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What Should Devils Fans Expect: Travis Zajac

Before we get to Travis Zajac, let's elaborate a little further about Zach Parise.  In yesterday's post about what to expect from Parise, some of you in the comments offered ideas as to how Parise could be "freed up" to be able to score as many points as he did last season.  These are reasonable ideas. If Jamie Langenbrunner and Travis Zajac continue to flourish, then defenses will undoubtedly have to spread their attention. Moreso if the Devils have more than just one main scoring line.  In response to the latter idea, here are the even strength quality of competition (QC) numbers from last season as calculated at Behind the Net:

Player Langenbrunner Zajac Elias Parise Madden Pandolfo Gionta Zubrus
"Line" First First Second First Third Third Second Second
QC .042 .041 .034 .032 .027 .014 .011 .000


I look at these numbers and see that opposing defenses have largely focused on the ZZ Pops line as it is. Langenbrunner and Zajac faced the highest quality of competition last season among Devil forwards, Parise's main linemates.  You can argue that line is already facing the opposition's best defensive players.  And while they didn't pile the pressure onto Gionta or Zubrus; I don't think the opponents are going to only focus on the top line. Namely because I think a line of Elias-Zubrus-Rolston can be just as dangerous as Elias-Zubrus-Gionta, especially if Rolston adapts very quickly back in a scoring role.  Besides, Patrik Elias, at the very least, keeps the opposition honest.

But why is quality of competition ranking lower for Parise, and similar to Patrik Elias?  I think that can be explained anecdotally.  Last season, Brent Sutter utilized Elias along with the ZZ Pops line and Paul Martin as the Devils' top power play unit. When the power play was over, should they be on the ice, the action returns to even strength and it wasn't uncommon for Elias to stay on the ice for some time - facing the opposition's top defense, usually.  Moreover, Elias often came out first for his line - following Parise's line, or stayed on while the opposition changed lines in response to New Jersey. Therefore, he saw a mix of higher level competition regularly.   Likewise, Parise usually was the last to leave on his shift and if the checking unit or someone else followed, the opposition started to bring out lesser units.  Again, that's just anecdotal but it's how I see it.  

Let's get back to Travis Zajac.  After a poor 2007-08, Zajac truly broke out in all aspects of his game in spite of facing stiffer competition than most other Devils.  He became stronger, swifter, and much improved on faceoffs - winning 53.1% of the 1,287 faceoffs he took.   He set new highs in goals, shots, and assists while establishing that not only was his sophomore slump just that, but showing the potential of becoming a solid NHL player for years to come. His improvements earned him a very sweet deal this summer, now signed for 4 years at $15.55 million.  Now, what should we expect from Zajac as he enters his fourth season with the New Jersey Devils?

2008 - Travis Zajac 82 20 42 62 33 29 5 1 2 0 185 10.8

Truth be told, I'm expecting quite a bit from Zajac next season.   While I'm expecting some drop off in production from Langenbrunner and Parise, it's the opposite for Zajac. This 24 year old pivot did hit career highs in production, yes. but surpassing 20 goals and 62 points at this point of his career isn't nearly as lofty as 29 goals and 69 points at age 34 or 45 goals and 94 points at, well, any age. And I don't think I'm alone in expecting more from UND graduate.  The Devils do not give Zajac a more lucrative deal than, say, David Krejci unless they think the best is yet to come from Zajac. 

Part of Zajac's appeal is that you really can't shoehorn him into a specific type of center.  He's not a defensive slouch if only by virtue of being a New Jersey Devil, where defense is everyone's responsibility.  Yet, his offensive skills demand that he play a scoring role.  Zajac isn't a banger, but he's got good size at 6'2" and 200 pounds.  He's not a sniper, as evidenced by his 185 shots on goal; besides, he doesn't need to be with his wings.  Yes, he's not mainly a playmaker since Zajac can actually finish scoring chances fairly well, as he did last season.  He really is an all-around center.  Zajac did improve in all aspects of his game last offseason and in 2008-09, and the results were great despite facing tough defenses all night long.  Only Langenbrunner had a higher relative quality of competition and not by much, a further testamet to Zajac's growth as a player.   Yet, he can't just sit back and say that he's reached the top of the mountain. Oh  I feel that Zajac can, and must, improve further to reach his upside.    Since it paid off for him so well - literally, even - I would have to think he is doing just that this offseason.

I'd like to see Zajac utilize his body a little more, shoot the puck more often, and keep up his faceoff work.   And I think if he does that, he'll be that much more of a dominant player on the ice.  It will certainly strengthen the line greatly, giving opposing defenses two headaches to deal with and giving him or Parise more space.  I understand that you'd like to see the best player be constantly fed the puck, and so Zajac may continue to have significantly more assists than goals.  If he becomes more selectively selfish with the puck, I'm confident that he'll be scoring more than 20 goals per year for years to come.

Keeping in mind that he's already played against relatively high competition, his spot on the team is nearly assured going into 2009-10, he was given a lucrative deal for a reason, and, most importantly, he can still get better in all aspects of his game, I'm expecting more from this particular part of the ZZ Pops line.  OK, he's not going to become an all-world center; but he's got the skills to become a solid #1 center.  I strongly believe that surpassing 62 points while you're young and still improving is a much more attainable goal, as opposed to surpassing a very high total most players in the NHL can't touch in a season (Parise's 94 points) or surpassing career bests in your mid-30s (Langenbrunner). 

I'm expecting Zajac to continue to grow as player, and so I want to see him win at least 52% of his faceoffs, use his size a little better in traffic, shoot at least 180 shots on net, and put up about 25 goals and 70 points.   Given his expected linemates and where he is at his career, I think that would be "the next step" in his progression.  The production alone would reflect his improvement as a player as well as his value to the New Jersey Devils. And I think Zajac, at age 24, is ready to take that next step in 2009-10 and force the league to take more notice of the Devils' top center.

Now it's time to have your say.  Perhaps you agree that Zajac can take that next step.  Perhaps you think he can, but that we should expect even more.  Perhaps you disagree that Zajac should be expected to do more in 2009-10, or that he can improve further.  Comment in either of those ways, or at an entirely different angle relevant to what to expect out of Travis Zajac next season.