Albany Devils assistant coach Sergei Brylin came off the ice looking particularly miserable.
This was after the Dec. 30 morning skate, or rather, after the post-practice skate he’d taken to push recovering centerman Kelly Zajac through more conditioning.
Zajac has been out since an Oct. 25 game against Hartford with an undisclosed upper-body injury, but he and the Albany coaching staff have made sure when he is cleared to play, he has his legs.
“Boy, Sarge is in shape,” Zajac said of Brylin, himself coming off the ice exhausted.
“A lot of laps, not many pucks out there. That’s good, though. That’s a lot of the game, skating and being quick and fast. When I come back, hopefully, I’m in pretty good shape and my endurance is there, and I can skate circles around guys.”
He said he’s probably in the best shape he’s been in all year. Still, he awaits doctor approval to return to game action.
Albany coach Rick Kowalsky said the original diagnosis was that it would take about six weeks to get him back. That number has now grown to 10.
“It’s just a unique injury, in the sense that, he’s been skating with us — it’s an upper-body thing — but it’s a strength thing that’s going to have to continue to get tested,” Kowalsky said. “There’s no timeline.”
Zajac has been skating with the team for about a month and a half, and shed the yellow no-contact jersey about a month ago.
He had injury trouble his first season as a pro, too. An abdominal issue kept him from playing much of what would have been his rookie season, limiting him to 14 AHL games through the 2012-13 campaign, though he also played 15 games with Trenton in the ECHL that season.
Then last season, he showed not only that he is capable of playing a full, healthy season, but also what he can do for a team when he does so.
In 67 games, he recorded 12 goals and a team-high 32 assists, finishing second on the team in points to Joe Whitney and establishing himself as the second-line center.
“It kind of sets the bar and shows where I can be and where I want to get back to again,” Zajac said. “It’s about helping the team, so if I can get back in and contribute in any way, shape or form, I’ll be happy to do that.”
In his four seasons with Union College, he posted 37 goals and 91 assists in 159 games. In 89 AHL games, he has 14 goals and 36 assists. He also has a pair of assists in four AHL postseason games.
He’s got ability the Devils could use right now. Even if he didn’t, Albany could use the extra body in a season that has seen so many of their players either injured, ill or recalled to New Jersey to replace its injured and ill players.
Kowalsky said he isn’t sure he’d apply the “injury-prone” label to Zajac, but admits the younger brother of New Jersey’s Travis Zajac and Albany’s Darcy Zajac has been unlucky with injuries. He also said Kelly is among the top 5 percent of Albany’s players as far as fitness, preparation and stretching, and in all aspects of injury prevention.
“As a coach, he’s a guy that, last year, you kind of held your breath when he went down,” Kowalsky said. “That’s no disrespect to him, it’s just that he’s been snake-bit. Whether or not that remains throughout his career, right now, it seems to be an issue that we all hope he can get over.”
Whenever he comes back, it will be good news for the Devils, and for Brylin, unless he’s then skating another injured Devil through conditioning laps. Whenever Zajac comes back, he plans to make all this post-practice work with no pucks pay off, once he gets one on his tape.
“You can call it unlucky. It’s part of the game, though,” Zajac said. “Injuries happen, and I’ve had my fair share of weird ones. I’ve got no explanation of how they happen. The game’s physical and things happen, but it’s a game I love to play, and I’ll stick with it until the end, until I can’t anymore.
“I want to be here, and I’m almost ready. When I come back, I’m going to be excited, a big smile on my face.”