As the season has progressed, the Devils forward corps has gotten healthier and healthier. For most of the season, Jacob Josefson has been hurt and returned to action last month. Ilya Kovalchuk, Adam Henrique, Ryan Carter and to a lesser extent, Eric Boulton have missed some time this season due to injury. However, one forward hasn’t been healthy for pretty much the entire season- Travis Zajac. He’s only played in 8 of the team’s 58 games, and is still currently inactive (he should be expected back in March, hopefully). With the lines working the way they are right now, it’s going to be pretty tricky to fit Zajac back into the lineup. However, the Devils have quite a few options when Zajac returns.
Insert Zajac back into the top 6
Why it would work: Zajac has experience centering the Devils top line- for the last couple of years he's been the team's top centre. He has also had lots of experience playing alongside Zach Parise, as well as some experience with Ilya Kovalchuk. Also, putting him in at center would mean Patrik Elias would have to worry less about taking faceoffs.
Why it wouldn't work: There's no need to insert Zajac back into the top 6. As of now, there's no need to put him back into the top 6. Adam Henrique and Elias are doing fine centering their respective lines. While they're not nearly as good at faceoffs as Zajac is, it's not like neither are struggling significantly enough to warrant a change.
Use Zajac as a protected scoring forward
Why it would work: Currently, the most protected player (in terms of offensive zone starts) on the Devils is Ilya Kovalchuk, at 55.1%.Zajac who is a capable offensive forward, could get some more offensive zone starts with wingers like Alexei Ponikarovsky and David Clarkson (which would actually be great for Clarkson). Considering that if Zajac isn't used as a top 6 forward, this would be a pretty good way to utilize Zajac's offensive abilities.
Why it wouldn't work: The question is, who takes those extra defensive zone starts Zajac would normally take? It would be somewhat counter-productive to use your top offensive line in defensive zone, so that would likely mean Kovalchuk (and his line) won't be taking those faceoffs. Does Patrik Elias and his 44.3% success rate or Dainius Zubrus and his 42.5% success rate take those defensive zone starts? And as long as Janssen or Boulton graces the 4th line. the 4th line isn't an option for those defensive zone starts.
Use Zajac in the defensive zone more often
Why it Would work: This point ties in with the previous point- the Devils don't have any centers who are good at faceoffs. Zajac has been consistently good at taking faceoffs- he's won over 50% of his draws over the last three seasons. The Devils could use Zajac to take more defensive zone starts so that either the Parise-Henrique-Kovalchuk line or the Sykora-Elias-Zubrus/Clarkson (sidenote: if Zajac's getting more D zone starts, it's probably better to let Clarkson play with Elias rather than Zubrus) get more offensive zone starts. Additionally, because Zajac is defensively sound, it's not like the Devils are using him in a role that he shouldn't be used in.
Why it Wouldn't work: The obvious problem here is that Zajac will score less if he's given less offensive zone starts- however that should be expected. Outside of that, I do not see any problems that seem problematic if he's used in the defensive zone.
What do you think?
These three scenarios are possiblities of how Zajac could be used. With that being said, how do you think Zajac should be utilized? Should he be inserted back into the top 6? Should he be given more offensive or defensive zone starts? Thanks for reading.