When Travis Zajac tore his Achilles tendon while working out in Winnipeg in August, the Devils’ most pressing player personnel issue instantly became how to fill the hole remaining at center.
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Four months later, with the 26-year-old finally back in the Devils’ lineup, the middle of the ice looks like a strength that could propel New Jersey for the rest of the season.
After missing the first 30 games, Zajac rejoined the Devils in Friday night’s 6-3 win against the Dallas Stars in New Jersey. His presence gives coach Pete DeBoer a high-end option at center for each of his top three lines.
Zajac’s return supplements veteran Patrik Elias, who is on pace for his highest point total in five years. It also complements Adam Henrique, who has been arguably the Eastern Conference’s best rookie forward.
Zajac played more than 15 minutes in his season debut, put three shots on goal and did not register a point. He skated with wingers David Clarkson and Mattias Tedenby.
"It’s a lot different from practice, that’s for sure," Zajac said after his first game back. "It’s definitely exciting to come back to a team that’s playing really well, and playing with a lot of confidence. Tonight, just to be part of that was good."
He saw less ice time than Henrique and Elias, but that trend may not continue in the long term. Longevity has never been an issue for Zajac, who had played in a franchise-record 401 consecutive games before the injury.
"We’re going to ease Travis back in," DeBoer said. "He’s not ready for 18, 20 minutes a night like that (Henrique-Zach Parise-Ilya Kovalchuk) line plays, yet. Henrique’s done a good job, so we don’t need to make that decision yet."
The team’s most recent trade indicates that management sees center as a position of strength as well. Pivot Rod Pelley was dealt to Anaheim earlier this week for defenseman Kurtis Foster.
Mediocre is the best word to describe the Devils’ overall performance so far this season. The team was ninth in the Eastern Conference going into its meeting with Dallas and has been putrid on the power play, converting just 12.5 percent of its opportunities, 27th in the NHL.
Zajac’s presence, however, is one of a several factors that should make the Devils optimistic.
Parise, who is a free agent at the end of the season, started the year mired in a slump, but has registered five goals and 11 assists in his last 10 games — including a season-high four points Friday. The captain has found his game since being put on a line with Henrique and Kovalchuk; four of his six multi-point games have occurred this month.
"Zach has been taking his game to another level recently, and we need it," DeBoer said.
Parise sees the difference as well.
"I wasn’t playing well," he said. "I’ve felt better on the ice, and we’re definitely starting to find each other a lot."
The win was the Devils’ fifth in six games, a stretch that has seen them score 23 goals following a four-game losing streak. Despite a new coach, the Devils’ roster isn’t missing any key parts from the group that was the hottest team in the league during the second half last season.
And now Zajac may be catching his teammates at just the right time.
Atlantic Division notes:
Flyers C Claude Giroux was diagnosed with a concussion following an accidental knee to the head from teammate Wayne Simmonds in last Saturday’s game against Tampa Bay. He is out indefinitely. … Rangers D Michael Sauer is also out indefinitely with following a concussion resulting from a hit by Toronto’s Dion Phaneuf on Dec. 5. … The Islanders placed G Rick DiPietro on injured reserve with a groin injury on Friday, but welcomed RW Nino Niederreiter (concussion symptoms), well as defensemen Andy McDonald (leg) and Mark Eaton (knee), back to practice the same day. … Penguins C Sidney Crosby has not played since Dec. 5 after a recurrence of headaches. There is not yet a timetable for his return