The 2017-18 New Jersey Devils season was originally being viewed as another growth and development year; the team seemed destined for another high draft pick after de facto #1 center Travis Zajac tore his pectoral muscle during offseason training and was anticipated to return in mid-December at the earliest. While the Devils certainly had youth on their side, experience was lacking down the middle, which should have spelled disaster in a strong Metropolitan Division.
The Devils have, however, defied almost all of the negative expectations at this point, surging to an 11-4-2 start, good for first in what is still a very competitive Metro at this point in time. The better news started to trickle in last week; first a picture of Zajac and Kyle Palmieri practicing back in New Jersey while the team was on the Western Canada trip. Next came words that he and Michael McLeod were participating in full team practices; then, the shocking yet exciting news that Zajac will more than likely return to the lineup roughly a full month earlier than anticipated to suit up tonight against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
While I have my concerns about Zajac returning early (he did the same in 2012 with his Achilles injury and wound up having to be shut down again) his presence and defensive ability have certainly been missed. While shots against seem to be higher league-wide this season, the Devils have been bleeding chances, allowing the second-most per game with 35.5 shots against. Speaking of second-worst in the league, the Devils faceoff win percentage is tied for second-worst in the league at 46.4%. The good news about all of these negatives is that Zajac’s return should help both areas.
We all know Zajac is an elite defender, and that should hopefully have Cory Schneider seeing at least a few less shots per game making it on net. Need a reminder of how good his defense is? Just take a look back at this excellent play from last season. Zajac’s faceoff ability is a necessity for this team; he won 54.7% of his draws last season, 51.5% in 2015-16, and 53.4 in 2014-15. I could go back beyond that, but the trend I’m looking to establish is already present; Zajac will help the Devils to win more faceoffs, which will help to control the puck more frequently, which should translate to more offense and less time defending.
A lesser benefit of Travis’ return is that it allows the Devils to give Nico Hischier some easier minutes. Nico found a decent amount of success alongside Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri, but that pair is always (or almost always) facing the opposing team’s toughest competition. Dropping Nico down to play with Jesper Bratt and Drew Stafford could allow him to flourish more on the offensive end as he won’t be seeing as stiff of competition.
Adam Henrique may also be an indirect beneficiary of Zajac’s return. Henrique is currently slated to play left wing on the third line, and with less defensive responsibility and not having to worry about regular faceoffs (Rico is winning only 47.7% of his draws) we might see Adam start to score with more regularity. In the very least, maybe he can use his passing ability to set up Miles Wood for some more goals.
Travis Zajac has yet to be officially activated off of injured reserve yet, but it look as though things are trending that way. We may not find out until game time tonight, but the Devils could use the shot in the arm that Trav will provide. What do you think about Zajac’s return? Will he have a positive or negative effect on the team? What on ice contributions do you hope to see? Will he still thrive next to Palms and Hall? Leave any and all comments below and thank you as always for reading!