What Zajac’s Injury Means for the Devils

It was announced on Thursday that Travis Zajac will be out for four to six months following surgery on a torn pectoral muscle. The news came from the New Jersey Devils’ Twitter page and unfortunately seems to be true.

This a big blow for the Devils. Their No. 1 center for next season will be out for at least the first three months of the year, probably longer. Zajac brought great defensive play, respectable offensive production, and superb faceoff skills to the center position. Needless to say, he is not someone that can be easily replaced.

Now, the Devils only have two veteran centers on their roster, Adam Henrique and Brian Boyle. Fortunately, they do have a multitude of young players who can compete for the open roster spot. They include first-round picks Nico Hischier, Pavel Zacha, and Mike McLeod. So who will win that spot and what does this injury mean for the rest of the offense in New Jersey?

Henrique Stays at Center

Earlier this offseason, I projected what the Devils might look like up front in 2017-18. With the litany of young players the Devils have down the middle I thought moving Henrique to the wing would be a smart move. The Zajac injury obviously changes that plan. Henrique is now one of only two players on the roster with more than one year of NHL experience playing center. He is also one of only two with decent success winning faceoffs in the league. Clearly, it makes no sense to move him from his natural position at this point.

The Devils may need to use Henrique’s faceoff prowess. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Starting Boyle, Zacha, Hischier, and McLeod down the middle may sound exciting but it is not very practical. The Devils won’t find much success starting two rookies and one second-year player at center. This means Henrique will at least start the season there, probably on the first line. That may change down the road, depending on how well some younger players develop, but as for right now, he will be the #1 center for the Devils.

Zacha & Hischier’s Opportunity to Shine

It was not surprising to think that Zacha and Hischier would start the year with the Devils. Both are extremely skilled players with loads of potential. What will be surprising is how much each is used now that Zajac is out. They were primed to be the second and third line centers for the Devils but the situation is more fluid now.

Nico Hischier at the New Jersey Devils 2017 Development Camp. (Photo Credit: New Jersey Devils/Patrick Dodson)

Zajac’s injury will force both of them to become bigger parts of this team next season than previously expected. This may not be such a bad thing. Allowing these two skilled centers more minutes could accelerate their growth and help them become stars.

Fans are hopeful Zacha will put forth a more consistent year, while also praying Hischier is able to replicate what Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews were able to do in their rookie years. They will both need to exceed expectations if the Devils are to be successful but they have the skills and now the opportunity to do it.

McLeod vs. Speers

With Zajac out for a while, it opens the door of opportunity for two young Devils’ prospects, McLeod and Blake Speers. Speers has served as captain of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the OHL for the past two seasons. During that time he recorded 108 points in 98 games.

Michael McLeod at the New Jersey Devils 2017 Development Camp. (Photo Credit: New Jersey Devils/Patrick Dodson)

McLeod spent last season as the captain of the Mississauga Steelheads. He led his team with 46 assists and was second in points with 73. However, the captain was able to lead his team in points during their spirited playoff run, where he notched 27 in 20 games. It was an impressive season for the 12th-overall pick in the 2016 draft.

These two will likely battle for a spot on the wing, as there are already numerous centers penciled in for next season. It’ll be an interesting camp/preseason competition to watch. I think the early edge goes to McLeod. He is a first-round pick of the team, had an impressive playoff run, and has elite speed. Also, the idea for him to switch to wing has already been proposed and makes sense for the long-term. Still, the spot remains open for competition for anyone who plays well enough to earn it.

Final Thoughts

The Zajac injury is a tough pill to swallow. There is now a hole at center in New Jersey. However, do not expect Ray Shero to go out and acquire one for the upcoming season. The Devils have plenty of players that will compete for time at that position along with two reliable veterans.

Fans should expect Zacha and Hischier to make the team with McLeod and Speers battling it out for the now vacant spot left behind by Zajac. It was going to be hard for the Devils to make the playoffs before this news and now it seems like a much harder hill to climb. However, if the right players prove themselves and exceed expectations, there is still hope in Newark.