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Zajac is Red Hot

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Last night at the Prudential Center, Zajac scored a goal and provided an assist for the Devils. However, this has been nothing new this season, as Zajac has become an offensive force. Why is he so hot this year, and can it continue? Let's look.

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

So the other day, in my one fantasy league (not the AATJ league, where my team is seemingly falling apart after a 2-0 start), I went to the waiver wire to see who was available, as I was not particularly happy with the play of some of my players.  When you go to research players on CBS, it initially sorts them by total number of fantasy points scored so far this season.  You know who was on top?  None other than Travis Zajac.  I almost fell off of my chair.

Zajac has had an amazing start this year for the New Jersey DevilsIn 12 games played, Zajac has 6 goals and 4 assists for 10 points.  That is almost a point per game!  And this is from someone who had a grand total of 25 points last year in 74 games played, and 48 points the year before in 80 games played.  He's already 40% of the way to his point total from last year already, and the season is only 13 games old.  That is frankly astonishing.

Now, no one should really expect that he will keep up this point per game pace.  Let's face it: he's hot.  Currently, he is rocking a 33.3% shooting percentage.  This is obviously unsustainable.  His best shooting percentage ever was in 2006-2007, when he was at 12.7%.  So eventually the floor will fall out from under him, and he will return to earth.  However, is it really all based on luck?  Is he dominating because he is simply getting some nice puck luck?  Or has John Hynes and Co. also found a way to put Zajac in situations that will make him more productive?

This may not be the easiest question to answer, but let's start with his new assignment.  The last several years, Peter DeBoer used Zajac as his top line center, pitting him against the opponent's top competition.  Zajac did well there in terms of his defensive play, and was usually a positive possession player (last year removed).  What he was not, however, was an offensive force, and any offensive production out of him was simply just a bonus.  Of course, any forward who has a cap hit of $5.75 million should not be looked at solely for his defensive play, but that is an aside.

This year, with the emergence of the Adam Henrique, Mike Cammalleri and Lee Stempniak line, Hynes has seen it fit to give Travis a second line role.  This season, Zajac has seen the large majority of his ice time with Kyle Palmieri and Jiri Tlusty.  These are still good line mates, and he is now playing against mostly second line competition.  The lesser competition could be a huge factor as to his increased production.  To showcase, Zajac's Corsi Relative Quality of Competition is at 0.175, which is fairly low.  Last season, it was at 0.856, and the year before it was at 0.990.  Furthermore, the top line center this season, Adam Henrique, has a Corsi Rel QoC of 0.984.  So, the quality of competition has certainly dropped for Travis.  This can definitely be a factor in his increased production.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Zajac's burst of offensive prowess is that, barring last night's goal against Chicago, it has been done exclusively on special teams.  Of Travis' 6 goals, 4 have come with the man advantage, and 1 was scored shorthanded.  However, this is not completely out of sync with his past performances.  Last season, 6 of his 11 goals came on special teams.  Zajac has never been a particularly proficient scorer at 5 on 5 play, and this proves it.  Zajac has just under 25 minutes on the power play this season for the Devils, which is a good number, but is only 6th most as compared to the other forwards on the team.  Henrique leads the team with just over 39 minutes of power play ice time.

Oddly enough, an area where the numbers don't hold up is with zone start percentages.  You would think that the increased production would have come with a high offensive zone start percentage, but that's not actually true.  Zajac only has only had 27.3% of his faceoffs taken in the offensive zone so far.  The only players with a lower OZFO% are Jordin Tootoo and Brian O'Neill.

What also makes minimal sense are his possession numbers.  Zajac was always a possession giant, and only last year fell into negative possession numbers.  However, last season the whole team was bad at possession, so it was hard to simply blame him.  This season, the Devils as a team have a 51.1% Fenwick, albeit a 49.6% Corsi.  Nonetheless, that is not nearly as bad as last year, and you would expect that Zajac would be one of the reasons for the turnaround.  I did.  I was wrong.  Zajac has a 49.2% Fenwick, and a very miserable 46.1% Corsi.  Perhaps the tough zone starts are hurting his possession stats, but he also playing against weaker competition this season, so it is really odd to see his possession numbers so low.  That is hard to explain given his offensive burst.

And finally, Zajac's luck this year is through the roof.  I know I mentioned it when I discussed his unsustainably high shooting percentage, but I wanted to put a number on it.  His PDO at 5 on 5 play right now is at 105.9, which is the highest on the team by far.  Palmieri also has been extremely lucky with a 105.1 PDO, but everyone else is below 104.  Sadly, this burst of offense won't last, unless he somehow can maintain his luck over 82 games.

Conclusion

In the end, I thought that I would be able to find some numbers other than his ridiculous shooting percentage to help understand Zajac's offensive outburst better, but I was not able to.  The only real statistic that helped me to explain it was his quality of competition, which is considerably weaker than in years past.  However, nothing else is really helpful.  He has very few offensive zone starts, his possession numbers stink, and his PDO is through the roof.

What does that mean?  Well, I guess it means enjoy it while you can.  At some point, he has to fall back down to earth.  His PDO will eventually fall, along with his shooting percentage.  The only thing that should not get worse for him is his quality of competition, which should stay relatively weak unless he is forced back into top line duties.  That is the only saving grace for his offensive outburst to possibly continue.

However, I do not say all of this to deter you from what you are watching.  Travis Zajac has been fun to watch so far this year.  Let's hope that it leads to more goals and more wins for the red and black.

Your Thoughts

What are your thoughts on Travis Zajac's offensive outburst this year?  Are you surprised by it, or were you expecting an uptick in offensive production from him?  Do you think that he can sustain this pace for a little while longer, or are you expecting a drop in production soon?  Does this torrid start to the season make you feel more favorably about him?  And can you find any other stats to help explain why this is happening?  Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.