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The Travis Zajac Problem and the Future of the Devils Checking Line

Travis Zajac is in the last season of his contract and will be 36 by the end of the 2021 season. Does he have anymore of a future in New Jersey?

NHL: Preseason-Boston Bruins at New Jersey Devils
People might complain that Zajac is taking too many minutes from the Devils’ young centers next season.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Travis Zajac is a consummate professional and has been a fixture of the New Jersey Devils since 2006. When the next season is played, he will certainly make some major career and team milestones. Standing at 991 games played, 195 goals, and 337 assists in the regular season, Travis Zajac will surely get to 1,000 games and 200 goals with the Devils in 2021. Zajac is already fourth on the franchise list in games played and goals, fifth in assists (tied with Scott Stevens) and third in points. He’s pretty far from the next man in games played and points, as he is 249 games away from Patrik Elias and 169 points away from John MacLean. However, he is only seven goals away from Bobby Holik’s third position on the franchise goals list and 17 assists away from John MacLean at fourth on the assists list. Travis Zajac was one of the last good first round selections of the Lou Lamoriello era, which partially explains why the Devils only made the playoffs six times in his 14 year career.

All good things come to an end. But if Travis Zajac has anything to say about it, don’t expect him to go quietly, making room for someone younger to replace him. If nothing else, Zajac is tenacious and smart, and has lasted this long for a reason. Not every player of his style remains effective into their mid-30s. Some might complain about the price tag on Travis Zajac’s contract, but he was arguably the best center on the team prior to Nico Hischier being drafted. Additionally, many players of Travis Zajac’s style run out of fuel in their 30s. Zajac perseveres.

Is that enough? Today, we’re taking a look at Travis Zajac’s past few seasons, whether he’s due for further decline or more resurgence in 2021, who can help him in his final year or years in New Jersey, and who might replace him.

Zajac’s Past Few Seasons

From Natural Stat Trick, here are Travis Zajac’s past four seasons at even strength. In these seasons he has had 31 even strength points, then 18, 32, and 21.

Zajac’s offensive rates per 60 at even strength
Natural Stat Trick

For what it’s worth, Travis Zajac has stayed pretty consistent over the past four years, but has varied somewhat widely in his secondary assist numbers, and his primary assists have evened out after a great 2016-17 season. That change may be due to stylistic differences in Zajac’s approach in offense. In 2016-17, Zajac was a front and center offensive contributor, outproducing Adam Henrique and centering a top line with Taylor Hall. That team was extremely thin. By 2017-18, and recovering from an injury, Zajac was able to defer transitional play to breakout players such as Blake Coleman. In 2017-18, 10 of Coleman’s 12 assists were primary. In 2019-20, Nikita Gusev was a key contributor to Travis Zajac’s line, and 16 of his 21 assists were primary.

It would be fun to see Travis Zajac continue his see-sawing in point production. Of his six seasons with 30 or more even strength points, two have been in the past four seasons. And had the 2019-20 season been finished, Zajac was on pace for 25 even strength points. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Travis Zajac gets 30 even strength points again if a full season is played, but he has two things going against him right now. First and foremost is his declining ice time. If Hischier, Hughes, and Zacha receive more even strength ice time next season, Zajac could see his even strength minutes fall to the 11-13 per game range as he turns more and more into a specialist on the top penalty kill unit and possibly on the second power play unit.

Second, and more subject to the effects of father time is the number of shots he gets on net. Zajac remains a pretty reliable shooter in front of the net, but he gets so few shots off at this point of his career that one has to be concerned about him being unable to consistently produce points. In 2019-20, Zajac averaged 0.88 even strength shots per game. As he continues to slow down, I have my doubts about him being able to make improvements on that poor shot volume. It’s a shame for the Devils too, with how well he does when he actually gets shots on goal.

Who Can Help Zajac in the near future?

After Blake Coleman was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Devils had to replace Zajac’s best linemate over the past three seasons. The season did not really go on long enough to discern an answer to that, though, and now the Devils are operating with a few question marks in their bottom six. Here are a few internal options who the Devils might want to line up with Zajac in 2021.

Yegor Sharangovich

Still on a tear in the KHL as a top center, Yegor Sharangovich is up to 15 goals and three assists in 29 games for Dinamo Minsk. He is now nearing 20 minutes a game, and has broken that threshold 12 times in his past 20 games, in which he has had 10 goals and one assist. I would like to see Yegor Sharangovich line up on Travis Zajac’s wing to fill the playmaking void left by Blake Coleman. Additionally, Sharangovich is an excellent skater and would be able to make up for Zajac’s sluggish pace.

