This morning, Travis Zajac was signed by the New Jersey Devils. No, not to play center on the bottom two lines. No, not to be a veteran to push a team filled with youngsters. No, not to be someone who can be plugged in and play in multiple situations as he has been in his career. The contract is for one day as to allow Travis Zajac to retire as a New Jersey Devil. The team announced it along with this short video. The Devils’ official website has this release with the following statement from Zajac himself:
“I was drafted in 2004 and played my first game in 2006. As I stand here nearing the end of 2021, I can only be grateful to sign one last time, and retire as a New Jersey Devil.
“As a kid playing hockey on the outdoor rinks in Winnipeg, I dreamt about playing in the NHL. Growing up the oldest of four boys, it was the perfect hockey environment. Thanks to my parents unwavering support in our lives, that dream became a reality. Then, I got to live that childhood goal for 15 years with the Devils.
“I want to thank the New Jersey Devils organization for giving me the opportunity to play in the best league in the world. To the past and present ownership, managing partners, managers, coaches, and trainers, your hard work has not gone unnoticed- thank you. And thanks also to my agent, Kurt Overhardt, for always believing in me.
“I have to acknowledge all my teammates who helped me throughout my career. I will cherish all the memories made and I hope that I’ve impacted your life the way you’ve positively impacted mine.
“Now, to the fans, you are the reason this game is so special, and I leave the game knowing I enjoyed every moment I got to play in front of you.
“Lastly, I want to thank my beautiful wife Nicole and our kids Zenon, Veronika, and Anya. We have deep roots in New Jersey now. My wife went to graduate school at Montclair State, our three children, were born in Jersey and raised right here in this rink at Prudential Center. They know no other home and no other community like the Devils. It’s now time for me to embed myself into this same community where I grew into adulthood. It is where my heart is, my home, and I’ve never felt otherwise.
“Born in Winnipeg, Made in Jersey.”
Zajac has been a member of the organization since being drafted out of Salmon Arm of the BCHL, a Junior A league. Zajac’s plan was to go to the University of North Dakota and he did for two seasons. He joined New Jersey for the 2006-07 season, played in 80 games for them, and never looked back. Zajac would not get demoted. He would not get dealt to anyone else until 15 years later in April 2021 to the New York Islanders. By then, Zajac was a 35-year old with over 1,000 games played with the Devils and a myriad of situations, ups, and downs through the franchise. After his short stay on Long Island and one last playoff run, Zajac is calling it a career.
When one thinks back to the last decade of Devils hockey, there were a lot of changes and Zajac was one of the few constants. Believe it or not, he put up the most points among Devils in the 2010s. He ended up being the reliable center who can sit in the middle of a 1-3-1 formation, lead a penalty kill, take on top minutes and tougher matchups deeper in the lineup, and whatever else was thrown his way. No, he was never a player with exceptional offensive skill like Patrik Elias, Zach Parise or Ilya Kovalchuk. But he was good enough to hang with such players as to not drag them down; he was productive (again, most points in the decade); and even scored some important goals back in 2012. (Aside: If you want a 50 minute goal compilation by Zajac, here you are.) Zajac may get more credit for his defense, which was quite good. Even then, it was not to the lofty heights of what John Madden or Jay Pandolfo achieved in the decade prior. There was always an argument throughout his career among the fans of whether he was an #1, a #2, or a #3 center with wildly different definitions of what a fan thinks those even mean. It tended to ignore the fact that Zajac was a center the Devils could rely on in some capacity and that had its own value.
Additionally, Zajac was reliable for an incredibly long time. It is very hard to break into the NHL to begin with. It is hard to stay there for an extended period of time. Zajac left college, played two games in Albany on an ATO in 2006, and then went to the NHL for his entire pro career. Playing in 1,037 regular season games and 71 playoff games over a 15-year period is incredible. And Zajac was not just making up the numbers for the vast majority of those games. The Devils absolutely looked to Zajac to be a leader in both ends of the rink. No, he never had the gaudy point totals or exceptional reputation or became an analytics darling. Zajac was just someone the organization knew would do a good job for the most part and did not have to worry about finding a replacement until he was dealt away. To use a comparison point I have used constantly for Zajac, he is a poor man’s Jonathan Toews. And his decline as a player was not jarring or all that awful either. That’s laudable even if it does not capture the imagination like an Elias, a Parise, etc.
It also did not help that the Devils as a team fell into the abyss for the last half of the 2010s. Instead of being the veteran leader of a team pushing for achievements to help his legacy, he was the veteran to keep around as the team was re-built (2015 to 2018) and re-built a second time (2019 to current). The more current fan may just know the last few years without fully understanding that he was a consistently good player throughout his career in New Jersey. There was a reason there was a bit of sadness when he was dealt away to the Islanders in April. Likewise, that the fans were not able to be in attendance for his actual 1,000th game.
It does say quite a bit that Zajac did do this. That he signed a one-day deal to retire with New Jersey speaks to how much he appreciates the organization and the mark it left on him. Despite the team’s lack of success, Zajac absolutely had a successful career. Only a few hundred players ever played over 1,000 NHL games since the league founded in 1917. Even fewer did it with just one team and only four in Devils history hit that mark as a Devil. Zajac is the fourth after Daneyko, Brodeur, and Elias - all Devils legends. I do not know if I would say Zajac is a team legend, but I would say he was a very good player and someone important for the organization as it continues this transitional era from the golden days of the 1990s and 2000s. To that end, I appreciate that Zajac is becoming a member of the organization off the ice as a consultant and working with youth hockey and development. And I also appreciate the team will honor the 1,000th game on March 10, 2022 against Winnipeg - which should have the Rock give Zajac his well-deserved congratulations. (Aside: Zajac’s from Winnipeg, so the game probably means a bit more than the Saturday night home game against Anaheim two days later.)
Where Zajac’s path goes now is unknown. All the same, I wish him the best. Perhaps more importantly, thank you, Travis Zajac for 15 years of being a Devil.