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The Curious Case of Travis Zajac

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Whenever the New Jersey Devils have a downward trend (read: the last three seasons), fans tend to criticize players they feel are under-performing. Today, I take a look at one such target in Travis Zajac and explain why he shouldn't be a cause for concern.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Travis Zajac is a good hockey player; there, I'm just going to come out and say it.  While it may not be a popular opinion at the moment, it is the opinion I hold and will explain as we journey through this article.  A constant of the New Jersey roster for the most part since he made the team before the 2006-2007 season, Travis has been relied upon as New Jersey's #1 center for quite some time now.  He has usually been flanked by some quality wingers, though for the past few years between injuries and roster turnovers it could be argued that he hasn't had the same level of talent surrounding him that he used to.

Since signing an eight year, $46 million contract extension (which he is now in the second season if), a lot of fans have seemingly become more critical of TZ for his stat line.  I'll state right now as a Zajac fan I would like to see some more scoring from him, but at the same time Zajac is relied upon fairly heavily in other areas that in some cases could even impact his scoring.  So let's get into why I say Travis Zajac is still a good hockey player, and why he really should be low on the list of concerns our fans have with this team right now.

The Contract

This argument gets brought up a lot when fans discuss Zajac being "useless" or "a bad hockey player."  Travis' seasonal cap hit is $5.75 million, which to me is not "first line center money" as some claim it to be.  Dallas has Jason Spezza ($7 million) and Tyler Seguin ($5.75 million) as their top-two centers, so the argument could be made that Zajac is really making second line center money.  The argument gets murkier or clearer depending on which team (Pittsburgh for instance with the salaries of their top two centers skews the whole argument) you bring into the picture, but keep in mind Zajac's cap hit is less than 1/10th of the entire salary cap.

Is it a larger cap hit on our team?  Absolutely, but the important thing about Zajac's contract is the time period of when it was signed; Zach Parise had just taken his ball and gone home.  Zajac and David Clarkson, both integral Devils were to be unrestricted free agents the next summer.  Depth at center is a premium in the NHL, and the Devils knew they would have to pay a little more to keep it around.

Lack of Points

During his fourth full year in the league (2009-2010), Zajac put up career highs in goals (25), assists (42, tied with the previous season) and points (67) while centering New Jersey's top line.  With his performance in recent seasons, I can see why fans are disappointed with his production.

Despite his high offensive numbers during years 3 and 4 of his life as a Devil, I don't know how many fans expected him to keep that pace.  I'm disappointed with his goal totals in recent seasons, but we can't honestly blame Zajac for putting up 10-12 fewer assists per season can we?  Doesn't the onus shift to the players he is passing to and their ability (or lack of) to put the puck in the net?

I'd also like to raise the Jaromir Jagr argument for a minute, as I've seen quite a few Devils fans here and elsewhere act as though Zajac is dragging Jagr down.  Just from the eye test alone, Jagr of 2014-2015 does not seem to be the same as Jagr of 2013-2014; his passes aren't as crisp as they were a season ago.  He also seems to be turning the puck over fairly frequently; perhaps Jagr and Zajac are both still figuring out how to operate with a new left winger, but to simply shift all the blame to Travis and pretend Jaromir is playing amazing hockey at the moment from watching the games is just that: pretend.

What Else Can He Do?

What still makes Zajac an effective hockey player is his defensive ability, his face-off ability, and his puck possession.  Again, just based on the eye test, Travis obviously has no problem playing defense and being responsible.  He may not be the fastest guy on the team, but anyone who says he doesn't try to get back and/or cover a player is flat out lying.  If he was a "bad" defender as some fans portray him to be, he wouldn't be an integral part of our penalty killing units.

In terms of face-off percentage, Zajac is one of the few Devils who can win them at a fairly consistent rate, making him valuable at least to this team.  Of the regulars to take draws this season (sorry Mike Cammalleri, but despite how Peter DeBoer uses you, you're a winger), Zajac is one of three centers along with Adam Henrique and the elusive Jacob Josefson to win more than half of their attempts.  While it's good to see all three of those players doing so well this season in the circle, it hasn't always been that way.  For the two seasons prior, he was the only player taking draws on the team that was winning above half; controlling the puck as we all know is an important part of the game, and winnings face-offs allows a team to control the flow of play from the get go.

Possessing the puck is a big part of Devils hockey; as we can see from Behind the Net, Travis' Corsi numbers are good for the team.  He's technically fourth on the team (sorry Reid Boucher and Mike Sislo, but your sample size is too small to count) in on-ice Corsi, meaning that he is possessing the puck and helping to drive play towards the opposing goalie.  If you don't have the puck, you can't score in this game, and it puzzles me that more fans don't complain about players on this team who have lower (or even negative) Corsi numbers; it makes me wonder if our fans are just disappointed that Travis isn't living up to his contract expectations.

To Conclude

While I'm disappointed with Zajac's lack of production (as I'm sure he and many other fans are as well), there are a number of areas of deficiency on this team that are more cause for alarm than a center who isn't posting the points that he used to.  While he may be overpaid for the attributes he does bring to the team, there's no doubt that Zajac is still an effective hockey player.

I put a bit of an opinionated slant on this article because I want to hear your thoughts and comments on what you think of Zajac as a hockey player; is he one of the larger problems on the team?  Are you unhappy with his contract being on our books for the next six seasons?  Do you expect more production out of him?  Is he just not the same player anymore after his Achilles injury?  Leave any and all comments below and as always thanks for reading!