Janne Kuokkanen

Currently playing with Karpat in the Finnish Liiga, Janne Kuokkanen has had an up-and-down time on loan. After making a quick impact in the final preseason game and points in his first two regular season games, Kuokkanen only had one assist from October 9 to November 11, in which he played nine games. On the bright side, he still managed to get a lot of pucks on net despite his third line minutes. In his past five games, he has had two goals and two assists. It would be nice to see him continue that pace for the rest of his loan, as he was one of the top young producers in the AHL.

He might not have the most accurate shot, but he gets a lot of shots on goal and racked up primary assists in the AHL. Like Sharangovich, Kuokkanen is someone that can help salvage what remains of Travis Zajac’s offensive ability. In fact, I think a Kuokkanen-Zajac-Sharangovich line could be effective if Sharangovich’s use as a penalty killer in the KHL indicates good defensive ability.

Nathan Bastian

This option might be a spin on what John Hynes tried to do with Travis Zajac at points of last season, with Wayne Simmonds on Zajac’s line. Bastian plays a netfront offensive game, and could probably finish a lot of the chances that Simmonds left on the doorstep last season for the New Jersey Devils. In Jeff’s April Panel post on Nathan Bastian, it was said that Bastian has improved in all zones of play, and can contribute with shots from around the offensive zone and right in front of the net. Given his big stature at 6’4” and 210 pounds, Bastian could help Zajac keep the puck deep in the offensive zone, especially paired with a playmaker like Janne Kuokkanen or a size-and-speed combo in Yegor Sharangovich.

Who Might Replace Travis Zajac?

Since Zajac is in the final year of his contract, there is a distinct possibility that this is his last year in New Jersey. Whether the end comes in 2021 or beyond, here are some options the Devils can look at now and in the future.

Sharangovich, again

This is entirely dependent on if Yegor Sharangovich has a good showing in 2021 with the New Jersey Devils, and somewhat dependent on if he can prove himself to be a good center. He struggles in the faceoff circle, and might leave the Devils without a real specialist in this area, and his defensive game is somewhat unknown. However, given he plays in all situations and has done so well in the KHL, I think there are positive signs for Sharangovich as a complementary center to Hischier and Hughes.

Mikael Granlund

This would involve a move in the near future for the New Jersey Devils, as Mike recently argued and I did further back around the start of free agency. Granlund is a proven player with good defensive impacts over the past several years. Acquiring Granlund would give the Devils an option at wing for any of the centers and a replacement option if either Zajac or Zacha depart the team in the next few years. But even if it’s in the long-term interest of the team, I do not expect Tom Fitzgerald to make this sort of move this season.

Blake Coleman

But Fitzgerald might make a move next free agency period. There’s no telling what happens with Blake Coleman this season with the Tampa Bay Lightning. With their cap situation, I do not think they would be able to re-sign him without clearing cap space from the rest of the team. The Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, and Alex Killorn contracts continue to bite them. Therefore, when Coleman’s contract expires in 2021, I think the Devils should be aggressive in trying to get Coleman back. He is one of the most tenacious forecheckers the team has seen, and he had a great showing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Given that the team should be approaching its competitive window with Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, MacKenzie Blackwood, and soon Ty Smith and Alexander Holtz, the Devils need complementary players, and Coleman has already proven himself to the team and the league. Unfortunately with how solid he was in the playoffs I’m sure it will be difficult to regain his services, as he could generate solid interest as an unrestricted free agent.

Dawson Mercer

Although some may think of him as a wing, Dawson Mercer has been playing mostly center since last season. Scouting reports noted him as a good forechecker capable of creating turnovers and cutting down passes with his stick. He does not have great size, however, and his success will have more to do with skill than physicality.

Mercer’s ability to create turnovers provides him with a lot of times where he can turn defense into offense. As the NHL game changes, Mercer might be the kind of third line center that teams need to be good. But juniors is one thing, and the NHL is another. By the time he makes the Devils, he might be used primarily as an offensive player given the amount of skill he’s displayed with the puck, and there’s a good chance he plays wing. However, he made strides in his game as a center, and I think he has the tools to be an effective forechecker and can get around the physical game with his shiftiness. Furthermore, he is willing to go all out on both ends of the ice.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of Travis Zajac’s future in New Jersey? Do you think this is his last season? Or do you think he’d gladly take a pay cut to finish his career here? Who do you think should be on his line this season? Who do you think has the most promise to replace him in his checking role? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.