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Hartnett: Devils’ Top-Line Center Zajac Is Admirably Filling Parise’s Skates

Zajac's Long-Term Extension Paying Immediate Dividends
(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

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‘Devils In The Details’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

Zach Parise broke a lot of hearts when he decided to ditch the defending Eastern Conference champions to return home to Minnesota, signing a 13-year deal with the Wild worth $98 million.

Obvious questions were being raised by fans and media alike: Will the Devils have enough scoring depth without their magnificent captain, and more importantly, can they make the playoffs?

The Devils didn’t panic.  Lou Lamoriello could have easily overpaid for Alex Semin or a number of capable scorers in a weak free-agent class.  Lamoriello did what he always does.  He intelligently surveyed the market and didn’t make a panic move.

Lamoriello did not see a fit and felt that the Devils had the internal pieces to absorb the loss of Parise.  Instead of throwing money at a free-agent gamble, he rewarded a player who always wished to remain a Devil as the 2013 season drew closer.

That player is, of course, Travis Zajac, who scored each of the opening goals for the Devils in consecutive victories to begin the shortened 48-game season.

Zajac appeared on NHL Network’s Arena Cam following the Devils’ 3-0 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on opening night at Prudential Center.

“I’m happy,” he told Kathryn Tappen on NHL Tonight. “I want to be here for the rest of my career and now I’ve got that chance.”

He’s quickly justifying Lamoriello’s decision to extend Zajac’s contract for eight years and $46 million, as he’s picking up right where he left off.

Zajac’s return to health was an integral reason why the Devils surprised many by advancing to the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals.  After spending much of the 2011-12 season recovering from a troublesome Achilles’ tear, Zajac shined when it mattered most — during the playoffs.  In 24 playoff games, Zajac scored an impressive 14 points.

He’s always been a number-one type center and can handle the pressure that comes with it.  Zajac is excellent in the two-way game, possesses a powerful shot and is an elite face-off man.

Ilya Kovalchuk is undoubtedly the Devils’ key offensive weapon, but Zajac and Kovalchuk have the abilities to make each other better. I expect the two to develop a first-rate understanding of where the other is on the ice as the season goes on.

In the Devils’ season opener against the Islanders, Kovalchuk lifted Zajac a nifty saucer pass which Zajac buried in the back of the net.  Since that point, the Devils haven’t looked back as they’re off to a 2-0 start in a season where every game matters more.

Filling the loss of Parise isn’t just about Zajac, of course.  He’s just one of many Devils who will be counted on to accept increased roles in 2013.

Adam Henrique contended for the Calder Trophy in his rookie season, and I expect the Devils to lean on him more in his sophomore year.  He is currently recovering from thumb surgery, but should return to the Devils’ lineup as February nears.  Devils head coach Peter DeBoer revealed during Tuesday’s practice than Henrique will be able to return in about 7-to-10 days.

Once Henrique returns, the Devils will be a lot deeper.  He’ll add to their underrated scoring depth that boasts not only Kovalchuk and Zajac, but also ageless veteran Patrik Elias –who scored 78 points last season — and David Clarkson.

Clarkson surprised many by scoring 30 goals in 2011-12, but he knows his role as a power forward and “garbage goal-getter.”  He knows how to agitate goalies and get deflection goals in front of the crease.  Like Zajac, Clarkson already has two goals in two games to start the 2013 season.

If any team could absorb the loss of an elite star like Parise, it’s the resourceful Devils.

Will the Devils be just fine without Parise as the season progresses?  Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.