I suppose the title of this article might be true of the New Jersey Devils as a team this season, even though this piece will only focus on one player. The team is struggling to find their identity, some nights looking like a contender, and other struggling mightily against teams they should (at least on paper) be beating. One player who has embodied the Devils' dual personalities this season is Travis Zajac; at the start of this season playing alongside Kyle Palmieri, Travis looked as though he was back to playing like a true top 6 center. He exited the lineup for a period of time due to injury, and since his return, he hasn't looked like the same player.
Zajac and Adam Henrique have both stated that they were challenged by the coaching staff over the summer to be better this coming season. Out of the gate, both seemed to be back to playing the way the team needed them to play. Zajac wasn't scoring much at even strength, but in his first 24 games (the team had played 25 at this point; Zajac missed the 10/16 game against San Jose) Travis was 6-9-15. As he was the second line center playing with Kyle Palmieri and a rotating cast of left wingers, these are pretty good numbers, and the Devils were exceeding expectations thanks to the Top 5.
Zajac was injured in the Devils' 26th game of the season against the Carolina Hurricanes on 12/3; he played 5 shifts, went to the locker room, and did not return. During his absence, it's more than fair to say that the team missed his defense and his prowess in the faceoff circle.
Since his return, Zajac has reverted and is looking more like the Travis we saw (and were disappointed with) last season. He has only 3 assists in the 9 games he has played since his return, and they all came from 2 games just before the end of 2015. The team has gone 4-4-1 in that time frame, just good enough for NHL .500, which as we all know, doesn't quite cut the mustard to make the playoffs.
Now it's not fair to pin the Devils' record on Zajac alone, as the team is dealing with a number of injuries and other players who are relied upon to help score (paging Adam Henrique aside from last night) have gone cold as well. Travis Zajac however has not scored in just over 2 months now; while he did miss approximately two weeks, that's still a six week span without a goal! For someone playing in our top 6, we need Zajac to strike at least every not and again, and lately he hasn't done that; he has had a breakaway in each of the last two games, and while Petr Mrazek made an excellent poke check to break up his chance against Detroit, he completely flubbed his chance against Mike Condon last night.
Again, the injuries and lack of talent may be part of Travis' problem; I feel it's a shared opinion among most Devils fans that Trav doesn't create his own offense but when talent is placed around him, he flourishes. With 3 of our top 5 point scorers (Henrique, Mike Cammalleri and Lee Stempniak) comprising our top line, that's left our next two (Zajac and Palmieri) to play with whoever's left. Everyone who has been tried on that left wing so far this season hasn't helped these two much if at all. Sergei Kalinin looked alright at times, but just wasn't producing enough points or finishing enough plays. Patrik Elias was with them briefly and didn't look too bad either, but he's back on IR. Jiri Tlusty and Tuomo Ruutu have also played with and from the way they're both playing this season, I can honestly say both have little left to offer at the NHL level. Zajac and Palms also played with Cammalleri briefly, and that seemed to have some positives as well, but now Cam is injured as well.
It's entirely possible in my opinion that Zajac came back too early from his injury; while he hasn't really shown it in his skating or on-ice play, it could be something that affects the way he's shooting. Despite Lou Lamoriello no longer being with the team, injuries seem as vague as ever (numerous players injured during games deemed "questionable" to return for instance) and while I understand that it prevents the opposing team from knowing, it also prevents the fans from knowing. As a result, players can be harshly judged by their own fans for not performing when in reality they're playing through pain. I'm not saying this is the case with Zajac, but it could be part of the reason he's not putting up points.
A Look to the Future
If the New Jersey Devils hope to stay the playoff race, they need Travis to return to early season form one way or another; the bottom 6 is still allergic to putting the puck in the net (with the exception of Bobby Farnham) and unless there are changes in that area, this team will need its top 6 to qualify for the postseason.
Now I'd like to hear what you guys think of Travis Zajac's play so far this season; has he met your expectations? Exceeded them? Performed below them? Do you think that the lack of a true top 6 left wing is affecting his point totals? Do you think he's still playing injured? Leave any and all comments below and as always thank you for reading!