Before this season began, many New Jersey Devils fans were ready to send Travis Zajac to the team’s third line, or at the very least, have his line as part of a 2A/2B scenario. The facts of this matter were seemingly fairly simple; the team’s big summer acquisition Taylor Hall would be centered by former junior hockey teammate Adam Henrique in hopes of reproducing the chemistry that they previously had. Rookie Pavel Zacha would be centering a line as well, and the perception was that Zajac would be a better fit on a more defense-minded third line.
Suffice to say the beginning of 2016-17 was decidedly unexpected; Adam Henrique (among others) stumbled mightily out of the gate and while the team was playing decent hockey, the quest for consistency and line chemistry began. Zajac came out of the gate nicely, contributing some point on offense while still bringing his usual stellar defense to the table. He was rewarded for playing well and found himself on the team’s top line alongside Hall and P.A. Parenteau.
After a string of 5 straight games without a point, Zajac has contributed 10 points (4 goals, 6 assists) in his last 6 games. With Hall out of the lineup for a stretch, he saw Michael Cammalleri join his left wing, and the pair have both taken off as the top 2 point contributors on the team.
So what has happened? Why is Zajac suddenly playing like a top line (or at the very worst a 1B) center this season while our fans have mostly been disappointed with his current contract for the past couple of seasons? He is tied for 16th among all centers in scoring this season and tied for 32nd among all players in the league.
Part of it comes from the fact that Zajac is shooting more; with just under a third of the season played, Zajac is already more than halfway to his goal total from last season. He has taken 56 shots to get there while he only had 111 all of last season; he’s averaging 2 and 1/3 shots a game right now, while his shots per game from last year average out to exactly 1 and 1/2. His shooting percentage is a bit higher this season (14.3%) than last season (12.6%), and while neither of those are sustainable compared to his career average (10.6%), the fact remains that he is getting more pucks on net, which will result in more goals, and in many cases, more assists from a teammate knocking home a rebound.
It also appears that Zajac is benefiting from having elite level talent surrounding him once again; while he has had some good players with him (Jaromir Jagr, Kyle Palmieri) he hasn’t had anyone at Hall’s level since a different #9 (who now wears #11) and a certain #17 left the team. Having Cam step up and contribute like an elite player recently has helped as well. This is really more speculation than anything else, but Zajac’s best two seasons came with elite talent around him; so far he has that this season and he has responded nicely.
With 24 games behind them, the Devils find themselves in a very unfamiliar position: Travis Zajac is leading the team in points. This personal renaissance may last for the season, maybe only half, or perhaps after these 24 games Travis starts regressing to the Travis of the last few seasons; there’s also the possibility that this level of play lasts longer for Zajac as well. While we can’t be sure how long he continues to play at this level, I think for the time being at least, Zajac will no longer be under the microscope due to the correlation between his contract and his level of play/point production.
Additionally, I shudder to think where the Devils might be in the standings this season if Zajac wasn’t producing as he is. The team currently sits in 10th place in the Eastern Conference (though they hold games in hand over the Boston Bruins and Second Rate Rivals) and if you subtract even half of Trav’s points, we might be sitting much lower in the standings considering how ice cold our former 30 goal scorers are.
I’d like to hear your thoughts on Travis Zajac’s season so far; do you think he is producing more now that he is once again surrounded by elite talent? Do you expect this production to continue throughout this season? Are you worried about the team if his production dries up? Leave any and all comments below and thank you as always for reading!