The New Jersey Devils’ center depth took a hit when they sent a struggling Pavel Zacha to the AHL. He had no points in 10 games but was playing a middle-six role. He was also a valuable penalty killer and produced some of the best results of the team’s forwards. In his absence, the Devils will need their other centers to step up and produce.
Brett Seney was called up to take Zacha’s spot and has played well so far but the forward who the Devils need the most from is Travis Zajac and to this point, he’s given them great results. He has 10 points in 12 games, ranked fourth on the team. Without depth at centre, Zajac’s importance to the 2018-19 Devils increases with each game.
Zajac Is Cruising at Five-On-Five
Zajac has always been a steady player at five-on-five, but the Devils are getting his best to start 2018-19. Through 12 games, they have a 51.26 Corsi-For (CF%) and an expected goals for (xGF%) of 53.22% with Zajac on the ice, both of which are in the team’s top 10 to start the season.
The Devils have also controlled the majority of high-danger chances when Zajac is on the ice and have given up just four goals against, but there’s a catch. The team’s save percentage (SV%) is .956% with him on the ice and it will regress, as it started to in a 7-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night.
Individually, Zajac has been the team’s leading producer at five-on-five. He’s averaging 2.90 points per 60 minutes (P/60), which is the best on the team. His rate of 2.49 primary points per 60 minutes (P1/60) is also best on the team, ahead of Kyle Palmieri and Taylor Hall.
Since Zacha’s demotion, Zajac has been bumped up to the top six, playing alongside Marcus Johansson and Miles Wood. He’s earned that promotion given his play to start the season, which is what Zacha failed to provide early on.
Related: Devils Hope Zacha Can Regroup in AHL
Can Zajac Sustain His Success?
We’ve seen it from Zajac in the past, where he gets off to a strong start then cools off as the season progresses. At this rate, he’s on pace to finish the season with 68 points, something he hasn’t done since 2009-10. He averaged 42 points per 82 games over his previous three seasons, so recent history tells us that he’s likely to cool off at some point.
Zajac is also not a high volume shooter, which will work against him. He has five goals on 17 shots on goal, which makes for a 29.4% shooting percentage. That isn’t sustainable, especially for someone who has a 10.9% career shooting percentage.
It isn’t a guarantee but being on a scoring line should benefit Zajac. Johansson is a high-end playmaker and will help create scoring chances. Jesper Bratt is also close to returning from injury, so that will give the Devils another skilled top-six winger. If Zajac can maintain a top-six role with those two, then points will be easier to come by.
Related: Devils Need Bratt Back Soon
The Devils Need Zajac to Continue
Even if Zajac’s production slows down, his importance to the team can’t be understated. Zacha’s struggles are real, and he probably won’t be able to provide a ton of offense when he returns to the NHL. The Devils need a second center producing offense behind Nico Hischier, and Zajac is the best option they have at the moment.
Zajac also offers much more than offense. He’s the team’s best center in the faceoff circle, and he’s one of their best penalty killers. They need him to continue his strong start, especially as their early season struggles continue to mount. Any drop off in his play and the Devils could be in big trouble unless they add center depth.
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