So far in this season, the Devils’ performances on the ice have been a mixed bag at both the team level and the individual level. Some of the team’s performances have been frustrating, whether due to a lack of scoring or an inability to hold a lead, but with the Devils at 3-2-1 and currently in a playoff spot, it’s hard to be too negative about the season’s first two weeks. For specific players, results have been similarly mixed, with some — like Taylor Hall and Corey Schneider — meeting early expectations and others — such as Mike Cammalleri, the Moore-Lovejoy duo, and much of the bottom-six — having concerning starts. Today we’ll look at one player often maligned within the Devils fanbase, Travis Zajac, who has been among the group that has started strong this season.
Ever since signing his current 8-year, $46M contract, Zajac has been a magnet for criticism, sometimes deservedly so (particularly as it relates to his offensive production). Thus far in 2016-17, though, Zajac has looked like one of the best Devils on the ice. And Zajac has looked strong not just in the defensive zone, where it is typically expected of him, but at both ends of the rink. Based on the eye test, he has looked very good thus far, and the numbers seem to back that up, too.
The first number that jumps out is five points in the first six games of the season, putting him just one behind Hall for the team lead. Zajac has looked as strong and confident on the puck as ever while in the offensive end, and thus far he’s been rewarded for it. Of course, no one is really expecting Zajac to maintain a pace like that (it projects to 68 points over a season) and if he’s challenging for the team scoring lead come springtime, things have probably gone badly awry in New Jersey, but him producing early is a good sign for him as well as the team.
Perhaps just as importantly as his point output, Zajac is getting pucks on net so far, averaging over two shots per game in this young season. Zajac’s biggest offensive issue over the years has been his ability (or lack thereof) to generate shots. Now, two shots per game isn’t necessarily setting the world on fire, but it’s a solid output for a two-way guy like Zajac and it has typically meant offensive success in any season where he’s hit the number (he’s put up 48, 44, 67, and 62 points in the seasons where he’s cracked two shots per game). His linemates may have an impact on whether he can maintain that output over the full season but, for now, he’s tied for third on the team among forwards in shots and has looked good while doing it.
Moving past the offensive output, Zajac has looked very good at the other end of the ice as well. This is certainly less surprising, but I’ve felt Zajac has been noticeably on his game in the defensive zone, helping cleaning up a lot of potential messes from an at-times shaky defensive group. This has always been Zajac’s bread and butter as a hockey player, but to me, he’s been especially noticeable as a calming force this year. His possession numbers also back up that he’s been helping turn play in the right direction so far this season, with him being one of the few Devils forwards with a positive CF% overall while also facing the toughest matchups and some of the toughest zone starts on the team. If Zajac can continue to play this well on defense while staying near the offensive output he’s had, he could help this team stay in the playoff picture for a while.
The issue that everyone always circles back around to on criticism of Zajac is his contract. I’m not necessarily going to defend the contract, because it remains an overpayment by Lou Lamoriello borne out of some panic after the FA departure of Zach Parise. The term is really more troublesome than the dollars themselves and for a little bit, it looked like we could be headed for a full-on Dustin-Brown-level disaster. After a rough 2014-15 season that saw him put up just 25 points in 74 games, it was fair to wonder just how bad Zajac’s contract would get. Zajac had a decent bounce-back season in 2015-16, though, and has looked very good so far this season. If he continues to put up 40-45 points a season while being a reliable force in the Devils’ own zone, the contract is certainly manageable. If he can do more than that, then its pretty much gravy.
The big question will be if Zajac can keep up his strong early-season play. At 31 years of age, it’s always fair to wonder if/when a player’s abilities will start to slip. But through the first six games, Zajac has looked very good good at both ends of the ice both by the proverbial eye test and in the numbers. The contract probably isn’t ideal, but that isn’t much of a concern right now with the Devils miles away from the cap. With the Devils still in a period of transition, having a stabilizing force like Zajac is probably worth more than people think. He’s not going to produce a lot of highlight reel moments or put up gaudy numbers, but a healthy and productive Zajac is probably about as important to the Devils’ success as any player this side of Taylor Hall and Cory Schneider this season. If he can keep playing at the level he’s been at in the early going, that would be very good news for New Jersey.