The New Jersey Devils official website made a stunning announcement earlier this afternoon. Center Travis Zajac underwent surgery to fix a torn left pectoral muscle and will be out for four to six months as he recovers. Here’s the short statement at the from Ray Shero, posted at the Devils’ site:
New Jersey Devils Executive Vice President/General Manager Ray Shero provided the following update on center Travis Zajac.
"This morning, Travis Zajac underwent successful surgery to repair a torn left pectoral muscle that was suffered last week during off-season training. The procedure was performed by the club's Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Jonathan L. Glashow. Zajac's expected recovery time is approximately four to six months."
(Insert heavy sigh here.)
The statement may have been brief but the impact will be felt for much, much longer. As stated, Zajac torn the muscle last week; hence, the need for surgery now. Assuming the expected recovery time is accurate, the earliest we could see Zajac back in uniform would be a little bit before Christmas. The latest would take him into mid-February. In other words, Zajac will miss close to half of the season to nearly three-quarters of it.
No matter how you view it, this is bad news. Zajac has been and was expected to be the top center on the Devils in 2017-18. Last season featured Zajac centering Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri. For the most part, the unit worked well. Zajac has been and can definitely hang against first-line caliber opposition. He may not be a superlatively productive player (he never really was), but that Zajac can take the tough minutes, play in all situations, and not drag down Hall or Palmieri in 5-on-5 play. When I wrote about Adam Henrique becoming more expendable earlier this Summer, the stats suggested that Zajac was the better center and a superior option as a first-line center for this team. Now, Henrique could very well be the first-line center by default.
(Aside: Coincidentally, there have been similar circumstances in the past. The last time Zajac had a significant offseason injury was in 2011. This opened the door for a rookie named Adam Henrique to make the Devils roster. He got a shot at the top line and held it for the most part until Zajac returned. Granted, that was on a way better Devils team than this one. Better coaching, better defense, better depth, and that first line featured two amazing wingers to help “carry” any center: Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk.)
What will the Devils do? It depends on what they had planned for their prospects. If the plan was to keep Pavel Zacha as a center and keep Nico Hischier in the NHL right away - both likely plans if I were to guess - then the Devils do not have to really do anything. The team’s top four centers would be some combination of Henrique, Zacha, Hischier, and Boyle. Depth at center would still consist of Joseph Blandisi followed by Blake Coleman and Kevin Rooney, both of whom would really be called up only if the team needed bodies badly. Marcus Johansson could also play center; although this just moves the hole from center to wing. This depth can become deeper should the Devils keep Michael McLeod after training camp (and keep him at center; P.S. this may be more likely now) and/or move John Quenneville or Blake Speers to the center positions (they may be better as wingers, but those two at least played in the middle in junior).
Additionally, the Devils may bring in another center or two. In addition to a potential veteran on a try-out basis, according to Chris Ryan at NJ.com, the Devils are reportedly interested in Blaine Byron. He is a new free agent out of Maine University. He did not sign after his senior year of college and is free to sign with anyone. With the news that Zajac torn his muscle last week, it now makes sense why the Devils would pursue another center. Even if the Devils do not bring in Byron or anyone else, the Devils have no shortage of quantity at the center position even with Zajac out until February 2018 at the latest.
They do have a shortage of quality and that is why this is big blow to any playoff hopes for 2017-18. I would argue they were faint hopes to begin with between the quality of the other Metropolitan Division teams and that a lot would have to go right for the Devils to compete right now. Part of that going right would be Zajac continuing to be a reliable hand against tough competition and in difficult situations. Now, there is a very big question of whether the Devils just put the veteran Henrique in the spot or give someone else a chance. Henrique’s time with Hall and Palmieri did not go so well in the run of play last season. At the same time, it would be asking a lot for Hischier to jump from junior hockey to a first-line spot in the NHL right away. I hope he can be that kind of player one day but I do not think it is fair or reasonable to think that day is in 2017. Ditto for Zacha, who would have to make a massive leap in improvement after taking his lumps last season in the NHL. The Devils could go off the board a bit and increase Brian Boyle’s role on the basis that he has handled difficult competition before and handled it well. But the offense could suffer more and it may not even be a good fit for Boyle; who was a strong bottom-six player for several years now. There really is not a great option available to replace Zajac at the moment and I do not think one will occur in training camp, preseason, or during the coming regular season.
I agree that the games still have to be played and a lot can happen in 82 games. Nothing is definitive. However, I do not see how the Devils can manage a long shot to compete with Zajac being out for this long. I’m not saying Sherman Abrams will definitely make a return to this very site. I definitely still hope that the 2017-18 Devils will at least be more watachable, entertaining, and somewhat better than last season’s near-rock-bottom campaign. I think, after this news, it is understandable if you want to start looking ahead at eligible prospects for the 2018 NHL Entry Draft to get some names in mind.
I dropped a heavy sigh at the news today and the above are my thoughts on the matter. Now I want to know what you think. While keeping it clean, how did you react to news about Zajac? What do you think the Devils will do now? What do you think the Devils should do with Zajac out? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this bad news in the comments. Thank you for reading.