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Ready or not, Zajac injury could thrust Hischier into significant role early on

The Devils will be without top-line center Travis Zajac for four-to-six months after he suffered an injury while training. What does that mean for New Jersey's lineup and rookie Nico Hischier?

If one were to compose a short list of disasters that could befall the Devils this season, a long-term injury to Travis Zajac, New Jersey’s top-line center, would probably land safely in the top five. So, when it was announced Thursday that Zajac suffered a pectoral injury during off-season training, one severe enough to require surgery, there was reason for serious concern.

Now, were Zajac out one or two months, that would be one thing. If he were out weeks, even better. But in reporting Zajac would be sidelined, the Devils announced they would be without the 32-year-old for four to six months. At the earliest, he could be back at some point in December. The worst-case scenario sees him back in February or later. And any way you slice it, it’s going to put New Jersey in a bind.

Simply taking offensive and defensive production into consideration, Zajac’s injury is damaging to the Devils’ hopes of taking a step forward this season. While few will confuse Zajac with the superstar centers in the league, he is a capable hand who has been consistent during some darks days for the Devils over the past five seasons. He’s been a half-point per game player, putting up 64 goals and 180 points in 356 games since the start of 2012-13, and his defensive contributions on the penalty kill and at 5-on-5 have given New Jersey some stability, even earning Zajac a Selke Trophy vote in each of the past three seasons, for what that’s worth.

But how Zajac’s injury stands to hurt the Devils goes beyond the loss of, say, the 15 goals an 30 points he would have contributed into February, should he be out that long. Because when it comes to Zajac, his injury could potentially throw the entire top-six, and as such the lineup, into disarray.

It’s true for any team, of course, that losing a top-line center for months to start the campaign would result in some line-juggling. Consider the Boston Bruins without Patrice Bergeron or the Chicago Blackhawks without Jonathan Toews. How about the Edmonton Oilers without Connor McDavid? And what would the Washington Capitals do in the absence of Nicklas Backstrom? But what those four teams boast, as well as most others throughout the league, is depth. Which is to say that even if the top option goes down, there’s someone who can step in to fill the void. For the Devils, though, depth is sorely lacking. 

The obvious answer down the middle with Zajac sidelined is Adam Henrique. Not an awful option, to be sure, but the fact of the matter is Henrique would have been likely to start this season on the wing were it not for Zajac’s injury, and that Zajac fell injured may be the only reason he’ll be skating down the middle when October arrives. After that, center duty could fall on the shoulders of a few players, including off-season acquisition Marcus Johansson, who has been a pivot previously, with Brian Boyle and possibly Pavel Zacha moving further up the lineup than the Devils had expected. And while to some that would constitute some semblance of depth, it’s difficult to make that case considering New Jersey will need to pull a player off the wing in order to fill the center vacancy.

However, there is a wild-card in all of this, and that’s June’s first-overall selection, Nico Hischier. The expectation was that Hischer would be brought along into top-six minutes this season, supported by the rest of the cast in New Jersey and maybe splitting the duty with someone such as Zacha. And while that may still be the case, Zajac’s injury makes it all the more likely that a thin roster will require Hischier to step up and into a full-time top-six role much earlier than most expected.

There’s good and bad to such a situation. The concern is no doubt that Hischier isn’t ready, that top-six minutes this early, if paired with a lack of success, could damage his confidence and that having Hischier as a second-line center makes the Devils, both on paper and on ice, a team that’s far from taking anything that even resembles a step forward. But such an opportunity could also provide Hischier the platform to prove the opposite — that he is ready, he can step into that role and that the more minutes he gets, the better New Jersey will fare. 

No one will rightly suggest Hischier is ready for a McDavid or Auston Matthews-esque role out of the gate. The belief isn’t that Hischier is an all-star calibre talent in his rookie season. But there’s no reason to believe he can’t hack it as a second-line pivot. He was a dominant force for the Halifax Mooseheads and a standout on the international stage at the World Junior Championship last season. And in his play, New Jersey saw something that allowed him to usurp Nolan Patrick, the presumed No. 1 pick during nearly the entire lead up to June’s draft. Maybe it was enough for the Devils to also believe the 18-year-old can take on top-six duty when October rolls around.

Make no mistake that, ideally, Hischier in the top-six wouldn’t have to be the case and he could be shepherded along into his future role as a playmaking top-line talent. But Zajac’s injury has put the Devils in a bind, one that’s going to require some juggling, shuffling and shifting to get free from. And among the choices New Jersey may have to make is one that puts Hischier higher on the depth chart, and hands him greater responsibility, than the Devils had planned this season.

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