This afternoon, the New Jersey Devils announced that Travis Zajac has officially entered the league’s Covid Protocol on Friday. That is why he was not at practice earlier today. The team has already announced that he will not travel while he is under protocol and it is expected he will not play in the Devils’ games in Buffalo this weekend. Zajac joins Mackenzie Blackwood on the list of unavailable Devils due to Covid. In light of the announcement, Nick Merkley from the taxi squad filled in for practice. It remains to be seen whether he will travel with Buffalo as his replacement.
This is bad news. First and foremost, it is bad for Zajac and those around him. This would include his teammates as well as the Philadelphia Flyers. Zajac played 17:26 last night against the Flyers, so there was plenty of opportunity for contact to be made. Hopefully this is only precautionary and Zajac passes the protocol in short order.
Second, it is bad for the Devils going into their weekend set with Buffalo. Zajac arguably been one of the Devils’ best players in this season so far. Zajac is either the leader or among team leaders in Corsi, expected goals, shots, and scoring chance percentages in 5-on-5 play per Natural Stat Trick. When Zajac has been on the ice, New Jersey has an expected goals percentage of 60.46% while taking 57.66% of the shooting attempts and 55% of the shots on net. That’s a fantastic set of results. It is even more fantastic when you recall that Zajac has been drawing tough match-ups in at least the team’s home games. He saw a lot of Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, the Islanders’ Mat Barzal, and Philadelphia’s Kevin Hayes and the Devils either matched or won those matchups. He was a reason for Wood’s early success and almost every Devil has benefited in 5-on-5 when they had time with Zajac. While head coach Lindy Ruff will not necessarily have control on the matchups, not having Zajac available for at least two games will make those games harder.
It also makes the Devils even thinner at center. They are still without Nico Hischier. Jack Hughes has been emerging with his offensive game, but the 5-on-5 results have left something to be desired prior to last night’s line with Jesper Bratt and Andreas Johnsson. (Keeping Kyle Palmieri away from him has seemingly helped a lot.) Michael McLeod has proven to be fine as a fourth line center so far. It is unclear whether the coaches want to keep Pavel Zacha at center as they moved him to wing yesterday in favor of Yegor Sharangovich taking a pivot role. Now, both may have to play center. Or Jesper Boqvist (or another center?) is going to be called up really soon. Either way, the Devils’ centers will be matching up against a team with Jack Eichel, Eric Staal, Cody Eakin, and Reily Sheahan down the middle this weekend. On paper, it is not in New Jersey’s favor. On the ice, it may not be short of some massive performances by the Devils’ centers.
All the same, the important thing here is the health and well-being of Zajac. We all wish Zajac safely goes through the protocol and this is all ultimately a precaution. His 1,000th game will happen in 2021. It just will not be this Sunday.
This was my quick reaction to this bit of bad news. Now I want to know yours. Who should the Devils line up at center for this weekend as it looks like Zajac will not be involved? Thank you for reading.