Travis Zajac Out for 3 Months; Why Dainius Zubrus is the Best Available Replacement

The big news from the New Jersey Devils organization in the past few days was that center Travis Zajac will be out for three months due to injury.  As reported by Tom Gulitti on Thursday, Zajac tore his left Achilles tendon during offseason training and had to undergo surgery.  While the operation was a success, he now has to let it heal and so he'll be out until mid-November at the earliest.  Consider the fact that he'll miss training camp and preseason due to the healing process, he'll likely have to get himself into playing shape on top of recovering from the injury.  While I hope otherwise, I wouldn't expect Zajac to come back when healthy and immediately perform.

It goes without saying that he will be missed.  Zajac has been the team's top center for the better part of the last three seasons.  While some fans will look at his relatively modest point totals and conclude that he's not all that much, advanced stats like these from Behind the Net shown Zajac to be quite positive in terms of possession while playing against tough competition.  He dipped in both stats last season, but that he came out fairly positive despite largely playing with a non-possession winger (Ilya Kovalchuk) and a rookie (Nick Palmieri) is a testament to what he can bring to the table.  Zajac may not be an elite-level center, but he's quite good at what he does for the Devils.

What's done is done.  No matter how we look at it, Zajac's gone for quite awhile and the Devils now have to consider the new issues that it arises.  Many of the comments in Kevin's FanShot of the news from Thursday discussed one of major ones: who plays in his spot and what does that mean for center depth.  I'd like to discuss that in more detail - specifically who I feel should replace him.

Let's take a step back first.  With Travis Zajac out, the most appropriate question to ask is, "Who replaces him?"  Given that he was a positive influence on possession and generally contributed to offense while doing a good job backchecking, this is not an easy answer at first.  I say at first because the Devils have someone else who can do what Zajac has done short of faceoff proficency: Patrik Elias. He's certainly a possession machine; a player with plenty of offensive skills (more than Zajac even) while still effective in his own end.  Elias was fantastic at center against tough competition last season, fully convincing me that he should remain at center. With Zajac out for first quarter-or-so of the season, Elias could simply take his spot.

Of course, this raises the question of who replaces Elias down the lineup.  This is where the difficulty lies: either it's "Who replaces Zajac; or who replaces Elias?" In my opinion, there's a good answer already in the Devils organization: Dainius Zubrus.   The Lithuanian freight train is considered versatile precisely because he can play any forward position; and he has done so for the Devils in the past.

The last time Zubrus was primarily used as a center was in 2008-09 under Brent Sutter.  He centered a line that usually featured Elias at left wing and Brian Gionta on the right.  While he didn't pile up the points, he was hardly a dead-weight on that unit as he put up his best advanced stats in his last four seasons.  I thought this performance, while disappointing in some regard, should make him play center in 09-10.  As we know now, that didn't really happen.  It may have started that way in 2009-10, but a shattered kneecap knocked him out for 30 games and was bouncing about in the lineup like every seemingly every other Devil forward for the rest of that season.  In 2010-11, Zubrus was largely employed as a winger, ending up to the right of Elias for the second half of the season.

While his best possession values came as a result of playing with Elias, Zubrus hasn't drowned without him. That makes me feel confident that when he's on the ice, things aren't going to go horribly wrong.  He only had the one season where he faced mainly difficult opposition - again, along with Elias last season.  However, he doesn't necessarily need to be centering the line that goes up against them.  That can go to Elias and his wingers. He can certainly stand in at center on a secondary line until Zajac comes back. 

Moreover, Zubrus has been in the league for quite a while, he knows exactly what he can and can't do and it hasn't taken long for various coaches to figure him out as well.  While I noted that he hasn't faced tough competition on a consistent basis for most of his tenure as a Devil, he doesn't need to go up against weak competition to succeed and he's not going to freak out if he does go up against the opposition's best players. While he's not a productive player (his high as a Devil is 40 points from 08-09), he's not going to hold his line back from producing (see: Elias in 08-09 or 10-11) or do anything to hurt their style.  Zubrus is a "known quality." This makes him a better selection than other options from within.

I don't think any fan wants to see David Steckel or Rod Pelley charge up the lineup to take a top-two center role. They are bottom-six players at best and should remain as such.  Ditto for Tim Sestito and Adam Henrique, though I feel both would be better suited in the minors for different reasosn.  Henrique because he should regularly play center on a pro hockey team and Sestito because he's the definition of a AAAA-player.  I'm sure some fans would like to see Jacob Josefson step up in training camp and/or preseason, though.  I certainly would if only to give the Devils more options within their lineup (and if Zubrus gets hurt before Zajac's back).

However, Josefson only has 28 games of NHL experience and is only 20 years old.  While I think he has the potential of being a great player, throwing Josefson into a top-two center role right away in 11-12 and hoping he swims instead of sinks is a risky proposition. It's risky for him because it's a big question as to whether he can handle significant minutes against regular NHL competition right now.  It's risky for the team since a player who sinks instead of swims in a big role generally hurts them.  He has plenty to learn, and I think it's best that he beats on weaker competition regularly before he should be asked to do more.   Therefore, this leaves Zubrus as the best option from within since, again, he's done this before.

Moving Zubrus back to center also creates another question: who takes Zubrus' spot at right wing?  While I agree with Kevin that the Devils are thin on the right side, this is an easier question to answer.  Mattias Tedenby can slide over and take a top-two winger spot. Nick Palmieri has played there before and didn't suffer too terribly, he can do it again.  Perhaps part of David Clarkson redemption season - and it's in his best interests that he treats 11-12 as a shot to redeem himself - could be making his case for a top-two role for some amount of time.   Should either falter, they can be rotated as needed.   There's more flexibility in this position as there is for center, in my opinion.

Even if you don't agree with my thinking that Zubrus should replace Zajac for the time being, at least agree that it's better to find a short-term replacement from within.   There aren't any viable options left among unrestricted free agents. In taking a quick peek at CapGeek, provided it's updated correctly, it appears to me that the best available free agent is a 38-year-old, well-past-his-prime, former-ace-checking-center John Madden. We've witnessed his effectiveness fading a few seasons ago in NJ, he's not going to be better now that he's older.  And if he's the best, then I don't want to consider the rest.  Not to mention signing a player would count on the books for the whole season, when only a two-month replacement is necessary.  I would not want to see the Devils make a trade for a center. For one, it would also be an overreaction since Zajac will be coming back to the Devils at some point in the 2011-12 season. For another, the team would likely have little leverage given that their need is well-known.  In my opinion, the Devils are going to have to make-do from within - and that would best served by #8, Dainius Zubrus.

Of course, having said all this, the one silver lining in this injury is that we know about it now.  Peter DeBoer has all of training camp and preseason to experiment with the lineup with no ill effect. Should a change be made in October or November, it shouldn't be too catastrophic to the team's season - assuming they're not getting decisively and regularly beaten on like last October or November.  If it turns out the Devils do need to bring in someone else from the outside in, then they have some time on their side. I still believe Zubrus is the right choice until Zajac returns from injury.  Perhaps you disagree with the reasoning or my selection for replacement.  If so, who do you want to see as Zubrus' replacement and why?  Similarly, why else should Zubrus be the team's short-term replacement?  Please let me know of your answers and other thoughts on this situation in the comments. Thank you for reading.

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