When the Devils Ring of Honor was announced, I was excited as it would give the team a way to honor a player that was good for the franchise but not so good that his number needs to be retired. This would be perfect for players like Sergei Brylin, John MacLean, Bruce Driver, John Madden, Jay Pandolfo, Claude Lemieux, Bobby Holik, Chico, and more. And, after he calls it a career, Travis Zajac.
Yes, Travis Zajac.
Zajac has been somewhat of a standout player in 2018-19 if only for being a NHL caliber forward who has not been out for long with a significant injury. In the recent win against Edmonton, Zajac was one of at least three and maybe six NHL-caliber forwards in the game joining Kyle Palmieri, Blake Coleman, Stefan Noesen, Drew Stafford, and Kenny Agostino. This admittedly stretches the definition of NHL-caliber. The latter three are marginal players. Noesen and Stafford have been healthy scratches this season and Agostino was put on waivers, which is how the Devils acquired him. Compared to the likes of Kurtis Gabriel, Blake Pietila, and John Quenneville, yeah, they’re NHL players. Still, Zajac stands out for being available - and continuing to do what he has done throughout his career in New Jersey.
If nothing else, Zajac is a jack of all trades, master of none player. Is he a particularly offensive player? No. He broke the 60-point plateau twice in his career and that was over a decade ago. But could he hang with standout wingers like Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk? Absolutely. Could he do more than just chip in some points? Yes. After the last two games in Alberta, Zajac is now third on the team in scoring with 41 points - a plateau he has passed in seven other seasons as per Hockey-Reference. How is he on defense? He’s quite good, but he is not all that flashy. Zajac has been a mainstay on both sides of special teams for better (the penalty kill) or not-as-better (the power play). But he has not been a drag on either. He’s responsible, he does not take a lot of penalties, he’s good at the dot, and he does not really stick out. But he has been one of those players that has been useful in a lot of different spots.
Zajac’s usefulness is now nearing the end of his 13th season with the Devils. In a lost season, the 33-year old has done well given the circumstances. Gerard marveled about his start to this season back in mid-November. He called it a renaissance. I would not go that far. After that hot start of 13 points in 15 games, Zajac’s production cooled off with only two more points in that November. But his splits at Hockey-Reference have shown some ups and downs on the scoring front. After a five-point December, Zajac put up 11 in 12 games in January. After a five-point February, Zajac currently has five points in seven games into March. Including three in the last three games whereupon he is back to being tied with Palmieri for the most road points on the team (23); he broke the 40 point mark in Calgary; he put himself three goals away from 20, which is a mark he has not hit since 2007-08; and he earned his 500th career point in Manhattan.
Expanding on that last fact, 500 points is a nice round number - and the recent points put Zajac closer to more franchise milestone. With 502 points right now, Zajac is 18 away from Kirk Muller for taking third place in all-time regular season scoring in franchise history. That is a mark he will likely break next season. Tonight, Zajac will play in his 912th regular season game with the Devils. Assuming he plays out this season (not a guarantee), he has a chance to bcome the fourth Devil ever to play in over 1,000 games towards the end of next season assuming he stays healthy (also not a guarantee). If not next season then the one after; Zajac’s last season on his current contract. That would put Zajac past MacLean and Scott Stevens in games played to become fourth all-time in appearances. Again, we will have to wait. There is one milestone we may see him reach this season. After scoring a goal in Calgary and in Edmonton, Zajac now has 184 goals. He needs one to tie Muller’s 185 and two to beat him and become fifth all-time in goals with the Devils. We could see Zajac climb up the franchise record books before this very road trip ends. And he has a chance at 200 goals, something only three Devils have surpassed ever done with the franchise per Hockey-Reference. This is remarkable for the 2004 first round pick of the Devils. He was the last great first round selection by the Devils until, what, Hischier in 2017? I guess Adam Larsson in 2011, but his biggest achievement was being worth Taylor Hall to Peter Chiarelli.
And throughout this season of 17 goals, 24 assists, and 107 shots on net, Zajac only has sixteen penalty minutes; he still averages over 19 minutes per game with over two-and-a-half minutes per game on the PP and the PK, and he has been great on draws with a winning percentage just below 58% out of 1,258 faceoffs taken. Just as Zajac has been for most of his career.
