Evaluating the New Jersey Devils’ Depth at Center

(This is part four in my five-part Devils’ Depth Evaluations series. Part one (defensemen) is here, part two (right wings) is here, and part three (left wings) is here!)

We covered right wings on Tuesday and left wings yesterday, so I think it’s time to round out the group with centers today. It’s no secret that the Devils have a ton of depth in the system at center. They probably have a few more than they can handle so today’s post is going to be a long one (I’m warning you in advance). Let’s take a closer look.

The Devils have a few main centers, either ones who have been with the organization for their entire careers (or for a really long time) or ones who are going to become their main centers (think their top line center, second line center, etc.).

Travis Zajac is the first center to come to mind when you think of ones on the Devils (okay, maybe). Drafted 20th overall back in 2004, Zajac has spent his entire NHL career with the organization. He has 155 goals and 280 assists (435 points) in 779 games played. He has 265 penalty minutes, a career +26 rating, a 53.3(%) faceoff win percentage, and averages about 0.56 points per game. He had one of his best seasons in a few years, playing on a line with Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri: he had 45 points (third best on the team behind Hall and Palmieri) on the year (he did have a career-high in penalty minutes with 33), and 31 of those points were assists. He isn’t on a decline just yet, and if he stays healthy and plays with Hall and Palmieri for an entire season, he could be the top line center the Devils would like him to be. He could potentially be the Devils’ second line center as well if the top line changes.

Adam Henrique probably also comes to mind; he’s spent his entire NHL career with the Devils after being drafted 82nd overall back in 2008. He had a bit of a rough 2016-17 campaign and there’s more on that here. But to sum up, he played all 82 games for the first time in his career but had one of his lowest career point totals (40) to show for it; he had 20 goals and 20 assists, a bit of a disappointment considering he scored 30 goals and had the same number of assists the season prior with two fewer games played. However, he also didn’t have a consistent line the entire season. He could potentially play at left wing going forward which might help the offense tremendously, especially because the Devils don’t have a huge amount of LW depth. But Henrique, with the incoming centers, might fall down to the 3rd (or dare I say it, even the 4th) line. If he does stay on the 2nd line, it’ll be as a left wing.

There are also rumors of New Jersey possibly trading either Zajac or Henrique. Zajac is signed on until the end of the 2020-21 season and has a no-trade clause; he has an 8-year, $46 million contract. Henrique, on the other hand, is signed to a 6-year, $24 million contract that ends at the end of the 2018-19 season. Henrique’s contract is pretty cheap and he doesn’t have any sort of no-trade clause or no-movement clause so if anyone is going to be moved, it’s him. But they need a deal worth trading one of the most well-known Devils players. Both Zajac and Henrique are Devils for life; trading either Henrique or Zajac would be a fan disservice but you have to do what you have to do. (I probably wouldn’t watch Devils games for at least two months if either did happen, however.)

Next on this list would probably be Jacob Josefson. He’s also been with the Devils organization for the entirety of his NHL career. He had just 10 points (one goal, nine assists) in 38 games played this season; he was a healthy scratch for a little bit but missed plenty of games due to injury. He has 60 points in his NHL career (18 goals, 42 assists) in about 276 games played (he averages about 0.22 points per game, which isn’t impressive). He’s good for more than just offensive production but they have prospects who will take his place. He signed a 1-year, $1.1 million contract last summer and is now a restricted free agent; I don’t think the Devils will bring him back, especially with how this year’s draft is going to play out and the plethora of centers in the organization.

Then there’s Pavel Zacha, who the Devils selected 6th overall back in 2015. His rookie campaign got off to a rough start but he picked up the pace as the season went on; he found some chemistry with Josefson and Stefan Noesen (on and off the ice). He picked up 24 points (eight goals, 16 assists) in 70 games played, and he had five power play goals (13 power play points) so even if it took him a while to find his 5-on-5 game, he found his power play game pretty quickly. The Devils have struggled on the power play a bit so he could help. Zacha should have a consistently good year next season; his future line is a little less unclear.

And then there’s John Quenneville, who scored his first NHL goal against the Rangers back in March (on an assist from best friend Joseph Blandisi). He’s also overcooked quite a bit in Albany (AHL) like Blandisi but he should be here to stay in New Jersey. He looked good in the games he did play this season, making his debut against Chicago. He had three assists this season in addition to his lone goal (he played in just 20 games). He was Albany’s leading scorer this past season with 46 points (14 goals, 32 assists) in 58 games; he averaged 0.79 PPG, scored nine power play goals, and he racked up 53 penalty minutes (which was, surprisingly, tied for 8th on the team). So he’s been a pretty good AHL player and he’s going to be even better NHL one. If Quenneville isn’t on the team to start next season, I quit.

