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Why New Jersey Devils Fans Can Now Say that Travis Zajac is Back

OK, his facial expression is pretty goofy looking.  Forgive him, he just scored in overtime to win Game 6 for the Devils against Florida. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
OK, his facial expression is pretty goofy looking. Forgive him, he just scored in overtime to win Game 6 for the Devils against Florida. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Travis Zajac has didn't have a very good 2011-12 regular season. That's because he didn't play at all for a majority of it. Zajac was injured in the offseason, tearing his left Achilles tendon in August. He had surgery that month and Zajac was out for several months. Zajac made his season debut on December 16 against Dallas, which was Scott Niedermayer night. Two games later, he scored his first goal of the season against Our Hated Rivals and played more than 15 minutes. It was the first game where Zajac returned to a more prominent role. The increase in minutes and presence on the team continued through the rest of December and it looked like that Zajac was good to go for the second half of the season.

Then, after January 2 against Ottawa, Zajac was held out of the game against Boston on January 3 due to a sore Achilles. This by itself was no big deal. Neither was getting scratched from the next game. It started becoming a concern when it became five straight games without him. It became a big deal when the team shut him down on the recommendation of his doctors to ensure his Achilles tendon would heal properly. At the time, January 11, it was expected to be a few weeks. Zajac's next game as a Devil was on March 25, 2012.

Zajac only played 15 games in the 2011-12 season. He did get to play significant minutes but there was a sense that he wasn't exactly in a groove. That should be no surprise since he missed, training camp, preseason, a lot of practice sessions, and a lot of games. It is because of that background that makes Zajac's performance in the 2012 playoffs even more impressive. Zajac has proven over the last few seasons that he's definitely a top center on this team and he's playing like it now. It's a big reason why the team is where they are in this postseason. Please follow along after the jump for a reasons why it's safe to say that Travis Zajac is back.

First and foremost, Zajac has been hot in the scoring department. Zajac is currently tied with Ilya Kovalchuk in playoff scoring on the Devils and Zajac actually leads the team in playoff goals. Before Saturday's games, Zajac is tied with three other players for fifth in playoff points in entire NHL. Yes, Zajac is among playoff leaders in scoring.

2011-12 - Travis Zajac 15 2 4 6 -3 4 1 0 1 25 8.0 17:22
2012 Playoffs - Travis Zajac 10 5 4 9 2 0 1 0 1 23 21.7 21:20

Zajac has been more involved in the offense in this post season and it's been a big benefit to the team. He could match his season total in shots on net in Game 4 on Sunday; and he could very well pick up more points. At least one on Sunday would extend his current point streak to four games. On top of that, the points he's been picking up have been impressive. Here are some examples: Zajac's finish in overtime of Game 6 was wonderful; I even broke it down in this post. His cross-ice pass to Kovalchuk in Game 3 of the Flyers series was just about perfect. His wraparound goal in Game 2 of the Flyers series showed that he's willing to follow up on plays; plus, it gave the Devils a two-goal cushion at the time. Zajac's first playoff goal, within the first minute of the third period in Game 2 against Florida, gave the Devils a shot at an actual comeback effort even though it ultimately wasn't enough.

His shooting percentage alone makes it clear that lots of things are going right for the center. He's not likely going to continue to keep shooting at around 20%. After all, his career shooting percentage is 10.4%. However, this is a results-oriented tournament and Zajac has been getting them for his team. That alone is a big statement; we can say he's back in action offensively and going above and beyond expectations.

Zajac has been contributing in other ways as well that won't likely fall off in the future. Zajac has been very good on faceoffs for the Devils. In the 2012 playoffs, Zajac has gone 109-for-185, a remarkable 58.9% winning percentage. Winning a majority of faceoffs is not new for him; he's finished entire seasons with a winning percentage of 51-55%. However, the team sorely needed this because they were usually out-done at the dot all season. The 2011-12 Devils finished 29th in the NHL with an overall winning percentage of 47.1%. That's not good. The only other two Devils to take more than 100 draws in the playoffs are Patrik Elias and Adam Henrique and they've been dire at winning them. Elias has a winning percentage of a mere 41.9% and Henrique's been even worse at 35.4%. In comparison with other teams, the Devils have the lowest faceoff winning percentage among all 16 playoff teams at 46.1%. It's arguable whether or not faceoffs are that important since the Devils were still a positive possession team throughout the season and in this postseason. However, Zajac's success at the dot is an oasis in a desert of lost faceoffs. He's doing better than he usually does; but it's still one more way we can say he's back.

Of course, since Zajac has proven himself to be an important part of the roster, it stands to reason that he should play a significant amount of minutes. The above statlines show that his average ice time has jumped up quite a bit. That he hasn't needed a few games in a lesser role coming back from injury has helped his average. However, DeBoer has been utilizing him in all situations and in important situations. Only four players on the roster have averaged more minutes per game than Zajac and only two of them are forwards: Zach Parise (22:00) and Kovalchuk (24:49). With that much ice time, it's evidence that the coaches want #19 on the ice quite a bit. This is also true in special teams situations. Zajac has averaged 2:12 of shorthanded ice time per game, the second highest average among Devils forwards in the playoffs. On the power play, Zajac has been put on the first unit and has averaged 3:04 per game, the third highest average among Devils forwards in the playoffs. The coaches are comfortable with Zajac playing so much, it's another way we can say that he's back.

In digging deeper into advanced stats for his even strength play, it's not all glitter and gold for Zajac. According to the playoff numbers at Behind the Net, he hasn't been actually getting the toughest competition at evens - that honor goes to Elias. Plus, he's got a high offensive zone start percentage, so we could say he's been getting sheltered to a point. However, the small population size of 10 games plus a shift in the lines between the Florida and Philadelphia series results in some swings in a number of these stats. Besides, Zajac's 11.11 on-ice Corsi rate indicates that he's pushing the play forward regardless. We can say he's doing quite well in even strength play, even though he's not going up against the other team's best players. That's still another reason to say that he's back in form; even if this is an area that can (or will) be improved upon through utilization.

Lastly, there's the obvious: he's still playing. When he made his season debut, he played eight games before he was held out and eventually shut down for another two months for a sore Achilles tendon. He played only seven games upon his second return and every playoff game ever since. Those seven games helped him get up to speed; and that Zajac has held up without another setback is proof that his injury is not a concern. Playoff games are intense, they're against good teams, and they can go long. Zajac has held up well and played at least 18 minutes in all but one playoff game (Game 2 against Philly). Zajac is (literally) back.

Simply, the return of Travis Zajac to the lineup alone was really helpful for the Devils. A center group of Elias, Henrique, possibly Dainius Zubrus in place of Jacob Josefson, and Stephen Gionta isn't exactly a great unit on paper. Zajac alone makes it a better group. That he's doing as well as he has been in this postseason has been even more beneficial. He's gotten hot in production, he's played a lot of minutes, and he's won against his competition at evens. Zajac is doing pretty much all of the things we would expect from a player of his caliber. He's been one of the best Devils' players in their 2012 playoff campaign, and if that's not enough to be convinced that he's back, then I don't know what to tell you.

What do you make of Zajac's playoff performance so far? Are you convinced he's back? If so, what or when were you convinced you? If not, then what would it take? Would you also agree he's been one of the best Devils players in this postseason? Please leave your thoughts and other thoughts about Zajac in the comments. Thank you for reading.