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Zajac’s role was key to Devils’ shutting down Boston

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While youngsters Sharangovich, Hughes, and Smith have dominated the headlines, it was defense that won the Devils their opening series, and Zajac was a key to doing it.

Boston Bruins v New Jersey Devils Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

This is probably an unpopular headline, I know.

Ever since Lou Lamoriello left, Devils fans have been begging … BEGGING … for the youngsters to get a shot. They become irate when low-ceiling vets like Kevin Rooney, John Hayden, Jimmy Hayes, or Vernon Fiddler clog up ice time that could go to prospects that might be special or, worst case, are John Hayden. And in our first two games, we got some really special reels from Jack Hughes, an encouraging performance from a 4th line of exclusively youngsters (Kuokkanen, McLeod, Bastian), 2 points from the lone blueline hope Ty Smith, and a fairly jaw-dropping debut for Yegor Sharangovich — not to mention the insane performance of 3rd-year goalie Mackenzie Blackwood. So, it’s tempting to believe that they are THE story early on here, because it’s what fans have wanted. But it’s my opinion that, whether or not we care to admit it, a familiar face is actually most responsible for competing with the reigning Presidents’ trophy winners. To understand this line of thinking, you need to realize what Boston is, and who Travis Zajac is.

What is Boston

Boston is a great, but top-heavy team. Over the past 2 seasons, their top 3 forwards (Marchand, Bergeron, Pastrnak) account for 110 goals of value (via Evolving-Hockey), the highest such figure for any team. The rest of their forwards combined accounted for 72 goals of value which is still good, but a rather mundane 9th in the NHL. Do some quick math there and you’ll find that 60% of Boston’s forward value comes from their top three forwards, which, unlike many teams, they place all on a single line. Shut down that line, and you shut down the Bruins.

A few caveats to offer here before getting into Zajac. 1) David Pastrnak, the youngest and debatably most valuable of the trio, is injured and did not play in the first two games, and 2) Marchand and Bergeron play on the PP1 and PK1 as well and they racked up 3 goals on special teams (2PP, 1SH). Zajac was on for the two PK goals, but, as is usually the case for PK forwards, couldn’t do much to prevent the scores.

What is Zajac

Travis Zajac is in his waning years as an NHL center. He will not be lighting up the scoreboard (not that that’s ever been his thing), but he is a stabilizing presence for his wingers and he is excellent at, at least, drawing even with the top line of the opposition.

One of the more famous victims of this ability is Sidney Crosby. There may be some detractors, but when all is said and done, I believe Crosby should be considered the greatest player of this generation and a top 5 player of all time (go ham in the comments if you disagree). Like many elite offensive producers, he is a handful on the powerplay, but he’s also among the most dominant overall 5v5 players in the NHL. When playing against anyone other than Travis Zajac, he has outscored opponents 698-476 (59.5 GF%) at 5v5 according to Natural Stat Trick, and outshot them 12983-11054 (54.0 CF%). But, when he has played against Travis Zajac, he’s neck-and-neck in shots at 250-237 (51.3 CF%) and, shockingly, getting outscored 9-19 (32.1 GF%).

This Travis’s utility. The reason he’ll continue to be a legit NHLer in the season he turns 36-years-old, is because even though he may not be able run the score up on the opponent, he can prevent the opponent from running up the score on you. And when your opponent is designed to have their first line run so far away that you can’t catch up against the bottom 9, Travis becomes essential. Think of him as a Kevin Rooney that y’all don’t hate.

So how did he actually fare against them in the opening series? Given Patrice Bergeron is the Center, let’s look at that matchup.

Travis vs Bergeron in Opening Series

While Bergeron was up against Travis Zajac over the first two games, neither line scored, he was outshot 6-9 (40.0%), and out-chanced 2-5 (28.6%) and out-xGed 0.21-0.65 (24.9%).

Now, as I said at the top, Bergeron and Marchand did still factor into all 3 Boston goals, but Zajac was only on for the 2 PP goals. On the first; Kulikov’s stick broke, Severson didn’t know so joined the rush, and Palmieri turned if over on the exit which let Boston in alone against only a stickless Kulikov; and on the 2nd it literally went right through Severson’s stick.

Zajac’s job was to clog up the ice for as much of Bergeron and Marchands shifts as possible. Of “Perfect Patrice”s 23:49, Zajac clogged up 12:49 or 54% of his ice time. You might think that, after the shutout loss to the Islanders, maybe Boston just doesn’t have it this year. Well Bergeron’s unit outshot the Islanders 21-6 in just 13 minutes in that loss, so, no, I don’t think that’s it. Zajac took a Miles Wood and a Jesper Boqvist to a gunfight and won.

Where from here?

Hopefully, more of the same! This line bears some interesting resemblance to the highly-successful Gusev/Coleman line Zajac was on last season. Boqvist has Gusev’s vision and creativity and Wood has Coleman’s speed and physicality.

They aren’t as talented, so they will be treated as a true bottom six line. I’m sure Zajac who is closer to AARP-eligibility than to his NHL debut welcomes the 15 minutes he’s currently averaging. Our top 6 certainly feels like it has some tissues shoved into holes in the ship at the moment, but when Hischier and Bratt return, if Zajac can drag Wood and Boqvist (neither of whom has a reputation for defense) into a shutdown role; life for that top 6 becomes much easier, and our surprisingly competent 4th line youngsters don’t get in over their head.

A LOT needs to go right this season for any ʷʰᶦˢᵖᵉʳˢ “ᵖˡᵃʸᵒᶠᶠ” hopes , but if Zajac’s parting gift to the franchise is making life easier for the next generation in their first few years, it will certainly give Devils fans something to watch for at least a little while.

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What do you guys think? Am I overstating the impact Zajac & Co. had on the game Is THE story still the youngsters and the offense? Was a bigger part of the shutdown the top pairing of Subban & Murray? Is the line handcuffed without Pastrnak as evidenced by their failure to score against NYI as well?

Thanks for reading and leave your thoughts in the comments below.