The Devils have have more than enough forwards on the roster as they head towards the 2014-15 season, but the somewhat questionable depth at the center position raises concerns as to how the lineup is most properly configured. The issue for New Jersey is that they have a lot of players who are capable of playing center, but not a lot of true full-time centers at this point. Beyond Travis Zajac , there aren't a ton of definites at the position. How the structure down the middle ultimately works out will depend on some issues like chemistry and injuires, but for now, let's look at the Devils' options down the middle in 2014-15.
The Sure Thing
Of all the doubts regarding the center position on the bottom three lines, I think most people would agree that Zajac is the de facto #1 center on this current Devils roster. Whether he is a top-tier center in the NHL or a "true #1" has been oft debated among Devils fans, but the fact remains that he is the best option for this team has at the moment. We would all like to have a sure-fire elite #1 center on the squad, but Sidney Crosby ain't walking through that door and Zajac does plenty of things well, despite lacking a great scoring touch. Assuming he and Jagr stay healthy, they make for a pretty formidable two-thirds of a top line (NJ had over 60% of the shot attempts when they were on the ice together at evens) and Zajac looked to be rounding into more of his pre-achilles-injury form in the second half, as he scored 30 of his 48 points in his final 40 games.
So one of the major possibilities for the center position is largely a repeat of what we saw for most of last season. With Zajac operating as the top line pivot next to Jagr, that would leave the second line centering duties to Patrik Elias, with Adam Henrique running the third line and Stephen Gionta returning to his spot on the fourth. There are advantages to this setup in giving the team some continuity from last season and this setup does a decent job of spreading the talent among the lines.
I think the big question here is whether Henrique is best-suited as a third-line center, or if he would be better off seeing time on a wing with Elias (or even someone else). The so-called "Newfoundline" saw some early success with Henrique at center but otherwise suffered for the most part. Henrique put up around 40% more shots/60 and double the points/60 at 5v5 when with Elias compared to what he did at center with Michael Ryder on his wing. The possession stats leave a little to be desired when they're together, but, to me, Henrique's skill set just seems to fit better as a winger at this level. He is more of a scorer than he is a playmaker and I think his strengths on defense are more in pressuring players higher in the zone and creating turnovers/transition opportunities like he does on the penalty kill than they are elsewhere. Henrique is not particularly strong at faceoffs, either, but there really isn't anyone else on the roster, outside of Zajac, who is consistently any good at them, so that seems like less of a consideration.
The Cammalleri Factor
Mike Cammalleri is a bit of an x-factor when discussing the possibilities at center for the Devils. Many, including myself, penciled him in for a role at 1LW alongside Zajac and Jagr when he was acquired, but there is also the possibility that he could be shifted into a center role on the second line. Cammalleri has primarily played wing over the past several years, but he has seen at least a decent amount of time at center, too, particularly in the 2013 season when he played enough of the position to see about 500 draws in 44 games played. He also saw plenty of time at center earlier in his career, so if nothing else, he's capable of playing there.
If Cammalleri did slot in at second line center, it re-opens the the question of who plays left wing with Zajac and Jagr again, but it could potentially help with the team's depth down the middle. As far as the first line, it was actually playing some dominant hockey with Ruutu on its left wing towards the end of the season, so there's a chance that could work. And putting Cammalleri at center frees Elias up to center the third line (really, in this scenario, the Elias and Cammalleri lines seem a bit interchangeable in terms of "second" and "third" line labels) and allows Henrique to shift to the wing on either the second or third line. The question at that point becomes whether you can assemble a suitably effective second line with Cammalleri at center. Are people comfortable with a Henrique/Clowe-Cammaleri-Ryder line in terms of two-way play? It's a fair question, but shifting Cammalleri to center does seem to give the team a deeper feel.
Bottom Six Options
The options for centers on the third and fourth lines are either set or completely up in the air, depending on how you feel about the "status quo" option for the centers on this team. If Cammalleri moves to center and Elias shifts to the third line, that basically leaves one of Jacob Josefson, Stephen Gionta, or maybe Dainius Zubrus to serve as fourth line pivot. With the CBGB line possibly a thing of the past, could the Devils see fit to move Gionta to a wing on the fourth line, where he seems to make more sense anyway?
If Cammalleri remains at wing and the team chooses to put Henrique at wing as well, that opens up the most questions for the bottom six. The Devils would then have to decide whether to try their luck with a player like Josefson on the third line or see if a veteran like Zubrus or perhaps Ruutu (who has played at least a little center) could handle the duties there. Those options will likely limit the offensive output of the third line to an extent, but it also allows the Devils to concentrate more scoring talent on the top two. If the top lines are scoring well, perhaps the team won't need as much from their third liners beyond wearing teams down with possession and chipping in points where they can.
An Opinion of Sorts
I think the Devils face some tough questions regarding the center position this season. Do they go for the big-time scoring line by putting Mike Cammalleri at the first line LW spot or do they hope he makes them deeper at center. I'm not sure I'm fully sold on Cammalleri playing center, but the more I think about it, the more it starts to make some sense with the makeup of the team. Right now, I'd say I'm of the opinion that the Devils use Cammaleri to try to take advantage of the possession machine that is Jagr and Zajac to put up goals, though. I'd also like to see Henrique shifted to second line wing, where I think he has more to offer, and have the team roll with a bit of a patchwork third line and see if they can't hold their own. If the bottom six did struggle out of the gate, I'd be open to the idea of moving one of Henrique/Cammalleri to center, but at least to start, I'd like to see the team try to get the maximum our of their top six and grind teams down with the bottom six.
So what do you think is the best configuration at center for the team? Should Cammalleri be shifted to center? Should Henrique remain there? If both of them play wing, do you think anyone else is capable of centering the third line? Take the poll below and sound off with your thoughts in the comments.