Albany (Binghamton, damn it) also has a host of other centers in Blake Coleman, Kevin Rooney, Ryan Kujawinski, among others. Coleman and Rooney both saw some NHL time this year. Coleman scored his first NHL goal against his hometown Dallas Stars.

Now on to the Devils’ drafting history (it’s a lot). They’ve drafted at least one center in each draft in team history, except for 2011, 1997, 1996, 1990, and 1985. They drafted Michael McLeod, Nathan Bastian, and Brandon Gignac last year (2016); Zacha and Blake Speers the year before (2015); Quenneville and Joey Dudek the year before that (2014); Kujawinski the year before that (2013); and Ben Johnson, Graham Black, Alex Kerfoot (remember him?), and Artur Gavrus the year before that (2012). There’s an older piece on Kerfoot here but he probably won’t sign with the Devils (sorry).

McLeod is going to be a star, as is his buddy Bastian (I’m beginning to sense a pattern here). McLeod (194, 6′ 2″) was selected 12th overall by the Devils and is one of the OHL’s biggest and brightest stars. He’s spent the last three years with the Mississauga Steelheads, the team he now Captains (emphasis!), and may be there for a fourth unless he has a really, really strong offseason and training camp (which he just might). He’s represented Canada at the last two World Juniors tournaments, picking up seven points (four goals, three assists) in 14 games. He was an OHL All-Star the last two years, and his career OHL numbers: 60 goals, 103 assists (163 points) in 177 games played. He has 153 penalty minutes and he’s averaging 0.92 PPG thus far so yeah, he’s pretty impressive. He also has 36 points (14 goals, 22 assists) in 27 playoff games and took the Steelheads to the OHL Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history this season. He’s quick on his feet (this kid can skate), he’s a good shooter, and he can see the ice well. He’s going to have another good season, whether he’s in the OHL or not (if you know what I mean).

Bastian (205 lbs, 6′ 4″), McLeod’s social advisor, is also a good OHL player. He’s played four seasons with the Steelheads and dons an “A” on his jersey; his career numbers: 54 goals and 82 assists (136 points) 209 games played so he’s averaged about 0.65 PPG. He’s had 121 penalty minutes (the number is surprisingly that low) and he has 18 points (7 goals, 11 assists) in 29 playoff games. He was also an OHL All-Star the last two years. He’s a big body and he knows how to move the puck; he’s going to be with Binghamton next season so he’ll see some time up in New Jersey (he better or Coach Hynes is going to get a nasty email).

Gignac (172 lbs, 5′ 11″) has spent the last four years with the Shawinigan Cataractes in the QMJHL and wore the “A” last season. His career QMJHL numbers: 61 goals and 116 assists (177 points) in 242 regular season games, averaging about 0.73 PPG. He’s picked up 107 penalty minutes (sorry, I just really like penalty minute stats). He has 24 points (nine goals, 15 assists) in 37 QMJHL playoff games. He played two games with the Albany Devils last season and will likely play with the Binghamton Devils this upcoming season. He’ll probably see some NHL time as well.

Speers (185 lbs, 6′ 0″) was also drafted in 2015 and he should already be familiar to Devils fans; he played three games with New Jersey this past season and joined Albany at the end of their playoff run. He’s spent four seasons with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, two as their Captain, and tallied 84 goals and 131 assists (215 points) in 217 regular season games, averaging nearly a point per game. He has 30 points (10 goals, 20 assists) in 46 playoff games (0.65 PPG); he also won a silver medal at the latest World Juniors.

And we’ll round this out by looking slightly ahead to the draft. They’ve drafted a center with their first pick over the last three years (McLeod, Zacha, and Quenneville). The Devils theoretically shouldn’t draft any centers this year; they have more than enough (they might use a few as trade chips this summer!) so adding more would be pointless. Except the Devils won the draft lottery. So they get to draft another center, which is completely fine because, fingers crossed, they’ll pick a top line center that they so desperately need (be it Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier).

The Devils are set for the next few years in terms of centers in the organization; if their prospects pan out, the team could be dangerous soon enough. It’s going to get younger and faster and better.

The fifth and final part of this series will be posted tomorrow morning, evaluating the organization’s goaltenders!