Even his 5-on-5 on-ice rate stats are not at all bad despite how this season has went for the team. Just check Natural Stat Trick for the Devils forwards. His CF% (Corsi, or shot attempts, for percentage) is above 48%, which is one of the better percentages on this Devils team at forward; and his SF% (shots for percentage) is above 50%, which is a good thing. His relative on-ice rate stats in 5-on-5 are positive, which means when Zajac steps on the ice, the run of play is more favorable for the Devils. That suggests Zajac has been helpful - which he has been throughout his long career with the Devils. And if you are down with Goals Above Replacement, Evolving-Hockey has Zajac at +5.2 with positive GAR values in all categories (even strength, power play, shorthanded, and penalties). It is more evidence of how Zajac can contribute even if it is not easily visible.
I think the lack of a “wow” factor is why I do not think Zajac gets as much respect as he probably deserves. There is not an easily seen skill that Zajac is really good at that gets people hyped. Zajac’s game is about doing a lot of things well, not necessarily spectacularly. The closest Zajac has come to an individual award was coming sixth for the Selke back in 2009-10 as per Hockey-Reference. Several of the names I mentioned at the beginning of the post were either a part of a team that tasted success for the first time or went all the way to the Cup. Zajac was a part of that Stanley Cup Finals run in 2012, but that was the peak of that. And it does not help that Zajac has one of the highest salaries on the team as per CapFriendly. Rightly or wrongly, the expectation is that to be a top center, Zajac needed to produce and contribute more than just what he has consistently done. Zajac is high up on the all-time list in games played, goals, assists, and points in franchise history as a function of doing well for a while. It has worked. But I can see why some may not have the love for Zajac as they may have for a Brylin or a Madden or a MacLean or a Verbeek or a Lemieux (Claude, of course).
I have made the point throughout the 2018-19 regular season that the roster is pretty much Ray Shero’s roster. Shero has either re-signed, signed, and/or acquired all of the players on the books except for three players. The first is Cory Schneider, who has salvaged his reputation somewhat in the last few weeks. After months of “he’s done,” there is some hope that he is not and that he can hang on as the organization sees if Mackenzie Blackwood can take over in the future. The second is Andy Greene, who has continued to be one of the most utilized defensemen on the team despite not being the boss he was four to six seasons ago. Replacing him will be crucial and, so far, there is no apparent heir to his role. (Will Butcher is not it...yet.) Third is Zajac - who has just kept on keeping on for another season. In a season marred by bad goaltending, terrible road performances, and injuries for the last six weeks, Zajac turning in one of his usual pretty-good seasons is welcomed.
Similar to Greene, the Devils do not really have anyone better to take the role that Zajac serves other than Nico Hischier. Which is great, but teams need at least four centers. The depth runs Hischier, Zajac, and question marks. The team has tried Pavel Zacha, Marcus Johansson, and Blake Coleman at center to little avail. There is not a lot of reason to believe Brett Seney or Michael McLeod (yet) can take on a significant role on the team, much less at center. The good news is that, unlike Greene, Zajac continues to be contributor so the Devils have a little time to figure it out. Zajac has two more seasons left on his contract and he will be 36 when it ends in 2021. There is a concern he will decline in the next two seasons due to age. That would hurt a team that showed this season that they really do need more talent at forward, so Shero should not wait a while to get another center to play in most or all situations.
But, for now, it’s so far, so good, and so Zajac remains as a cornerstone of the Devils. He has compiled appearances and points to legitimately be one of the highest-scoring and longest-serving Devils in franchise history. He has served well on primary and secondary scoring lines. Zajac has been a mainstay on the penalty kill and the power play. He is not flashy but he is one of those players that really helps out a team in multiple ways. He should get his due one day. I hope to see him on the Ring of Honor - and anyone else soon, it’s still just Dr. John McMullen up there - one day. Until then, he will still be one of the important forwards the team is built around beyond the big stars of Hall and Hischier. And he is still healthy so it is his time to shine.
Considering his entire career with the Devils, how do you regard Zajac in the history of this franchise? Do you think he is worthy of recognition after his career ends? If not, what does he need to accomplish? How do you think this season will end for Zajac? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Zajac in the comments. Thank you for reading.