February 16th: the day the New Jersey Devils traded their Captain Andy Greene to the New York Islanders. The immediate discussion of the trade was obviously about the return for the Devils, but a minor narrative that wasn’t truly discussed was the fact that one more piece of the 2011-12 Stanley Cup Team was gone.
And now only Travis Zajac, then the team’s 1C, now a veteran leader, remains.
Travis is the last link on the current roster to a period where the Devils weren’t mired in misery or rebuilding. His 2011-12 Cup run stats were some of the best on the team, as he finished third with 7 goals and 7 assists; often forgotten is that none of Zajac’s goals were empty net tallies, unlike his two wingers who were first and second in points. While some believed the team’s then captain to be an important catalyst in those playoffs, it could honestly be argued that Zajac and the other winger did far more of the heavy lifting offensively.
While Zajac was paid as a true #1 C going forward, his offensive production in the aftermath of that season left a lot to be desired. His defense, however, was unquestionably some of the best on the team. In his prime years, Travis was arguably a better defender than anyone on the team, and yes I’m including the defensemen as well! While he did share the ice often with the aforementioned Greene, Zajac was always the responsible player who was in position to make the right play and to help out the back end when necessary.
Now with a team in transition, Zajac is the last link to successful days, which obviously the Devils (and we fans) hope are soon to be on the horizon again. His 2019-20 season has been disappointing on the surface, with only 7 goals and 15 assists through 66 games. The numbers are again a far cry from what you would want, but a deeper look examines that they’re not all that bad.
Firstly, his shooting percentage (10.4%) is only slightly lower than his career average (11%); the issue with this stat is Travis is just shooting less due to there being more attractive options to shoot. He also hasn’t appeared on the power play until injuries or the recent rash of trades made it a necessity, so that has led to both less shots and goals. He’s also not picking up as many assists from less PP ice time as well; while Zajac still averages a healthy amount of ice per game, it’s because he’s the best penalty killer on the team, and let’s face it, points on the PK aren’t a regularity.
Zajac is still signed for one more season, but with the development of New Jersey’s centers, Trav could (and probably should) start the season playing on the fourth line next year. If the Devils give Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes their own lines while keeping Pavel Zacha, Jesper Bratt and Nikita Gusev together (again, they should), that would slide Zajac down to fourth on the center depth chart. Penalty killing ability and faceoff win percentage would help to keep Zajac’s minutes up, while putting him in a role best suited for his defensive abilities.
I think it’s also worth briefly celebrating how important Zajac has been to the Devils’ franchise; while his numbers aren’t eye-popping, or even remotely Elias-esque, he’s still been a consistent player. All time he is set to become only the fourth player in team history to play 1,000 games in New Jersey. He’s also (according to Hockey-Reference) fifth in goals, sixth in assists and third in points, with a realistic chance to move up at least one place in goals and assists, possibly by the end of the season. He also is just seven goals shy of becoming only the fourth player to score 200 in red and black.
Zajac has gotten some hate at times, but a he’s essentially been .5+ PPG player over his career while providing elite defense, including a lot of it on some really awful Devils teams. I don’t know if he’ll ever have his number retired by the team, as again his stats aren’t superstar level, but there’s no denying his importance to the franchise.
His role right now might be his most important yet though: he’s the only remaining Devils from when the team had winning ways. He’s also sat through a lot of losses in New Jersey. He’s now our veteran who needs to inspire and teach the current young crop of Devils how to handle victory and defeat. Even if next season winds up being his last (I could see him still coming back on a cheap deal as an effective fourth line center) he still has a few tricks to teach our young centers. And we still have a few milestones (particularly one that should come during the team’s final back to back weekend) to celebrate for a guy who has been a loyal Devil through and through.
What are your thoughts on Zajac and his career so far? Do you believe he has the importance to the club that I believe he has? Are you looking forward to celebrating his thousandth game? Do you think the Devils retire his jersey whether he finishes his career in New Jersey or not? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!