We all know that Travis Zajac is an important member of the New Jersey Devils. With a deeper look into the Devils' system, you will find two of his three younger brothers - Darcy ad Kelly. In what was considered his rookie season, Kelly Zajac was just as major to the Albany Devils as his older brother was in New Jersey. He contributed more than many expected and helped lead the team to the postseason for the first time in years. While the 25-year-old will most likely never become a regular in the NHL, he is great in the AHL.
A few weeks ago, I named Kelly Zajac the "Most Improved from 2012-2013" and I don't know if that did his play last season justice. He was great in 2013-2014 after playing in just 14 AHL games in his first pro season. He spent the rest of that year in the ECHL or out due to injury. This season, however, was a completely different story. With 12 goals and 32 assists, he finished second on the team in points and first in assists. He also played in 67 of 75 games. Another impressive stat - he only had four penalty minutes throughout the season. He stayed out of the penalty box and helped his team win games. My biggest issue with his play was his 83 shots. I would have liked to see him shoot the puck more often.
There were questions about what Zajac could bring to Albany after his limited first season. He answered them all unexpectedly well. Kelly surprised everyone, including Albany head coach Rick Kowalsky. He told Bill Cain of the Daily Gazette,
"We weren't expecting to slide him into that second role. We looked at, potentially, a top-six role, but he grabbed it and hasn't let go of it."
There was hype around other first year players in the AHL - Reid Boucher was in the spot light surrounded by others like Jon Merrill and Stefan Matteau. Meanwhile, Zajac started the season between Cam Janssen and Chris McKelvie. But it didn't take long to find him in the top six, and playing on the penalty kill and power play. Kowalsky attributes it to his hockey sense, but here's why Zajac thinks he got there,
"I think that has to do with my speed. I have pretty quick feet, I think. It's about not getting caught in the train tracks and keeping moving so the big guys can't hold you down. I'm not afraid to go into the corner and get the puck, but it's just about moving and trying to find open spaces. It is a quick league and there are big guys, but you just have to keep moving."
In a great article about all four Zajac brothers, Allan Kreda of the New York Times discusses Kelly's path to pro hockey. He had to work incredibly hard - he wasn't drafted like his big brother, but didn't let that hold him back. His Union College coach, Rick Bennet told Kreda,
"He prepared every day like a true pro - getting to practice early, taking care of himself and always talking to guys in the room and on the bench. Everyone respected Kelly. You knew what you'd get every game from him. You never had to hope."
While the three Zajac's in the Devils system are all forwards, the similarities don't stop there. Lou Lamoriello is a fan of the entire family. He told Kreda,
"They are a tremendous family. Humility and hard work are what the Zajacs are all about."
Mike Sislo is the only person who has played with all three Zajac's. He admires each of them,
"They are such smart players. To have played with all three is neat. And I've really tried to watch those guys to study what they do on the ice that has gotten them so far. They are an impressive family."
I would not be surprised to see Kelly called up to New Jersey next season if needed. He has put in the work and it's paid off at the AHL level. Not only has he excelled on the ice, but his character has grown making him a favorite on and off the ice. Kowalsky told the New York times what he likes most of Zajac,
"Kelly has been especially key for us this season, the way he competes every night. That professionalism is very important to our team."
Kelly Zajac was one of my favorite surprises from the exciting 2013-2014 Albany Devils' season. I'm looking forward to seeing what he can bring to the team next season. While he went into this last season without expectations or a spotlight on him, he has one now. It will be fun to see what he does with it.
What do you think of Kelly Zajac? Do you think he will get the chance to skate with Travis in New Jersey next season? Do you think his solid play will carry over into 2014-2015? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks for reading!
On a side note, today is my final post with In Lou We Trust. I want to thank all of you for following the New Jersey Devils' prospects with me for the last two years. It has been a blast writing and interacting with all of you. I hope you enjoyed my updates as much as I enjoyed writing them. Thanks again for following along! Let's go Devils!