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In what was an unexpected (and unpleasant) surprise, the New Jersey Devils announced Travis Zajac will miss 4-6 months after undergoing successful surgery to repair a torn left pectoral muscle. While his numbers may not catch your eye, Zajac was one of the team’s best two-way forwards and provided the Devils with more offense when on ice compared to when he was off the ice.
Just how much of a blow is Zajac’s injury to the Devils? Well, for starters, there’s this…
The Devils are losing a huge part of their offense in Zajac. It was never going to be easy for them next season regardless of his status, but the tweet above shows important he was to the Devils, despite only tallying 45 points last season. In addition to the offense he provided, Zajac was one of the Devils best possession players at 50.4% when on the ice compared to 46.7% when he was off the ice. He was also one of the team’s best shot suppressing forwards at 51.9 shot attempts against per 60 minutes.
One forward that will feel the impact of Travis’ absence is Taylor Hall, who was substantially better with Zajac than any of New Jersey’s other centers last season. With Zajac, Hall’s possession was 54.7% compared to 48.9% when he was away from him. Hall’s scoring chance percentage with Zajac was 57.3% and away from him, it was 48.9%. Hall’s numbers were substantially better when he was on a line with Zajac compared to when he wasn’t, and it was almost across the board in every major advanced stat.
Now with Zajac out, Hall may find himself with Henrique once again, who his numbers were not particularly great with when paired. In 204 minutes together last season, Hall’s possession was 49.3% and actually improved by four percent when playing away from Henrique. Of course, Henrique isn’t the only center option available to fill the void left by Zajac.
2017 first overall pick Nico Hischier will get a chance to help center a first line that will likely consist of Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri. Asking an 18-year old to center a team’s top line is a lot, and something we discussed in a previous article but if he shows the ability to hold his own, Nico will get his chance. Michael McLeod will also get a look, but like Hischier, it may be a lot to ask a player without any NHL experience to take on that kind of role.
Another more likely option could be Pavel Zacha, who will be entering his second full NHL season. He saw limited time with Hall and Palmieri last year, and they showed some flashes of skill. Zacha would have to take a big step forward to earn regular top-line minutes, but he did show signs of improvement as the 2016-17 season came to a close. Having a year under his belt will help, but has he made enough strides to center the team’s top line? That remains to be seen.
The bottomline- Zajac is a significant loss for a team that’s already facing an uphill climb in a brutally tough division. There aren’t any easy ways to replace what he does for the Devils. The good news for New Jersey is they have a ton of center depth. The bad news is there isn’t a ton of experience among those candidates. There are a lot of players with potential (Hischier, McLeod, etc.), but it would be a lot to ask of those players to play the role that Travis Zajac has. Time will tell will how things play out, but John Hynes and co. are already looking at their first major adjustment of the new campaign five weeks before any of the players take to the ice.
Advanced Stats from Natural Stat Trick