NEWARK, N.J. - The New Jersey Devils have made public their desire to give their top prospects every chance to earn a role in the NHL. It's a safe bet forward Pavel Zacha and defenseman Steven Santini will get an opportunity this season.
Zacha, the sixth pick of the 2015 NHL Draft, made his Devils debut April 9 with two assists in a 5-1 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Santini, a right-shot defenseman selected in the second round (No. 42) of the 2013 draft, spent the past three seasons at Boston College before signing a three-year, entry-level contract with the Devils on April 8. He made his NHL debut in the same game as Zacha and had a plus-2 rating and two blocked shots in 14:35 of ice time.
Last week, they took part in Devils development camp at Barnabas Health Hockey House at Prudential Center. Santini was participating in on- and off-ice drills, but Zacha, who is recovering from a hip pointer, was limited to off-ice activities. Zacha is expected to be a full participant at training camp in September.
"Spots aren't going to be won or lost in [development] camp," Santini said. "But at the same time, you want to leave a lasting impression. I think the focus for any guy coming into camp is they want to make the team, whether you're a young guy like me or an older guy that's maybe getting a tryout. I don't try and read into the trades [made by the Devils this offseason]. At the end of the day, I need to play my game and be myself."
Santini (6-foot-2, 207 pounds) plays a physical, in-your-face style. He had 19 points in 41 games at Boston College and was named the best defensive defenseman in Hockey East last season. He played for the United States at the 2016 IIHF World Championship.
"He has a knack for catching guys with their head down and that's a staple of his game," said Rick Kowalsky, who coaches Albany, the Devils' American Hockey League affiliate. "I saw him play at the World Championship and thought it was a great experience playing for [Devils coach John] Hynes. He should be a rock-solid defenseman with an ability to end plays, get the puck back and go the other way."
Santini has a good chance at earning an NHL job with a solid training camp. There are spots open after defenseman Adam Larsson was traded to the Edmonton Oilers for left wing Taylor Hall on June 29 and defenseman David Schlemko signed with the San Jose Sharks on July 1.
"I'm a different player than Larsson, so I'm not going to replace him," Santini said. "But hopefully I can prove myself worthy to make the team."
Santini's 18 assists and 19 points last season were the most he had in three college seasons, but he knows his offensive game isn't what has gotten him this far.
"I'm in this situation because of the way I've played and prepared in the past," he said. "I don't think I have to change, but you need to improve and there's a difference. I've worked on improving my shot, skating, puck handling. I've continued to improve. I don't need to recreate Steve Santini; I have a foundation of skills and I'm going to continue to improve them."
Zacha is big (6-3, 210), strong and capable of impacting the game offensively. A strong training camp could earn him a spot on the third or fourth line. He has been in the gym working out while awaiting clearance to resume skating. He said the extra gym time has helped him add 5 pounds.
"I feel stronger at center because I play a two-way game," he said.
Zacha, a native of Brno, Czech Republic, said one of his highlights from last season was playing on a line with countryman Patrik Elias, the Devils' all-time leading scorer (1,025 points). Elias is an unrestricted free agent.
"[Elias] is probably the smartest player I ever played with," Zacha said. "He's a legend in Czech hockey and with the New Jersey Devils too, so it's great I was able to play with him. I hope I'll be able to play with him next season too."
Zacha had 28 goals and 64 points in 51 games with Sarnia of the Ontario Hockey League last season, and 13 points in seven OHL playoff games. After his NHL debut, he had one goal and three points in three regular-season games with Albany and one goal and three points in five AHL playoff games before he sustained his hip injury in the second round.
"Zacha is a smart, two-way player, and I wish I had him longer," Kowalsky said. "We eased him into the lineup, which was a good situation for him and it didn't take long for him to impress. … I see him as a 200-foot player, and he looks even bigger now than when we drafted him."