While Travis Zajac is not one of the NHL’s elite centers, he has been as valuable to the Devils as he realistically could be with any other team. Zajac is a true first-line center who fits perfectly into the squad’s system; he knows how to skate with the puck, has enough of a scoring touch to improve a top-6 unit, and, most importantly, how to compliment and further improve the wingers on his line. As we have discussed, this obviously was most evident with Zach Parise; while the left winger has probably done more for Zajac than vice versa, the two have terrific chemistry on the first unit; with Zajac out of the lineup for what should be at least the first five to six weeks of the season, the Devils will have to look elsewhere.
In the previous article, I had mentioned Dainius Zubrus and Patrik Elias as two forwards who could potentially play as centers this season. In this post, I would like to discuss those who have much more at center over the last few years (in some cases, not in the NHL). While none of these forwards have the skillset that Zajac possesses, if the coaching staff puts together the right units, they should be able to mesh well enough for the Devils to stay afloat, and possibly thrive, until his return.
The first center that comes to mind that will clearly need to improve his game is David Steckel. As I have said previously, the former Capitals’ center was fairly disappointing in his short time in New Jersey (coming over in the Jason Arnott trade). We know about his skill on the faceoff, as well as his ability on the penalty kill; Steckel, however, will now need to step up on the forecheck, as he should find himself on one of the top three lines with Zajac out. In fact, the Devils could make him a top-six forward to start the year, where he could play alongside Parise or Kovalchuk, among others; thus, he will need to show some strength in the offensive zone.
Another center who can hopefully step up is Jacob Josefson, who could be the most talented of this bunch. While he is only 20 years old, the Swede could be ready to be a top-six center this year (even when Zajac returns, he could have this responsibility). Perhaps playing with a star left wing could really boost Josefson’s game; if so, this would be huge for the Devils this year. However, we can not expect too much, as Josefson is still very young, and hopefully far from his ceiling as well. Still, Josefson has the potential for a decent year points-wise, and his production should be vital (especially) during Zajac’s absence.
While I recently predicted him to start the season in Albany, Rod Pelley could be important as well. He did play in 74 games last year, so he knows this system and what the Devils will need out of him. Expect Pelley to be the starting center on the team’s fourth line once again, which, as I predicted, could put him alongside Eric Boulton and Vladimir Zharkov (among many other possibilities). It sure is good to know that the Devils have this depth in the system, and will be able to count on servicable centers, including Pelley, to be in the lineup. Without players like him, this team could be in serious trouble to start the year.
Finally, if the Devils decide to keep Zubrus and Elias as wingers this season, Adam Henrique could be called upon to play center (although not necessarily on the fourth line; Pelley seems to be a better fit there). The 21-year-old center had 25 goals and an equal number of assists in 73 games for Albany last year and, if he starts the year in the NHL, could hopefully show some of that scoring touch. If he is not healthy, then Tim Sestito is also an option (who has proven to be a servicable, at the least, NHLer). While Adam Mair could also fill this role, he is, according to Cap Geek, not signed for the 2011-2012 season, although he is listed on the Devils’ roster by the team’s official website.
There will be plenty of time between now and opening night for various forwards (whether they are primarily centers or not) to step up in practice and the preseason. With Zajac out, these skaters will be yet another headline for yet another storyline camp. While it is important that this team does have the depth to survive this, obviously the injury is a significant one; we cannot expect Zajac’s production from any other center on the team. Thus, hopefully the men I have mentioned are ready come October 8th, and can step up with production that we have not necessarily seen much of in the past.