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Zajac: The Last Questionable Contract?

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Zajac’s $5.75 million contract has received some criticism over the years. I look at whether it is as bad as it looks and if it will hold us back moving forward.

Tampa Bay Lightning v New Jersey Devils Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Many have taken note of how well Ray Shero has done at cleaning out all of the bad contracts, not giving out any new ones, and getting great players for bargains (see: Kyle Palmieri and Taylor Hall).

Peruse the current 2016-2017 Devils contracts. Ignore, for the moment, Marc Savard and Ryane Clowe who we are paying almost $9 million combined to NOT play hockey for us. I don’t believe you’ll find anyone who has a problem with Kyle Palmieri, Taylor Hall, Cory Schneider, Adam Henrique, or Andy Greene. You may find a few detractors for Michael Cammalleri based on health, but he is an elite forward well worth the price when healthy.

That leaves us with Travis Zajac. Zajac gets $5.75 million per year and has not scored more than 50 points since 2010. He had a reputation as a clutch faceoff man, but since 2012 (57.4%) he has gotten worse every year and just put up a 51.6% last year. He has a reputation as a very strong defensive player, but Henrique is just as good if not better and he scores goals and makes almost $2 million less. After about two years of people asking me “Does Zajac’s contract blow?” I’ve decided I finally want to know the answers. The problem is that its tough to know how good he should be. I decided to check out what other guys making his kind of dough do. I took Rob Vollmans stats megasheet, which I’ve now referenced severel weeks in a row, and I took the stats of all players who made between $5.5 and $6 million last year for comparison. This is the resulting list of 43 players (25 forwards, 18 defenders).

You’ll notice some All-Stars on this list like Tavares, Keith, Burns, Hall, Seguin, etc. You’ll also notice some that either flubbed or didn’t play much like Bolland, Elias, Brown, Callahan, etc. They might cancel one another out, but just to be safe I found the median and the average for each category tracked among forwards — since that is to whom we are comparing Zajac. I also found the averages for every player since we want an idea of the contract not just the stats. Below was what I found:

GP G A A1 PTS +/- TOI/G Corsi PS GVT GVS
Travis Zajac 74 14 28 14 42 3 19.9 2.6 4.7 7.8 -3.3
Forward Median 75 20 28 18 51 -2 18.30 3.19 5.80 10.50 -0.98
Forward Average 70.08 19.72 28.24 18.00 47.96 -0.16 18.15 2.36 5.58 9.71 -1.43
Total Average 71.19 14.84 26.56 15.16 41.40 0.56 19.71 1.29 5.73 8.99 -2.03

To clarify a couple of those stats, Corsi is the shot attempt differential per 60 minutes while the player is on the ice, point shares (PS) and goals versus threshold (GVT) are both WAR-like stats that try to place a rating on all players. GVS is the same except it accounts for salary.

I’ll split this up into two categories, the point and time on ice numbers, and then the relative numbers.

As you can see here, Zajac is not far off from where he should be in any category. He may be a little behind the other forwards in total points, but it’s not a travesty. And he actually plays over a minute and a half more than the typical forward in his financial bracket. Maybe the relative stats will be more illuminating.

I’m using the term “relative” loosely here, but they are all stats that are at least partially defined by something other than the players individual numbers. You’ll see that Zajac has an average, possibly slightly above average Corsi. This is logical seeing as his defensive numbers (DPS, DGVT) are both well above average. The offensive numbers are significantly below average and when we fact that in, he seems to land slightly below average in the total value he offers.

Conclusion

In my opinion, based on the facts presented, I’d say that Zajac is slightly overpaid, but his contract falls within the “margin of error” of his production. In other words, to me, this does not fall into the category of a “bad contract.” He is probably performing towards the lower end of what we expected, but certainly not worse than we expected. Two things make his contract seem much worse than it is:

1. Zajac’s specialty — defense — does not have ubiquitous stats like offense does (Goals, Assists, Points). This means that whenever you see a stat from mainstream media about him, it’s likely not flattering.

2. We don’t have bad contracts. We actually have very good contracts. Henrique making $4 million, Palms making $4.5 million, and Hall at $6 million are all incredible contracts based on the production they each offer. Since they are all very active offensively, they make Zajac’s contract seem even worse.

So when we say we are starting fresh with no bad contracts, you can say it without reservation. At no point between now and 2021 (the last year of his contract) will we be blaming his contract for handcuffing us and stunting the future.