The New Jersey Devils went into the 2018-19 season knowing that they would need to get secondary scoring to be successful. The expectation was that young players such as Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, and John Quenneville would take the next step in their development and fill the net, at least somewhat.
Flash forward from the start of the season to today: Wood has been average to meh with 5 points in 16 contests. Bratt missed all but the last 3 games with a broken jaw, though he still shows enough potential and skill to be part of the solution. Zacha has 0 points in 11 games and spent some time in the AHL; Quenneville has suffered that same relegation, but it doesn’t appear he will be coming back soon.
So where will (or has) the secondary scoring come from?
To quote Steve Cangialosi from his fight against Radko Gudas, “...Travis Zajac?!”
Yes, the very same Travis Zajac who appeared to be a cooked goose at the start of last season has been the Devils secondary scoring from the forwards. Points from your defense are always important as well (props to Damon Severson and Will Butcher for leading the charge), but scoring needs to come from multiple forward lines as well, or else opposing teams can key in on and shut down the one producing line.
Zajac’s 7 goals and 6 assists put him on pace for a career high in both goals and points. Now obviously some of what the 33 year old center is doing is unsustainable; while it would be incredibly useful for him to continue to be an above 31% shooter for the rest of the season, it’s just not in the cards. The impressive part about Zajac’s point production is that the majority of it (all 7 goals and 4 of the assists) has come at even strength. Sure the power play needs to produce and the penalty kill needs to start chipping in short handed points as they used to, but even strength production is necessary for success and Zajac is delivering.
Most remarkable about his season so far is that Zajac has produced no matter who he has been put with; starting the year with Miles Wood and John Quenneville saw Zajac put up 3 points in 4 games and 4 in 5 if you include the next game where Q was scratched but Zajac and Wood were kept together. He was reunited with old running buddies Blake Coleman and Stefan Noesen and continued to contribute. He was bumped up to the second line to carry Marcus Johansson around and still produced. He was put back with again a pair of even older running buddies in Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri when John Hynes shuffled his lines searching for offense and he chipped in 2 points against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Travis’ defensive game has not suffered either; the coaching staff continues to deploy him and his linemates to shut down the top players on opposing teams. While the Devils had been bleeding goals (at least prior to the Pittsburgh game), Zajac has stayed afloat at a +3 while certain second line wingers named Marcus J (no that’s too obvious...let’s just say M. Johansson) have plummeted to a -9. As always it’s worth mentioning that +/- isn’t a complete measure of a player’s contributions, but such a disparity does lead to some conclusions.
The fact of the matter with Travis Zajac is that while he is getting older, he has found ways to reinvent himself and continue to be a positive contributor to the New Jersey Devils. Be it adding fighting to his repertoire (and winning to boot), being more physical on defense, or getting to the front of the net and cashing in, Zajac is doing everything and more in an attempt to turn this Devils team around and at the very least, return to the playoffs again.
What have you thought of Zajac’s play this season? Do you believe he will sustain at least some of this pacing, or will his production fall off a cliff? Do the other skills that he brings to this team still make him a valuable Devil? What is the right spot for him in the team’s lineup? Leave any and all comments below and thank you as always for reading!