So far this season, a familiar trend has appeared at the top of the Devils’ depth chart: Travis Zajac comfortably leads all centers in average time on ice and sits second among forwards behind only Taylor Hall. Zajac has close to two minutes more ATOI than any other non-Hall forward, with Palmieri’s 16:41 per game being third behind Zajac’s 18:30. Zajac has been leading New Jersey in ice time among centers for most of the last decade-plus at this point, and if this early stretch of the season is any indication, it’s possible he’s on his way to doing it again (though Nico Hischier’s numbers have been skewed down by his injury-shortened game). Travis Zajac will also be 35 years old a little over 6 months from now.
Now, reader, I must preface this piece with a disclaimer: I have long been a Travis Zajac defender/apologist/stan/etc. Outside of a rough stretch returning from a pectoral injury in 2017-18, I have rarely wavered from the “Travis Zajac is better than you think” position. Zajac has taken a lot of heat from fans over the past seven or so years, some of it occasionally warranted, but most of it, in this humble blogger’s opinion, decidedly not. Travis Zajac was never the sexiest player, so to speak, but at his best he’s been very good and a huge asset on the ice to the team whose jersey he has worn every single one of his NHL games.
Aside from his back to back 60-point seasons centering the dominant ZZ Pops line, the standard scoring numbers for Zajac have varied between “underwhelming” and “decent” for a player with his minutes. That was never the main asset that Travis Zajac brought to the table, though. Travis Zajac has played top competition and, more often than not, been a defensively and territorially strong player in those minutes for most of his career. The ZZ Pops line is the best example of a dominant line with Zajac at the pivot, but even as the Devils have struggled post-2012, Zajac has centered some really good top lines, including [guy]-Zajac-Jagr in 2013-14 and Hall-Zajac-Palmieri in 2016-17, both of which had over 60% goal shares. The Devils have had a lot of problems over the past decade, but even with Zajac’s limitations, he has shown that he can center high-quality top lines.
Zajac’s steadiness as a player also cuts both ways, though. The fact that he can be relied on to never screw things up too bad, even if it sometimes results in plodding or unspectacular hockey, makes him a bit of a crutch for the Devils and their coaching staff(s) of the past however many years. Zajac has always been good enough to hold things down on a top unit and, periodically in the right situation, has been a part of legitimately elite-performing top NHL lines. Zajac has rarely, if ever, been the main engine of those lines, though. Of the best lines Zajac has been a part of, pretty much all of them feature someone else as the star of the show. There’s something to be said for being a chameleon like Zajac who can jump on a top line and contribute to an elite unit even without all-world talent, but he’s always been more of a supporting player in that regard. And as the Devils’ roster depth languished over the years, Zajac became akin to a band-aid on a case of gangrene. For better or worse, the urgency to fix the persistent center depth issues in New Jersey over the past decade would have been much greater without Zajac in the fold.
With all of that out of the way, let’s talk about the team going forward. The Devils now have two first-overall picks at the center position on the roster. Nico Hischier’s all-around game has him already rating as a borderline elite center by metrics like goals/wins above replacement and Jack Hughes appears to have the goods to become one of the league’s premier playmakers sometime in the relatively near future. And yet, It seems that there is a half-decent chance that 34-year-old Zajac could see 19 minutes a game and perhaps lead all centers in ice time in 2019-20. Part of this is due to Zajac’s versatility and the fact that he plays substantial time on both special teams right now, but it still stands that a team with serious aspirations of contention probably should be aiming higher than 34-year-old Zajac as a de facto 1C.
This isn’t even an indictment of Zajac’s play this year, which has actually been pretty solid to this point, particularly with him and Blake Coleman paired up, but if the Devils are truly ever going to make a leap in the standings, they probably need to move beyond him being a top-minute center. Hischier does outpace him a bit in 5v5 ATOI, but Zajac is third in minutes and far above any other non-Hischier center on the roster. The reasons for this condition are pretty clear in context — Hughes has had some early struggles, Hischier has been hurt the past few games, and Zacha is still finding his way and may ultimately be more suited to playing wing — but it doesn’t alter the ground truth of the situation. General, unspectacular competence is a great thing to have from a 3C, but you’re losing ground if it’s coming from someone getting 1C (or close to 1C) minutes. And while Zajac has has a strong start out of the gate, he is subject to the same peaks and valleys of any other hockey player and was really only something approaching “decent” at even strength overall last year.
So how do the Devils graduate from leaning on Travis Zajac in the short term? Unfortunately, it’s not clear that they can, at least until Hughes fully finds his legs, but there are a couple things that probably make sense. First, Nico Hischier has proven through his two seasons that he is a force on the ice and makes life hard for opposing teams with skill, speed, and smarts at even strength, both because he drives play and because he is constantly forcing teams to take penalties to stop him. The Devils should be maximizing his minutes to the extent possible at evens, especially if he continues to play PP2 and relatively limited PK minutes. To a point, they’ve done that so far, accounting for the injury-shortened game, but they should really lean heavily on Nico at evens, especially if he doesn’t have a huge role on special teams. Secondly, the Devils will have to be ready to elevate Jack Hughes’ role as he continues to adjust to NHL game speed. This will obviously happen in due time, with Hughes’ play dictating things to an extent, but the coaches should be continuing to try to put Hughes in a position to succeed and maximizing his minutes in that framework.
I think, by the end of the season, the Devils’ goal should be to have a minutes breakdown that looks less like the 1A/1B setup minutes-wise between Zajac and Hischier that has been in place, and more like a clear number one in Nico, with Zajac’s minutes reduced to more of a 2A/2B split with Hughes. Those minutes can start to get tilted more toward Hughes to the level that his play dictates. This does a few things: it gives your clear best center best-center-type minutes, it reduces the workload on Zajac — who has always been a workhorse but isn’t getting any younger, and it provides more minutes to the supremely-talented Hughes as he starts to get comfortable in the league.
Travis Zajac still clearly has a significant role to play on this team right now, but he is also effectively a set of training wheels. He can help the Devils stay upright for now, but for this team to find another gear, it’ll probably have to be in a “post-Zajac-getting-19-minutes-a-night” environment. I think it’s important for the Devils to start taking the training wheels off as the season progresses and let their young talents try to stay upright on their own. If/when this team is ready to contend beyond the fringes of the playoff race (assuming they can rebound to at least that this year), the team will be leaning on players like Hischier and Hughes to get there. Zajac may still be a valuable piece to a contender a couple years down the road, but that is much more likely as a supporting cast member than it is as someone near the top of TOI list, particularly at even-strength. The Devils will have to shed the Zajac training wheels at some point, and it’s probably time for them to start preparing for that eventuality.