Pavel Zacha had a pretty good idea of the steps he needed to take to succeed in his first season in North America with the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League.
It wasn't easy. The smaller rinks and quick decisions he had to make on the fly were a bit of an adjustment, but the Czech Republic native seems to have found his groove.
"Pavel has made a seamless transition to the North American game," Sting general manager Nick Sinclair said. "He's a very intelligent young man both on and off the ice."
With 19 points in 21 games, Zacha is tied for third in scoring among OHL rookies, and his nine goals are tied for third on the Sting. He had an A rating from NHL Central Scouting on its November players to watch list for the 2015 NHL Draft.
Pavel Zacha is tied for third in scoring among OHL rookies this season. (Photo: Terry Wilson/OHL Images)
"He's got high-end skill and is an excellent competitor; he plays an excellent two-way game," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards said. "In the game I saw him play he broke up a few rushes in his own end and transitioned up the ice really well. He's physical and solid on his skates and can separate guys from the puck."
Zacha, 17, can thank countryman Petr Nedved, 43, for some of his success. Last season Zacha was teammates with Nedved and skated four games on the top line with him while playing for Bili Tygri Liberec as a 16-year-old in the top professional league in the Czech Republic.
The experience and education was invaluable.
"He would help me in practices and talk to me in the locker room," Zacha said. "I was young and to have a guy like Petr Nedved come over to you, sit down and ask if I had any questions was something I'll never forget."
Nedved, who announced his retirement in March 2014, played 15 seasons in the NHL and had 310 goals and 717 points in 982 NHL games. After leaving the NHL in 2007 he spent his final seven seasons playing in the Czech Republic.
"We talked about the style of play in North America, how to shoot it during a game from all areas and what decisions I needed to make quickly," Zacha said. "It wasn't so much preparation as it was on-ice stuff. How to make plays and how to shoot from the corner."
After playing in the 2014 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in April, Zacha decided that playing in North America would better enhance his game in his initial draft season. Sarnia selected the 6-foot-3, 210-pound left-shot center with the first pick of the 2014 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft on July 2.
Voracek keeping tabs on Zacha
Philadelphia Flyers forward Jakub Voracek is busy with his NHL season but he still keeps an eye on the next generation of hockey talent from his native Czech Republic.
One of the players he's stayed interested in is center Pavel Zacha of the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League. Zacha is one of the top prospects for the 2015 NHL Draft.
"I met him in the summer," Voracek told NHL.com. "He's a big, strong guy. I've never seen him play live so I can't really [describe his game], but he's a good player if he's ranked that high. For his age he's very mature. He's a big, strong kid. It's good to see him be up there."
Zacha could be the first Czech player selected in the top 10 of the draft since the Columbus Blue Jackets selected Voracek with the seventh pick of the 2007 NHL Draft.
"We had two very good players last year, [Jakub] Vrana and [David] Pastrnak [2014 first-round picks], those players are going to be very good players in the National Hockey League very soon," Voracek said. "It's good for Czech Republic hockey that the young players are coming up like that. Hopefully it's going to grow."
Zacha, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound center, is fourth among OHL rookies with 19 points in 21 games. Voracek said he liked the fact that Zacha took the chance to come to North America in his draft year. Voracek made the same move, spending the 2006-07 season with Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
"I think every player is different but I think the way he's built it's better for him to be here this year," Voracek said. "Obviously he's been playing good. He's a big, strong kid so it's going to help him as well."
-- Adam Kimelman
Sarnia has had recent success with import players, selecting forward Nail Yakupov with the second pick of the 2010 import draft and Nikolay Goldobin with the 36th pick in the 2012 import draft. Yakupov was the No. 1 pick by the Edmonton Oilers in the 2012 NHL Draft and Goldobin was chosen No. 27 by the San Jose Sharks in 2014.
"They had a lot of good players who are now playing well in the NHL like Yakupov, Alex Galchenyuk (Montreal Canadiens) and Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay Lightning)," Zacha said. "I think each of them was the best player in the CHL at the time."
In addition to his offensive numbers, Zacha has helped linemate Nikita Korostelev join him as an A-ranked skater by Central Scouting. Korostelev leads Sarnia with 14 goals and 33 points in 29 games.
"His on-ice talent speaks for itself, but he has been just as valuable off the ice for our hockey club," Sinclair said of Zacha. "He's a natural leader with high character and has been a great fit for us."
Zacha said one of the things he's adjusted to has been his plan of attack in North America.
"In Europe I could make those little passes because you have the time to do it," Zacha said. "I like the game here because I'm big and strong so I can use that to my advantage on the smaller ice and in the corners. I can just play more physical than in Europe."
Zacha acknowledged that he first got into hockey when he was 3 years old, playing on the ice in his hometown of Brno, Czech Republic. He also dabbled in tennis, but when he turned 9 his full focus went to hockey.
"Hockey is more of a team sport than tennis and that's why I liked it more," Zacha said. "All my life I try to play a two-way game because here in Canada that's the way you have to play. You can score goals but you can't allow them so you have to work hard in your own end too."
Zacha was added to the preliminary roster for the Czech Republic for the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship in Montreal and Toronto. The selection camp begins Friday in Napanee, Ontario. At the 2014 WJC Zacha had four shots on goal in five games.
"I know the crowds will be big in Canada to see the World Junior tournament and one of my goals this season is to make that team and help my country finish strong," Zacha said.
Czech native Filip Chlapik, a center with the Charlottetown Islanders of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and also an A-rated skater on Central Scouting's players to watch list, knows Zacha well. They were teammates on the under-16 Liberec club for two seasons and will be in Czech WJC camp together.
"He a great player; he has big size and is very strong," Chlapik said. "He's got a great shot so I think he would be very good."
Zacha could be the first Czech player to be picked in the top 10 of the NHL Draft since Jakub Voracek went No. 7 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2007. Zacha's English has improved tremendously, something he credits to watching American movies.
"I watched the movies and read the subtitles," he said. "That's how I learned to understand everything. I love the comedies and the funny movies; I translate a lot of that stuff with my teammates in the locker room."