Crowded Down The Middle: New Jersey’s Center Conundrum

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After weeks of anticipation, the New Jersey Devils emerged out of the 2017 NHL Draft with the top-ranked prospect- Nico Hischier. The upside is tremendous for the Swiss-born center, who could make the jump straight to the NHL. While I’m sure the Devils roster won’t stay the same between now and the beginning of training camp, the team’s positional depth reveals a glaring surplus of centers.

Established NHLers Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique top the team’s center depth. Rookie center Pavel Zacha will look to build off his strong second-half from last season, and is also a likely lock. 2014 first round pick John Quenneville made his NHL debut last season, and will surely contend for a spot in training camp. Michael McLeod, the Devils 2016 first round pick had a successful season with the Mississauga Steelheads, and will also be given a long look. Center Blake Coleman could potentially earn a 3rd-4th line center spot after making an impressionable debut since he was called up midseason. Throw in Hischier, and this leaves the Devils with seven viable centers for next year’s NHL roster.

This begs the question…Who will center New Jersey’s four lines?

The New Jersey Devils selected Nico Hischier first overall in the 2017 NHL Draft. -NJ.com

The answer is…nobody truly knows, and we’re simply left to speculate. With rumors swirling that the Devils are looking to improve through any means possible, trades are never out of the question. Aside from Hischier, I can see most of the Devils centers mentioned above susceptible to being moved in the right deal. To make such a suggestion a few months ago would have been rendered ludicrous. However, New Jersey reaping the benefits from winning the 2017 Draft Lottery has made much of the Devils center crop expendable.

Outside of Hischier, the only other center I’d keep out of trade talks would be McLeod. Quenneville is widely considered the most likely candidate to be moved if a deal materializes, while Henrique’s name has also come up frequently in trade scenarios. Although the organization is very high on Pavel Zacha, the acquisition of Nico Hischier wouldn’t make me as hesitant to ship him out in the right deal. If the Rangers could find a taker for Derek Stepan’s contractual balance of four seasons averaging $6.5 million per, Ray Shero could conceivably find a taker for tenured Devil Travis Zajac, who also has four more seasons left with an average salary of $5.75 million.

Assuming Coach Hynes has to figure seven centers into his next roster, he’d have some interesting decisions to make. As previously mentioned, Hischier would most likely center one of the top two lines. Travis Zajac has been New Jersey’s top line center for about ten seasons, but could potentially relinquish a top-two role if Pavel Zacha has a strong training camp. Both Zacha and Henrique had stints as left wings last season. Henrique for the most part remained consistent offensively, while Zacha’s 40.26 face-off percentage could make him another suitable candidate for a position switch.

Both John Quenneville and Pavel Zacha could find spots on the roster next season. -Hockeys Future

Zacha spent most of last season centering the third line. While New Jersey’s gluttonous center depth could restrict him to no higher than a third line center, he could surmount this obstacle with a strong preseason showing. Unless he has an impressively unprecedented training camp, John Quenneville could follow suit with Zacha by starting next season on the third line. It’s possible Quenneville could even be a victim of numbers and forced to start in the AHL. The 21-year old center also spent some time playing wing during his call-up last season, and could potentially wind up on the final roster if he proves adaptable enough to shift right or left.

Lastly, the influx of NHL-ready centers gives me no reason to believe there shouldn’t be any added pressure on Michael McLeod’s development. I argued last season that Zacha should start the year in Juniors. It’s possible Zacha’s unimpressive rookie numbers could partly be because of his expedited jump to the NHL, contrary to his true NHL-readiness. The Devils have no reason to put McLeod through the same ordeal and could benefit from having another dominant OHL season.

As great as it would be to fit all seven of these players on next year’s team, it simply won’t be possible. You don’t want to feature young players on a roster solely for the sake of wanting them to play in the NHL. It would be pointless for players like Quenneville, McLeod, or Zacha playing on the fourth line, where their progress will be hindered due to limited minutes.

Pavel Zacha could have a bigger role in his sophomore season. -Getty Images

The way I see it, there’s no doubt center will be one of the Devils strongest points next season. Granted I’m not a big fan of speculation, the cryptic puzzle of New Jersey’s depth down the middle was one I couldn’t resist. Assuming their center crop doesn’t change, I think the Devils will try a more youthful approach to top their center depth chart. It’s not out of the question to see Nico Hischier and Pavel Zacha respectively start next season as the first and second line centers, while Travis Zajac gets relegated to the third line.

Michael McLeod will start the season in juniors despite being given a long look in the preseason, while Adam Henrique shifts to left wing on one of the Devils top-three lines. Unless he shows adaptability on the wing, John Quenneville will most likely start the season in Binghamton, where he’ll get top-line minutes instead of bottom-six ice time. Blake Coleman could easily start the season as the team’s fourth line center, whose inclusion would actually mark the first season New Jersey starts with four homegrown centers for as long as I can remember.

A lot can change between now and September, which I’m sure it will. Since we’re only left to speculate as the offseason trudges on, I’m sure one thing we can all agree on is the onslaught of center depth the organization has is ultimately a favorable issue to have that can yield in some rewarding spoils if managed properly.

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