The Czech Republic has churned out quality, but far less quantity in recent years when it comes to prospects. Jakub Voracek, Radek Faksa and of course Tomas Hertl have kept the nation relevant, but when only a handful of native are taken in the NHL draft each season, it’s a problem. Good showings at international tournaments helps and that’s where Pavel Zacha comes in. Already 6-foot-3 and 201 pounds, the talented left winger just turned 17 this week, but he has already played on a team with Petr Nedved in his country’s top league, gotten his feet wet at the world juniors and learned more English than some Czech NHLers. Now he has his sites set on a good showing at the world under-18s in Finland next week.
“We have a very good team,” Zacha said. “We played good at the Ivan Hlinka tournament in the summer and I hope we can get a medal this time.”
Eligible for the loaded 2015 draft, Zacha is shaping up to be the first top-10 pick from the Czech Republic since Voracek went seventh to Columbus in 2007. “He’s a big, strong, powerful winger,” said one NHL scout. “Really good skater, too. He’s fast and he shoots the puck.”
While the race to get Zacha over to North American shores will be a feverish one when the CHL Import Draft determines major junior destinations for Euros in the summer, Zacha signed a three-year contract with Liberec this season, so his path will most likely mirror that of Hertl, who came over to San Jose this season as more or less a finished product from the Slavia Prague squad. “Everybody says it’s the best way in the Czech Republic,” he said. “I like Hertl because he did the same.”
Zacha spent the majority of his season with Liberec’s main club after dominating at the junior level and also spending time loaned out to a second-tier men’s club. He tallied eight points in 38 games for Liberec and saw action in three playoff games. It was quite the intro to the next level of hockey for the teen.
“It was hard in the beginning,” he said. “But I played with Petr Nedved and he told me good things about how to play and really supported me.”
And Nedved isn’t the first elder statesman to lend Zacha a hand. The youngster has trained in the summer before with former No. 1 overall pick Patrik Stefan in Los Angeles and will likely head to Montreal this summer for a camp arranged by agent Allan Walsh’s Octagon firm. The big houses and ocean vistas of L.A. were certainly awe-inspiring for the product of land-locked Brno in the Czech Republic, but those trips also helped him learn English – on top of movie trailers and Hollywood comedies. Growing up as a multi-sport athlete, Zacha also played tennis and soccer, but his size and skill made him a phenom on the ice. He’s been ahead of the development curve for years back home and even though he played sparingly at the world juniors in Sweden, it did open his eyes. “It was great for me, seeing players like Jonathan Drouin,” he said. “For me it was a very good tournament.”
Zacha wants to work on the mental side of his game and a great acid test will be the under-18s. In a pool with Denmark, Switzerland, Finland and Team USA, the Czechs should at least make the quarterfinal, especially with first-round 2014 draft prospects Jakub Vrana and David Pastrnak in the lineup.
If Zacha can build his resume from there, next season will be filled with opportunities and a chance to add his name to a prospect list that already features Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Noah Hanifin and Oliver Kylington. And that would be great for the visibility of both Zacha and his home country.