For the last half decade, Travis Zajac has either centered the top line for the New Jersey Devils, or played in a 2nd line role either because of injury or eventually the rise of Adam Henrique to the top line center role. Either way, he has been a staple at the center position in New Jersey’s top 6. His smart, defensive play, along with his strong faceoff abilities and other intangibles led to Lou Lamoriello giving him an 8 year contract in 2013 that carried an annual cap hit of $5.75 million. In terms of the entire Devils current roster, only Taylor Hall and Cory Schneider make more, but both only are at a $6 million cap hit, slightly above Zajac’s, and Hall’s contract was not even negotiated by the Devils, but rather by Edmonton. Simply put, Zajac has been one of the best paid players on the Devils for a few years now, and will continue to have that honor for several years to come.
Ever since signing that contract, however, and even before, fans have had mixed feelings about him. Centers who sign 8 year contracts for that cap hit per season almost always are scorers. They may not need to be a point per game producer, but they need to light the lamps at least fairly regularly, and/or be an excellent set up man. Zajac, however, has proven to really be neither. Over his ten year career in New Jersey, he has produced 390 points in 699 games, for a 0.558 point percentage. That is not bad at all for any NHL player, and producing at that rate will keep someone around for a while, but it is not the numbers fans would like to see from one of the highest paid players on the team. To compare to other players in the NHL who carry a similar cap hit, the only other center who carries an identical cap hit is Tyler Seguin, who is arguably one of the best scoring centers in the NHL, scoring over a point per game. Alexander Steen makes just more than Zajac at $5.8 million, Gabriel Landeskog makes less at $5.571, and both John Tavares and Andrew Ladd make only $5.5 million. I’m not sure about you, but I would love to have any of those names on my team, center or winger regardless, over Zajac, just for their scoring abilities.
Now just because he is not the greatest scorer, however, does not mean that he is useless. I have defended Travis to friends before for all of the other things that he does very well. First, he is a great two-way player. Only one year in his career has he taken more offensive zone starts than defensive zone starts, as he is a trusted defender. That also showcases itself in the penalty kill as well, where he had the second most PK minutes last season at just over 200 minutes. And by the way, the next forward on that list, Stephen Gionta, only had 145 minutes. So he is clearly relied on heavily when the Devils are down a man.
Next, Zajac has been the only competent faceoff man on the Devils for what seems like forever now. He ranked 16th in the entire NHL last season with 715 faceoffs won, and averaged almost 9 faceoff wins per game with a 51.6% faceoff win percentage. The next best Devil in terms of percentages was Jacob Josefson at 48.4% (others had higher percentages, like Jim O’Brien, but they took minimal faceoffs). While that is not really the most important skill to have, and should in no way determine a contract, it is a valuable skill to have. When a faceoff is direly needed to get the puck out of the zone after an icing on a long shift, or to keep the puck in the offensive zone during an empty net situation, he is the guy to make that happen.
Now, despite those positives, I did write in the title that by the end of the season he could end up being outside the top 6, and I do believe that is possible. There are a couple options I could mention as theoretically being possible, if not plausible. Both John Quenneville and Blake Speers are centers and I do believe that both will eventually make it in some degree at the NHL level, if not as soon as this season then perhaps in the next couple years. And Zajac himself has not always been the healthiest of players, playing in only 15 regular season games in 2011-12. There is a chance that an injury could oust him from a top 6 role. But the main catalyst that I am going to be arguing about is that by season’s end, I believe that Pavel Zacha has the chance to be one of the top 2 centers on this team along with Henrique.
Now, that prediction may seem a little premature, and perhaps it is. He is only 19 years old as it is, and most players at that age are still playing in juniors or at the collegiate level, or at the very best playing in the AHL. Only a real select few players will play regularly in the NHL at that age, and do it successfully. However, I feel that if there were ever a chance for a young player like Zacha to get quality playing time in a top 6 role with an NHL team, it could be now.
The first reason I have is because of the situation that New Jersey is in. Despite the fact that the team should be improving from the rock bottom it reached a couple seasons ago, no one can reasonably say that the Devils are a definitive playoff contender. We may hope that they end up competing, but it is also very possible that this is still a sub-90 point team that is very much what you might expect from a year 2 rebuild. In that rebuilding situation, it is arguably a very positive thing to let young talent like Zacha cut his teeth early at the highest level. The experience he would gain now would be very beneficial as he ages. Yes he could gain that experience in Albany, but if he has the tough skin to cut it at the NHL level, the Devils could theoretically throw him out there for 15+ minutes a night and not truly hurt their chances to win on a nightly basis. That is a luxury that rebuilding teams have.
Next, if he is indeed going to play in Newark and not Albany for a majority of the season, it would make sense to throw him out there with talented wingers. Why play him if he is just going to get 4th line minutes alongside checking line talent? If he is just going to get 8 minutes a night in Newark on an energy line, then in my opinion that is wasting an opportunity to really let him develop. Instead, I feel it makes sense to play him in perhaps a 2nd line role with quality wingers where he would be playing more and getting great experience alongside those who would help raise his game. According to Hockey Analysis, in 2011-12 Peter DeBoer had Adam Henrique, a rookie at the time, playing almost exclusively with Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk at even strength. They did not throw him out there with mediocre talent, but gave him the top talent on the team to develop with. And that clearly helped his game in a big way. He was nominated for the Calder Trophy then, and has developed into one of the Devils’ best players now.
Of course, we all know how talented Zacha can be too. He was scintillating in his one NHL game last season, and was excellent for the few games that he played in Albany. If he continues to play like that, not only would it make sense from a developmental standpoint to play him in a top 6 role, but it would make sense from a competitive team standpoint too. If he is good, he deserves top minutes, period. The Devils need forwards who can score and create scoring chances, and if he does that, he will play.
So if John Hynes wants to deploy Zacha like DeBoer did Henrique, it would make sense to have him center one of the top 2 lines. That would mean that one of the two centers who currently occupy those positions would have to drop down to a third line role. And between Henrique and Zajac, there is zero chance that Henrique will be the one to lose his top minutes. It would have to be Zajac. Therefore, using this logic, I think it is reasonable to predict that by season’s end, Travis Zajac will be the third line center on this team, and not a top 6 player like he has been for a long time. He is still a very quality player who provides excellent two-way play and eats up penalty kill minutes like no one’s business, plus he is the guy that you want to win that most important faceoff of the game. However, considering the rebuilding state that the Devils are in, if they really want to put Pavel Zacha in the best position to raise his game, he should ultimately be in a top 6 role, not Zajac.
What are your thoughts on this possible development? Do you agree with me that Zacha could end up taking Zajac’s spot in the top 6 by year’s end? If so, did I miss anything that would help my argument? If not, why do you think he will still be a top 6 center in April? Where do you think Zacha will be by the end of the regular season? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.