Yesterday brought some rough news for the Devils ahead of the 2017-18 season, with the team announcing Travis Zajac will be out for four to six months after undergoing surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle. The immediate reaction to this news is the obvious one: this is a very bad development for the Devils and their hopes to be better this season. The question now is how the Devils will attempt to address this situation as we head toward training camp. Will the Devils now thrust some of their younger players into larger roles to compensate for the loss of Zajac? Will they look outside the organization for help? Are what little hopes the team had at competing in a stacked Metropolitan Division now dashed?
If you are a fan hoping that the Devils would be more competitive this season after the team finished dead last in the East a year ago, those hopes have certainly taken a hit with this injury. Zajac has his shortcomings as an NHL player, but for better or worse, he was likely the best overall center on the roster heading into training camp. That’s not to say there aren’t players who can (and hopefully will) eventually overtake him and grab the mantle of the team’s top center, but at this particular moment, he’s probably the best they have. Losing him for likely a third of the season at a minimum (and potentially much more) means the team will have to fill some decent sized shoes for a while and the team’s depth at center is impacted significantly. So how will the Devils address this issue?
Internal Top Line Options
As John pointed out yesterday, the Devils do have some depth at center these days and don’t lack for bodies who can play the position. The real issue for the team is filling the specific role that Zajac has been charged with over the years. That is, centering the line who will be tasked with dealing with and neutralizing other teams’ top threats. Zajac’s offense has (often deservedly) been criticized plenty over the years, but his record as a defensive and play-driving center is fairly unimpeachable. His impact will be felt not necessarily in his production, which is typically pretty pedestrian, but rather the roles that other players will be forced to take on in his absence.
When looking at how the roster might set up a few weeks ago, it felt like there was a chance that Adam Henrique could be shifted off of the center position over to the left wing (a position I’ve long felt he fits better in). That now seems rather unlikely, as the Devils will probably be looking to Henrique to provide stability and a veteran presence at center in the top six. The question is whether Henrique can handle the role as top pivot against other teams’ best. Henrique is capable enough as a center, particularly as a scorer, but his possession numbers and defensive play have typically been middling and save for his stint between Kovalchuk and Parise in 2012, he’s never really stuck in that top line role.
If you don’t put Henrique in that top role though, that means you could be relying on a player with little or no NHL experience to center a top line. Nico Hischier was the first overall pick and has a shot to be among the most talented forwards in team history someday, but he will be a rookie this season, and throwing him into a top line role immediately could be a little bit too much to expect from him. Pavel Zacha stands out as the other main option, but while he has a year of experience under his belt, he didn’t exactly look like he was ready for primetime in a top line role by the end of last season. Both of these young centers are players you would ideally be able to shelter, at least to some extent, this season. Even if you had one of the two penciled into the top six, the toughest assignments were still largely going to go the line centered by Zajac.
Outside of the three mentioned, the one other option seems to be playing Marcus Johansson at center on the first line. Johansson is a proven quality player and he has experience playing at all three forward positions, and he’s not completely unfamiliar with spending time at center. On the Capitals, though, his responsibilities when he did play center were typically limited to a third-line role, with Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov handling the top two lines. It’s a big uptick in responsibility to now ask Johansson, who is still primarily a winger, to take on the toughest matchups as a first-line center. Playing him at center also makes him unavailable to fill the void at right wing, which is a problem that persists. The Devils are bereft of perfect options to solve this problem, though, so Johansson seems like as viable a potential alternative for filling Zajac’s spot as any other.
The other route the Devils could theoretically go to try to compensate for the loss of Zajac is to try to find a solution currently outside of the organization. The options here at this late stage of the offseason are very limited, though. A quick look at the unrestricted free agent market will paint a clear picture of what I mean. The top point-getters among centers left on the market are Mike Ribeiro (no thanks) and Daniel Winnik with 25. There aren’t really any options out there in free agency that appear to be better solutions that what the Devils already have within the organization, so beyond a move to bolster depth at center, the answers are unlikely to be found there.
As far as trades, the suggestion was thrown out (more implied) by MSG’s Steve Cangialosi that perhaps the team could make a run at Matt Duchene to fill the void. Duchene is certainly a capable center and would be a pretty nice option to have as a top pivot, but it seems unlikely that the Devils have the ammunition to make such a trade happen, at least in a way that improves the long-term outlook of this team. The Avalanche desperately need defense and would likely be looking for a substantial defensive prospect going the other way in a trade. That, as you may know, is something the Devils very much do not have. And unless the team is willing to risk losing a very high first round pick (something I would certainly advise against), I don’t see how a move would be possible. At this point, the Devils are likely going to have to march into the season with what they have and try to make it work.
Penalty Kill Questions
Another big factor with the Zajac injury is the huge hole in the penalty kill the Devils will need to address. It wasn’t even something that immediately came to mind when I heard about the injury but David Sarch pointed out on Talking Red that Zajac and Henrique each had over 200 PK minutes last season and no one else among the forwards had more than 100. That means the Devils are going to have to fill a whole lot of PK time in the upcoming season. There are a few different candidates to take on some of that time, including veteran signing Brian Boyle and the Devils’ group of young centers in Hischier, Zacha, and potentially Michael McLeod. This feels like a role they will just have to fill by committee for the time being, though. Their top young centers are all capable defensive players, but you probably don’t want to lean on any of them for PK duty as hard as you would Zajac.
The Zajac injury is undeniably a big blow to the team’s chances to compete this season. The bright side of it, if there is one, is that there will be plenty of opportunity for the Devils young up-and-comers to prove themselves in substantial NHL roles. At the same time you have to wonder if losing some of the ability to shelter those players will hamper their development. Given that concern in particular, I think you see the Devils go ahead with a veteran player on the top line to start. With that in mind, I’ll propose what I think are two plausible top-six configurations heading into the season:
Taylor Hall - Adam Henrique - Kyle Palmieri
Pavel Zacha - Nico Hischier - Marcus Johansson
Taylor Hall - Marcus Johansson - Kyle Palmieri
Adam Henrique - Nico Hischier - Michael McLeod
If Nico Hischier (or perhaps Pavel Zacha) show themselves capable, I think it’s possible one of them gets a shot on that top unit at some point, but on opening night it feels like a bit of a longshot unless Hischier looks amazing in the preseason. These two options leave either Michael McLeod or Pavel Zacha as the starting third line center, which feels pretty likely at this point (and preferable to putting Boyle there). If some of these first or second-year players do break out, it would obviously be a great thing for New Jersey. With the increased responsibility placed on them in Zajac’s absence though, they will have their work cut out for them. Zajac’s injury is certainly a bad thing for the 2017-18 Devils, but perhaps they can make lemonade out of those lemons if some of their future core is able to show out in bigger roles. And if it all implodes with Zajac gone in the first half, well, at least they might get another top draft pick out of it.