That's the biggest New Jersey Devils news relevant for this coming season. At a NHL player promotional function at the Prudential Center, Rich Chere had the opportunity to talk extensively with Zach Parise and put this article together at NJ.com. It's a must-read, of course. The best news from the article, in my opinion, is that Parise says he's at 100%. Good, he'll need to be at 100% should he want to maximize his value and for the Devils to succeed in 2011-12. The bad news has to do with what Parise said about Travis Zajac (emphasis mine):
"Pretty similar to me, he’s in a brace for six weeks," Parise said. "He can’t put any pressure on it. Then you get into the muscle building. You have to build your muscle back before you can even start skating. It’s a long recovery. When I talked to him he said it was going to be 4-6 months."
This is shocking, to say the least. We knew Zajac was injured earlier in August, he tore his left Achilles tendon during offseason training. He successfully underwent surgery and at the time of this news coming out, Lou said recovery should take "around three months" according to this post by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice. Weeks later and now according to Zach Parise, who's close to Zajac to discuss matters, that Zajac said he'll be out even longer than that. That's some bad news. Note: Post has been updated late at night with a new link and quotes from Zajac directly.
Certainly, we're going to have to get clarification on who's correct and what happened to the original announcement. Was it a case of crossing up talk, where the doctors say one thing and the patient says another? Is this a new development caused by a complication or just another opinion? Surely, we'll find out in coming days through Gulitti and/or Chere.
Personally, I want to find out that Zajac won't be out later than three months. As the team's top center and someone who plays in all situations, he's an important part of a team that will undertake a season of redemption. A difference of even only a month would be huge. it'll delay Zajac's return to the team during the season. It's not enough just to recover from the injury, but time will be needed for Zajac to get back into playing shape. He'll still be rusty while most of the league has been playing regularly and often. Under the original announcement, you could slot Zajac to a return at about mid-November. Moving that back to mid-December to mid-February means the team's going to have to make do for a larger portion of the season without him. If we as Devils fans learned anything at all from last season, it's that the regular season matters and three horrid months can dig too deep of a hole to climb out of.
To be fair, I don't think they'll be doomed without Zajac; his absence will just make it harder - as it should when any top player isn't available to play. Going back to Chere's article, I think Parise has the right idea about Zajac's importance and what the team will do.
"It’s tough because he’s a guy that plays a lot," Parise noted. "He plays in every situation. He’s your best faceoff guy, best penalty-killer. He’s on the ice when it’s 3-on-5. He’s on the ice when we’re on a 5-on-3. Those guys are tough to replace, but we’ll move guys around and have to make do until he gets back.
As bad as this new information is, it's not the end of the world for the Devils. As I have explained in this post when Zajac's injury was originally announced, the Devils don't need to make a trade from a bad position to get a center or sign one from an incredibly weak free agent market. They can fill in Zajac's spot from within; and I don't think the news that Zajac could be out for longer than 3 months really changes that. The free agent market hasn't gotten any better; and a trade for a top-two-line capable center could be too costly to fill in for 3-6 months.
Patrik Elias played center last season, performed admirably, and will be called upon to do so again. Parise even noted that in the Chere article. I still think the man behind him should be Dainius Zubrus. He has the versatility to play center, he's done it before in New Jersey, he's been a center earlier in his career, and he's used to playing against top-6 competition. This would open a spot at wing, but I think that's preferable to the alternative. It's going to be easier to fill in a winger position than to hope, say, Jacob Josefson is ready for a top-two-line role at age 20 and with only 28 games of NHL experience (though it wouldn't hurt). Likewise for other potential centers on the team, who are more suited for bottom-two-line roles than bigger responsibilities. Again, Peter DeBoer will have all of training camp (starting next week) and preseason to evaluate the players and find an effective solution until Zajac comes back. I don't think Lou needs to make a move for a center unless other options fail miserably in the beginning of the season.
In the meantime, fans should hope that the Devils will remain relatively healthy at center; and that Zajac recovers properly and as quickly as possible. I also want to know your opinion. What do you make of the news that Zajac could now be out for 4-6 months instead of 3? Do you also a little hope that it's really 3 and not 4-6 like I do? Do you think that the Devils should fill in Zajac's spot from within first; or do you think the time is now for Lou to make some kind of move? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Zajac, his injury, and the Devils' center depth in the comments. Thanks for reading.
Late Night Update: Tom Gulitti talked to Zajac directly about his injury this evening and reported on it at Fire & Ice. Here are the important quotes:
“It depends on the athlete and the person, but from guys I’ve talked to with the injury that (three months) seems like a reasonable timeframe for some guys and some guys were a little longer,” Zajac said. “Hopefully, if things progress well (he’ll be back in three months). I was told it’s the rehab that is the key part that’s going to get you back the quickest.”
“It depends on how hard I push it and how my body reacts to everything,” he said. “From what I hear, that (taking four to six months) could happen, but, hopefully, I’m on the lower end of the time frame. We’ll see. I’m definitely not going to rush back and ruin the rest of the year by coming back too early.”
Well, who better than to get more details from the player in question. Only, this doesn't actually clarify things at all. It could be 3 months or it could be 4-6 months. I can understand and appreciate the possibility of variation in recovery. What I don't get is that this is a point of contention now. That said, I can see how this may be moot since Zajac will be still be on the shelf for quite some time.