Why the Devils should buy out Travis Zajac this summer

The 2019-20 Devils were a team that failed to live up to expectations and have been a team in transition ever since they blew a 4-0 lead to Winnipeg in their opener. Since then, the team has fired GM Ray Shero and head coach John Hynes, traded former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall, captain Andy Greene, and fan favorite Blake Coleman, promoted Tom Fitzgerald to GM, and hired Lindy Ruff as the new head coach.

One constant remains in the organization, however. Travis Zajac, our 20th overall selection in the 2004 NHL Draft, has been a consistent presence in the Devils lineup since he debuted in the 2006-07 season. With 991 NHL games (all with New Jersey) on the odometer, he remains as the final player from the 2012 Eastern Conference Championship Devils team. Zajac is right there in the mix on the Devils all-time leaders in games played, goals, assists, and points. He has been an effective penalty killer. He has proudly worn the ‘A’ for the last few seasons as a leader on the ice and has been a good leader off the ice.

That’s why it pains me to say this. With Zajac entering the final season of the 8 year, $46M contract he signed back in 2013, the time has come for Zajac’s run with the Devils to come to an end and they should buy him out.

First, lets look at the math. Zajac would have his normal 5.75M AAV cap hit on the books for next season only if the Devils do nothing but honor the deal he signed. A buyout would give the Devils 3.83M in savings, but leave a cap hit of 1.91M over the next 2 seasons.

Keep in mind, the cap ceiling is expected to remain at 81.5M over the next few seasons due to the new CBA and the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on hockey related revenues.

Let’s look at the Devils cap situation next season. The Devils have $26.2M available in cap space already, so you may be confused as to why I want to create more short-term immediate cap space. When you look closer though, you will see that Mackenzie Blackwood and Jesper Bratt are the Devils two most pressing RFAs due new contracts. Mirco Mueller, John Hayden, and Joey Anderson are also due new contracts. UFAs on the current roster include Kevin Rooney, Dakota Mermis, and Fredrik Claesson. Obviously, most of those names aren’t going to command huge salaries, but the Devils will need to make a financial commitment to Blackwood and Bratt at a minimum. I would guess Blackwood gets something like 3 years at 4M AAV and Bratt gets 3 at 3.5M AAV. Lets also assume that Mueller, Hayden, and Anderson get slight raises, so let’s say 2M, 1M, and 1M to help keep the math simple and err on the side of caution. That would leave the Devils around 14.7M to play with, but let’s also keep a few million available to account for performance bonuses for Jack Hughes and Ty Smith, should Smith make the team and should those players actually reach their bonuses. So that number gets knocked down roughly 11.5M available.

11.5M is a decent chunk of cap space considering that the ceiling will remain at 81.5M and there will be other teams looking to dump a contract, but with most teams having previously agreeing to deals with players operating under the assumption that the cap would continue to increase, it puts other teams in a bind and the Devils in a position to potentially reap the rewards. Freeing up another roughly 4M in cap space by buying out Zajac would contribute more to the 2023-24 Devils than anything Zajac does on or off the ice this season. The Devils should be weaponizing that cap space the best they can to either acquire draft picks, prospects, or young controllable players who might be part of the future, and playing Travis Zajac his 17 minutes a night on a team likely to pick in the Top 5 again next season doesn't accomplish anything.

I also understand the concerns with buyouts and having dead cap space on your books, but let’s be honest, the 20-21 Devils are likely going to be an awful hockey team, the 21-22 Devils won’t be much better, and Zajac’s dead cap money would effectively replace Cammalleri’s dead cap money after next season for just one season. That dead cap money comes off of the books the same summer PK Subban and Cory Schneider do, and just in time for a new deal for Jack Hughes. It’s not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things if Zajac is tying up just under 2 million in dead cap money in 21-22.

It also can’t be ignored that Zajac has a full NTC, and was rumored to have blocked a trade at some point last season. I'm not holding anything against Zajac for reportedly using his no-trade. Lou gave them out like candy back then, Zajac earned it, it is what it is. And I can understand the argument that maybe you want to hold on to Zajac and try to move him at the deadline, but with his NTC, he has full control over the situation which will likely limit any return (I also wouldn’t count on the Lou Lamoriello bailing the Devils out on this because the Isles have their own cap crunch to worry about and might be hard pressed to fit Zajac in even if the Devils retained 50%). I’d argue having his cap number freed up would get the Devils a better return than anything the Devils might get in February of 2021.

Lastly, I don’t think the Devils will miss Zajac much on the ice. He’s been a good soldier for this franchise, but his stats really haven’t measured up to his contract for quite some time. He's been a fine penalty killer, but the Devils are going to need to start finding other guys to handle that role anyways as they continue to turn the roster over. That isn’t reason enough to justify him continuing to take a roster spot. And while he hasn’t done much to this point of his career to warrant the playing time, its time for 2016 first round pick Mike McLeod to sink or swim as an NHL player. He was going to get an opportunity for extended run right before the pandemic hit. The Devils can go with Hischier, Hughes, Zacha, and McLeod down the middle this season (with Rooney or another veteran serving as an extra), and its what they should be doing to see if Zacha and McLeod are part of the solution long-term or if they'll need to ultimately be replaced.

Please don’t get it twisted…..I have nothing against Travis Zajac. I just have little use for him in 2020 as the Devils continue to transition to a younger, faster, more skilled hockey team. And I would hope that as Tom Fitzgerald continues to shape this roster as he sees fit, he comes to the realization that having Zajac on the roster this year really doesn't accomplish much of anything and he'd be better served using those resources elsewhere.

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