The big news today from the New Jersey Devils was the announcement of a contract extension. Yes, Lou Lamoriello actually extended a player's contract before free agency. Travis Zajac signed an eight-year, $46 million extension that will begin in the 2013-14 season. According to Tom Gulitti's report at Fire & Ice, Zajac's new contract carries a cap hit of $5.75 million per season. The player's salary rises from $3.5 million next season to as high as $6.5 million in 2015-16 and then end at $5.75 million in the final two seasons of the deal. With this extension, the Devils now have two forwards signed beyond next season: Ilya Kovalchuk and Zajac.
I'd like to thank Kevin for making a post about the news shortly after it was announced. So far, the reaction to the extension in that post is pretty positive. As you should be, my fellow Devils fans and other readers. Zajac has been a very useful player for the Devils for several years. Lou said it best to the press in this quote about Zajac, reported here by Gulitti:
"He’s developed himself into an all-situation complete player," Lamoriello said. "He’s one of our core leaders. He has been from Day One. His play in the playoffs was certainly monumental for us. Him coming back was very evident to what he means."
Sometimes coaches, GMs, and other team officials speak a bit too highly of a player. Not in this case. Zajac has absolutely become a forward who can play well at 5-on-5, work on a power play, kill penalties, play a significant amount of ice time per night, and take on tough assignments. Those kinds of players aren't common, and so they tend to be paid rather well when the opportunity comes.
You can see his importance in ice time alone. In his second season in the NHL in 2007-08, Zajac was seventh among Devils forwards in average ice time per game with 16:44. His average time at even strength was 13:24 and his power play time per game was 3:01. In 2008-09, Zajac became second among forwards in average ice time per game with 18:38 due to a regular shift on the penalty kill, where he averaged 2:00 per game. In 2009-10, Zajac cracked the twenty minute mark in averaging 20:12 per game with averages of 15:32 per game at even strength, 1:48 per game while shorthanded, and 2:51 per game on the power play. The only Devil with a higher ice time per game average was Ilya Kovalchuk, and much of that carried over from his time in Atlanta. In Zajac's last full regular season in 2010-11, Zajac once again finished second among Devils forwards in average ice time per game with 19:48 per game. Again, he averaged 15:07 per game at even strength, 2:05 on the PK, and 2:34 on the PP. While 2011-12 was cut short for him, Zajac played a lot in the postseason for Peter DeBoer. Zajac was placed in all situations once again and so he averaged close to twenty-and-a-half minutes per game. Across those five seasons, Zajac took on more responsibilities and kept getting a significant amount of ice time regularly. Players don't get that much ice time over multiple seasons from multiple coaches unless they are very good.
The advanced stats for Zajac further highlight his importance. Look at his last five regular seasons at Behind the Net. Since 2007-08 up until last season, Zajac has been a positive possession player playing against a strong level of competition in 5-on-5 play. The only negative on-ice Corsi rate Zajac earned was in his injury-shortened season, which included a few games where he came back too early and then some games where DeBoer had to figure out where to put him in the lineup. Given that he's now healthy, it should be expected that the puck will be going in the right direction when he's on the ice. He did it while playing with Zach Parise in the first three years when Parise tore up the league. He showed he could do it without him in 2010-11, while playing with Kovalchuk (who wasn't all that great at possession) and Nick Palmieri. While Zajac may have not faced the strongest competition at evens, he wasn't succeeding against scrubs either. Zajac faced the kind of competition one would expect a top two-line player to face and he came out well.
In terms of special teams, Zajac also stands out. According to Behind the Net, Zajac had a positive relative Corsi in 4-on-5 situations in three of his last five seasons and that fourth non-injury-reduced season had him just below zero. What that means is that when Zajac came on the ice, possession improved - albeit in a situation where Corsi's not going to be high for any regular player. It is worth noting that the opposition hasn't converted that many power plays while Zajac was on the ice in those five seasons. His high has been 26 against in 2008-09, which represents roughly 43% of the 65 power play goals allowed by the team in that season. Since then, the Devils have allowed no more than 41 in a season, which speaks to the success of a unit that counts Zajac as a significant contributor. On the power play, Zajac's 5-on-4 numbers look strong per Behind the Net. He was a part of the first unit for most of those five seasons, but the continued success for so long suggests he at least had a hand in it - injury shortened 2011-12 notwithstanding. As with 5-on-5 play, when Zajac was on the ice, good things tended to happen for the Devils for several seasons. That's why he plays as much as he does, that's why Lou is correct to say he's a complete player, and that's why he got a $46 million extension.
