In a time of constant roster upheaval for the New Jersey Devils, Travis Zajac is the lone survivor from the pre-rebuild years. Now, in the final year of an eight-year extension he signed ahead of the 2013 season, Zajac remains with the team that drafted him close to two decades ago now. Over that stretch, Zajac has undergone a number of inversions of expectations, with him sometimes looking like a crucial cog in whatever success the Devils are enjoying and other times looking like a player who has surpassed his expiration date.
Zajac has long been considered a good player but there have been multiple instances over the past half dozen or so years where he seemed like he had run out of gas. Paired with each of those instances, though, is the aftermath where Zajac somehow finds a new burst of life with a new set of linemates. Those lines range in overall impact but all of them consist of completely different combinations with the only through line largely being Zajac at the center position. For this reason, it is sometimes tough to figure why some Zajac lines are total non-factors and others are arguably the most effective units on the team.
The curious thing about all of these different successful Zajac lines is that some of them have players on them that you would never expect to be a part of a dominant five on five line. Over the past decade, Zajac has seemingly gone through four or five different troughs and reinvigorations later on on new lines. Particularly of late, the Zajac lines that do work are rarely intuitive and seem to almost be randomly assembled, but it is undeniable that the lines, once found, have been some of the best and most consistent units on the roster.
The thing prompting this thought is of course the recent success of the newly formed Yegor Sharangovich-Travis Zajac-Janne Kuokkanen line over the past few weeks. When this line was first assembled, there were no indications that it was going to be a very good one. Lindy Ruff, in the midst of the Devils’ spiral in February started putting together all sorts of line combinations with little success at finding a spark for the team. That was until he found this combination of Zajac and two rookies that have helped jolt this team back to life in the past couple of weeks. All three of the individuals on this line were having some struggles in the lead up to being put together. Zajac had been a non-factor for most of the season, Sharangovich had looked largely lost after a promising opening few games, and Kuokkanen had seen his effectiveness dry up to an extent and had him rotating in and out of the lineup at times.
Given those considerations, this was not necessarily a line that you were expecting to make a substantial difference for the Devils, but like many Zajac lines that have been put together over the years, they have looked dynamic on the ice and even generated strong offense for the Devils. The line has been considerably greater than the sum of its parts would seem to indicate. We have seen this happen time and again over the years with Zajac lines. Even though Zajac has never been a particularly dynamic offensive player he has repeatedly shown the ability to, in the right situation, center for a line that controls play and wins its matchups at even strength better than many of its peers.
We can look back over the last decade and recount many of the Zajac dips and peaks, centering different lines in many of those instances:
- 2008-2010: Prime years and the dominant ZZ Pops line
- 2011-2013: Disappointing Kovalchuk combo, Achilles injury, underwhelming post-contract 2013
- 2013-2014: Over 60% xGF wrecking ball line with Jaromir Jagr
- 2014-2015: Devils crash and burn, Zajac invisible much of season, particularly post Jagr
- 2016-2017: Intermittent dominance with Hall/Palmieri
- 2017-2018: Pectoral injury and horrid start, serious “Is he done?” questions
- 2018-2019: Travis and the Texans (TNT) line with Coleman/Noesen assembles, helps power surge to playoff, later combo with Coleman/Gusev also great
- 2020-2021 Trough: Underwhelming finish to 2020 and ineffective start in 2021
I count at least four stretches in there where there was either intense criticism of his contract or questions on whether he was downright finished. Before the assembly of the TNT line in 2018, I was pretty convinced myself that we had seen the last of Zajac as an effective contributor. Early this year, my expectations for what Zajac could bring to the table any longer for this roster were quite low as well. Over the past few weeks, though, Zajac looks again rejuvenated between two players who didn’t necessarily have a lot of success previously (mirroring the formation of that Coleman/Zajac/Noesen line a few years back). If this line with Sharangovich and Kuokkanen can have staying power for the Devils, it’s yet another instance of Zajac finding his game and continuing to contribute in the twilight of his career.