New Jersey Devils center Travis Zajac has had the unenviable task of starting his 2017-18 campaign about a month and a half late, as he missed the team’s first 17 games due to injury. Zajac wound up having no training camp, no extra time to get into game shape, and his usual linemates from last season had been usurped by a certain #1 overall pick.
Flash forward quickly to where the team stands today, and through 16 games that he has now played, Zajac has managed a paltry 2 goals while still not really looking like himself. Maybe he came back from injury too soon? Maybe age is finally catching up with him? Or just maybe he’s establishing a pattern of having a bad season followed by a good one. The Devils need Zajac to be better if they hope to be serious contenders this season; today we take a look at the problem, and some possible solutions.
New Jersey is essentially deploying Travis as their #2 center right now just beneath the above alluded to Nico Hischier, with Zajac even seeing more time on ice than Hischier on some nights. While John Hynes does tend to deploy Trav in a shutdown role (even more so than usual for the games where he centered Blake Coleman and Brian Gibbons), teams still expect some production out of their 2C. With his current amount of points per game, even if he stays healthy for the remainder of the season, Zajac is on pace for a whopping 8 points. The only other season in which he did not break double digits was his stop-start 2011-12 campaign in which he only played 15 games.
Part of the problem could be the rotating cast of characters so to speak; outside of the top line of Hall-Hischier-Bratt, the Devils haven’t found much that has worked in terms of cohesive lines. Injuries haven’t helped that to be fair, and I think that top line needs to be kept together even when the team is healthy, but I’m getting away from my point now. The good news with that is the rest of the team is still scoring and playing with enough fire that Zajac being ice cold right now doesn’t matter; but what happens if/when the production from other places dries up?
The other cause for alarm is Travis’ Corsi and Fenwick numbers; I’m trying to weave a bit more advanced stats in some of my player analysis articles and both his Corsi and Fenwick from last season were over 50% on a pretty bad Devils team. This season, the team around him is better, but Zajac’s numbers have sunk. His Corsi is 43.22% and his Fenwick isn’t much better at 44.4%.
There is one bright spot at least for Travis and that is that the team still can rely on/needs him for faceoffs; having won 53.3% of his draws so far this season means Zajac is still the man to turn to when protecting a lead to be able to get the puck off the opposition’s sticks.
I say possible for this section as firstly I’m obviously not a member of the Devils’ coaching staff, so I have no real input, and secondly there’s no guarantee any of what I suggest will work. We may just have to accept that either Trav is doomed to have a really bad season, or that he’s regressing. Hopefully, that’s not the case and these suggestions (or something else the staff tries) snaps him out of this funk soon.
The first idea is to simply lighten the load and cut his minutes a bit; Hynes has no problem doing this with other underperforming players (see: Zacha, Pavel for an extreme example) so why not take some minutes from Travis? The way the rest of the team is playing might see someone like a Stefan Noesen continue his improved play. Less minutes would be the best bet if Zajac is still dealing with lingering effects from his injury.
Have no fear if he’s truly healthy, maybe he just needs a dose of familiarity! I was not a fan of Kyle Plamieri going right back on the top line upon his return; why break up Hall/Hischier/Bratt when it was working? Putting Palmieri on a different line would spread the team’s bigger scoring threats out. Why not try to put Palms back with his old running buddy Zajac? They even had a pretty good system that worked a few times where Trav would win a draw, slide it Palms, and he’d bury the one timer. Who plays LW here would be a question, but maybe Pavel Zacha would be a fit with his nifty passing and good size. A line of Zajac, Zacha and Palmieri could still be used to shut opposing lines down while not being a complete offensive black hole.
The last option goes to the aforementioned Zacha extreme: scratch him for a game or two. We won enough of our first 17 games while missing Zajac for us to be able to put him in the press box for one or two more. Granted that means someone who is playing worse (such as Jimmy Hayes or Drew Stafford) would be in the lineup, but it might give Travis the wake up call that he desperately needs right now.
Now I’d like to hear your thoughts on 2017-18 Travis Zajac; has he been as bad as I made him out to sound in this article? Is his season salvageable? Do you think different/consistent wingers could help him? Is he just starting to regress? Leave any and all comments below and thank you as always for reading!