Center Depth Still an Issue for 2015-16 Devils

The good news? The Devils have points in seven of their last nine games, and have allowed two or less goals in all but one of those contests—three surrendered to the Flyers in last week’s 4-3 loss in overtime.

The potential bad news remains unknown in the form of Adam Henrique, who suffered a lower-body injury the Devils’ 3-2 shootout loss in Toronto on Tuesday. The team’s top center played just 3:51 in the second period and did not return to the bench for the duration of the game.

Adam Hnerique (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Adam Hnerique (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Henrique currently leads the team in goals (13) and is centering the top line of Mike Cammalleri and Lee Stempniak, who combine for 31 of the team’s 71 goals this season.

The possibility of Henrique being sidelined is compounded by the fact that Travis Zajac’s status also remains cloudy. Zajac missed his third-straight game last night after suffering what the team called an upper-body injury in the Devils’ 5-1 win over the Hurricanes on Dec. 3.

Patrik Elias, who played in his eighth game of the season on Tuesday after missing the first 20 games of the season with a knee injury, played his first game of the season at center last night, centering Kyle Palmieri and Tyler Kennedy. Following Henrique’s departure, Elias subsequently moved up to the first line. Elias played large parts of last season at center for the Devils, who were depleted down the middle.

A season later, the Devils’ center depth remains less than desirable.

Jacob Josefson, Sergey Kalinin and Stephen Gionta have all played center at this season and could be asked to weather the storm.

That storm though could be quite daunting for a Devils team that is among the league’s worst at the dot. Only the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks have a worse face-off percentage than the Devils’ 47.7. Collectively, the five regular centers sport a 793-871 record on the draw, Henrique and Zajac combining for 488 face-off’s won by the team. Josefson has held his own at the dot, with a 47.6 percentage with over 350 draws taken.

Elias went four-for-nine on Tuesday, but has struggled in the past. His 39.1 percentage last season was among the worst of team’s regular center ice.

If Henrique is OK and Zajac is back soon—as the Devils get set for a stretch of six games in nine days, the depth at center will have dodged a bullet—but it’s far from fixed.

The Devils have had sub-par production from its bottom two lines, just 10 goals among eight forwards who have played stretches of time on the third and fourth lines. Only Bobby Farnham has more than two goals and is a plus-player (+3) on the season. Any long-term absence would almost certainly force Ray Shero to pick up the phone for a center—but the troubling production might force that action regardless, especially if the Devils are to continue surpassing expectations with a 14-10-4 record, good enough for the first wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

While a call-up could be expected in the short-term, the Albany Devils, who are off to their own impressive start at 15-4-3, boast a similarly thin center ice depth after Joseph Blandisi, who is coming off missing time with an ankle injury. The center, signed by the Devils as an overaged junior free agent, has 16 points in 18 games this season.

The organization has some depth in the system in Pavel Zacha, the team’s first round pick (sixth overall) at the 2015 draft and John Quenneville (2014, 30th overall), but both remain with their respective junior clubs and are ineligible to play in the NHL until the end of their junior season.