. He won national championships with all the teams he played for between the fifth and eighth grades, which makes it four years in a row. After that, however, after Brno gave him a chance in only one game of the Under-16 Extraliga, he decided to move elsewhere.
Back in 2010, the Liberec White Tigers became Zacha's new team and there, he was given a full-time opportunity among 16-year-olds as a 13-year-old. On top of this, Zacha made his debut in the Under-18 Extraliga in that same season, scoring one goal in three games. A year later, the Tigers decided to give him much more time among the 18-year-olds while also making his Under-20 Extraliga debut in which he performed impressively.
This past season, Zacha became both a full-time Under-20 Extraliga player and a full-time Under-18 national team member, and all at the age of 15. Playing on the first line among 20-year-olds, he had a point-per-game average during the regular season and post-season combined and led his team to the semifinals. Also, the Liberec organization decided to let Zacha make his professional hockey debut in which he played a game for their minor-league affiliation in Benátky nad Jizerou, but recorded no points.
At the international level, Zacha has barely played for the Under-16 and Under-17 national teams, and has instead already made the jump to the Under-18 national team. During his debut at that level, a mid-season prep game against Russia, Zacha played on the fourth line, but still managed to get several chances and totally overpowered the Russians physically. Every one of his opponents went down hard every time they collided with him. After making such a statement, he also had a good U18 WJC where he collected three assists in five games, more than the two points that Vrána recorded at that tournament in the same number of games.
This season, a new Czech Extraliga rule gives Zacha a chance to make the White Tigers' first team, also giving him the opportunity to play in one of the top European leagues. The decision on whether Zacha will land that roster spot will be decided during the European Trophy pre-season competition. Currently, he is battling for one of three spots with five other players. Nonetheless, staying among juniors and playing about 25 minutes per game might be a better solution for his development. Expect him to get a lot of pro experience in the upcoming season, however.
Size and physicality play a huge role in Zacha's style of play. It's one area in which Zacha excels and already compares favorably to most adult players. Aside from that physicality, he's got good leadership abilities and plays the game the passionate way. Even though he's not as skilled as most other potential first-rounders, he still looks like he owns the ice in most games. Even when not on his game, Zacha's size and determination still help him make things happen.
Hockey's Future interviewed Zacha earlier this year:
Hockey's Future: Pavel, what does it feel like being so tall and big at 16 years of age?
Pavel Zacha: It definitely feels good and I hope I can grow even a little taller, which would be amazing.
HF: How do you see your chances of getting a place on the roster of a Czech Extraliga team?
PZ: We'll see about that, the off-season isn't going to be easy. I'll try my best and we'll see in the European Trophy if I can persuade our coach to give me the spot.
HF: Besides that, what do you think you need to work on the most in the years before the NHL Draft?
PZ: I think I need to work on my drive to the net. I'm much more of a passing type of player and a defensive forward so I'll try to work on my offensive abilities.
HF: What would you tell me about the success you had with your Under-20 team back home in Liberec?
PZ: The season didn't really look good early on, we were second-to-last after the first half of the regular season. Then we started working harder and turned it around, made it all the way to the semifinals. It was fantastic.
HF: Anyway, how open are you to offers from the Canadian Hockey League?
PZ: I'm not sure about that, if the White Tigers give me that spot on the first team, I would definitely stay in the Czech Republic. The conditions have been good and I hope things will stay that way.
Follow Radoslav Vavrina on Twitter at @RadoslavVavrina