Late last night, I began an article discussing how the return of Zach Parise would be extremely beneficial to Travis Zajac this season. I planned on finishing the piece this afternoon; however, this could no longer be the case. Today, the news came out that Zajac will be out of action for at least three months after tearing his achillies in his hometown of Winnipeg (during an off-ice training session yesterday*). The 26-year-old center will miss at least the first month and a half of the 2011-2012 season, and thus his team-record streak of 401 consecutive games played will come to an end.
Certainly, this is a huge blow to a Devils team that has had struggled to find depth at the center position in recent years. Not only do they lose a center that was certain to make a roster (this would be bad enough), but they lose a first-liner who is their only sure bet to put up points at the position going into next year. While Zajac struggled for a good portion of last season (as Parise missed 69 games), he was clearly the most productive center the team had, and has been for the last handful of seasons. Now, the Devils will have to hope that someone steps up in his place for however long the 2004 first-rounder is out.
While we can all be thankful that Zajac’s injury occured in August, as he won’t miss three months of regular season play, looking back at last year can cause much reasonable concern among Devils fans. The team got off to a miserable start, which did not quickly see its end. With the second half came a completely opposite stretch, in which the Devils made an incredible run; however, with the horrible start to the season, it was too late. While it would be blasphemy to expect anything near the struggles of last year’s first half, to worry about another rough start (to whatever extent) is plausable; Zajac’s injury will surely increase these concerns.
At this point, I know we are all prematurely considering who could fill in for Zajac on the top line, and on the roster as well. Jacob Josefson may have the best skillset among healthy Devils centers; however, it might be too early in his career to give him such responsibility. Perhaps Dainius Zubrus, who has spent much time at left wing in New Jersey, could center the Parise line; the two have played together in previous years (recall the “Z’s line”; Parise, Zajac and Zubrus; who were productive, albeit not nearly as effective as the ZZ-Pops unit), and Zubrus has the experience that would make one think he is ready for this task. The Devils could also look towards Patrik Elias as a potential solution to play center in Zajac’s absence. Patty has been a left wing most his career, but has played the right wing with the team’s acquisition of Kovalchuk a year and a half ago, and also (more importantly at the moment) has taken plenty of faceoffs throughout his years.
At the moment, however, I would like to stay away from speculating on potential units. While we may all play out scenarios in our mind over the next handful of weeks as to who could play alongside Parise, the truth is, we really don’t know what would work; in fact, it has been years since he played without Zajac at center, and has had very little experience alongside anyone else. Thus, while I will try to put some potential line combinations together (for a future post), we will all have to wait patiently for camp to come around, so we can see some of these lines in action; I am sure none of them will be decided before the preseason ends, either. No matter what happens, Zajac’s presence in the lineup will be missed for however long he is out, and us fans will have to hope that the top lines have the chemistry to thrive in the opening weeks of the season.
PS: On a lighter note, Martin Brodeur will once again be changing his equipment. You can see images of his new mask and pads from the Devils’ website by clicking on this link. It appears Marty has gone retro; hey, it worked in the past, right?
*Information from Tom Gulitti’s Fire and Ice Devils blog