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Lichtenstein: Zajac Loss Provides Opportunities For Devils’ Young Guns

By Steve Lichtenstein
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Let’s not try to sugarcoat this: The offseason injury to Travis Zajac is a huge blow to the Devils.

The team announced Thursday that the 32-year-old center underwent successful surgery to repair a torn left pectoral muscle. The Devils said Zajac, who was injured last week while working out in preparation for his 12th NHL season (all in New Jersey), will need four to six months to recover.

Zajac has been Mr. Everything for the club that selected him 20th overall in the 2004 draft. Devils coach John Hynes counted on Zajac in all situations last season, from five-on-five to three-on-three overtime. Power plays. Penalty Kills. Big faceoffs.

Devils center Travis Zajac in action against the Philadelphia Flyers on March 16, 2017, at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

It didn’t matter if the Devils were down by a goal or up by a goal, Hynes wanted Zajac on the ice. His 19:43 average ice time per game was over 90 seconds more than runner-up Adam Henrique among Devils centers.

The Devils just don’t have anyone within their organization with that kind of two-way versatility. And don’t count on general manager Ray Shero to go outside into the trade market to get help. He has never been known as one who deals from a position of weakness, as evidenced by his willingness to go into this season with a severe talent deficit on defense.

In other words, Colorado center Matt Duchene is a pipedream.

What the Devils can do — and it’s really their only option — is take the training wheels off their young players.

If there’s one position on the team where New Jersey has enough able-bodied performers, it’s center. They have chosen centers with their first selection in the last three drafts, including Nico Hischier with the top overall pick in June.

In the Devils’ normal course of business, they would take their time with such young guns. Pavel Zacha, selected sixth overall in 2015, was given drips of responsibility throughout this past rookie season. Michael McLeod, picked 12th overall in the following draft, could have been ticketed for a return to his junior team this season barring a sensational training camp and nine-game regular season trial.

The Zajac news should change everything.

If there ever was a doubt that Hischier wouldn’t be with the big club this year, that’s now been debunked. He needs to be here, as does McLeod. Throw them to the wolves and see if they can fight back. With fellow centers Henrique and free agent acquisition Brian Boyle on the bench and in the locker room, that’s plenty of veteran leadership to show the kids how to be pros.

Pavel Zacha (Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)

I want to see Zacha play more often with Taylor Hall, the Devils’ most dynamic winger. Though Hynes often mentioned how Zajac had a knack for elevating the play of his wingers because of his ability to cover for their defensive breakdowns, I’ve always felt that he was miscast as a top-line pivotman. While his 14 goals and 31 assists placed third on the team last season, that’s hardly the production level associated with that role. Let’s see how Zacha takes to the added responsibilities.

Or Hischier. One of the reasons I had hoped that Shero would go for Nolan Patrick over Hischier in this draft was that I thought Patrick was a more natural heir to Zajac due to his similar size and skillset.

OK, so Shero went gaga for the 19-year-old Swiss native. Give him the opportunity to prove the case.

It’s not like the Devils have a lot to lose going with the youngsters. Even with a healthy Zajac, the Devils were a long shot to break their five-season playoff drought in 2017-18. The Metropolitan Division housed three of the league’s top four teams and has only gotten stronger this offseason. A return to the 84-point level of two seasons ago would have been cause for optimism, in my opinion.

Taking out all Zajac does until possibly after the new year will likely send New Jersey hurtling down to the lowest depths of the standings. In the long-term view, however, the Devils just might find a few rewards in speeding up the pace of development of their top prospects.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1

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