The biggest caveat to Zajac's performance is his production. Based on his NHL.com profile, Zajac has only taken more than 200 shots once in his career: 215 back in 2009-10. That was the same season he set a career season high of 25 goals and 67 points. It definitely helped that Zajac got to play with a point machine like Parise. Zajac's only other season where he earned more than 60 points was in 2008-09, when Parise was playing out of his mind. While I'm sympathetic to his 2010-11 season since the team as a whole was absolutely awful in shot percentage and last season was a wash, there's not a lot of reason to believe he'll ever be a big time scorer. Gabe Desjardens pointed out a few years back that players tend to peak in scoring at age 25. Zajac is 27 and even if his linemates rocket up the scoring charts, it's no guarantee he's going to join them now or in the future. The fact is that Zajac hasn't been an offensive machine and he likely won't become one. He'll be productive, but he's not likely going to be the top scorer.
It is for that reason that some have balked at the notion that Zajac is a #1 center. It is for that reason some question whether it's a good idea to keep him $5.75 million per season. I can understand both points, but that's why I've went to some length to explain all of the other things Zajac has done. They're not easily seen on the scoresheet or highlight reels, and that's where much of Zajac's value lies. He can be a big minute player, be a contributor in all situations, be a part of a possession-positive unit, be possession-positive against strong competition, and and put up 50-60 points regularly. If he was a scorer like Jonathan Toews, we'd say one of the best centers in the league - and he would command a lot more money. Instead, Zajac is a very good center and does a lot of things well. While I question whether he can justify his deal near the end of the contract, I think he can justify the cap hit for the most part. Therefore, I think extension was a good deal to make.
I also like this deal outside of the fact that Zajac will be wearing Devils red for a long time. I like the fact that Lou is setting up the next few years for New Jersey at forward. It goes beyond just keeping Kovalchuk and Zajac for several years. This deal gives Lou and/or his future replacement another known quantity for the team to build around in the future. Yes, both will become different players as they get older; but they also fill positions. It also won't eat up as much of the cap, presuming the salary cap ceiling increases in the future like it did under the last CBA. I like the fact that the Devils now have one fewer unrestricted free agent to deal with. Suppose the Devils didn't retain Zajac this summer. Who would they replace him with? The current UFA listing for centers at CapGeek has a few under-35 centers that will command a lot of attention. Would potentially overpaying for someone like Stephen Weiss, Derek Roy, or (the big name) Ryan Getzlaf be worth it, assuming they even make it to free agency? Could they all do what Zajac already does? Could any of the other centers? I'm not so sure; but now that's one less area the team has to worry about. Lastly, I like the fact that this suggests the team's finances are in some order. I doubt Jeff Vanderbeek would sign off on a $46 million extension before the season even started if money was still tight. I appreciate what this extension means beyond keeping Zajac himself.
Of course, keeping Zajac is the most important reason why I like this deal. He's a very good two-way player who can contribute in a lot of situations. Aside from production, I think it's fair to say that he's a #1 center caliber player. It's more accurate to describe as Lou did, that he's an "all-situations complete player." Those kind of players aren't easy to replace, even if what they bring to the table isn't so obvious outside of advanced stats. So when the opportunity arises to retain someone like Travis Zajac, it's a move worth making. And the Devils made it today.
Would you agree that Zajac is an effective all-situations player? What do you expect out of Zajac now that he's set to be a Devil through the summer of 2021? Are you happy with this contract? Do you expect Lou to sign some other players ahead of free agency? Let me know what you think about Zajac as a player and his new deal in the comments. Thanks for reading.