With his retirement this week, the end of Travis Zajac’s career arrived and, courtesy of the one-day contract he signed in New Jersey, he went out a member of the team he played all but 13 of his career regular season games for. Zajac’s retirement feels like a fitting coda to the past 15 years of Devils hockey. His trade to the Islanders in the spring severed the last tie the Devils had to their last deep playoff run in 2012. And his understated (and somewhat unexpected) retirement via a surprise one-day deal with the team earlier this week put to bed any thoughts of a reunion on the ice and really put a period on an era of Devils hockey that will hopefully give way to better days.
The past decade and a half covers a stretch of Devils history in which Zajac always featured prominently but was never particularly close to being the star of the show. Despite being a part of several different dominant top line combos and being the 1C on some really good teams, Zajac never sniffed even an all-star game appearance, let alone any major individual awards, in his 1000+ game run in the NHL. In spite of never being the guy in New Jersey, for much of his career he was leaned on as heavily as any player in the organization.
As Zajac’s career wore on, though, the stability of the organization slowly crumbled around him as ownership financial woes, free agent departures, freak retirements, future-mortgaging trades, and a post-2004 run of drafting futility eventually caught up to what had been a model franchise. Zajac saw both the highs and the lows of the Devils organization over his career, but no matter how much things deteriorated around him, ever the good soldier, he kept his head down and kept marching, and the team kept leaning on him.
Part of that simply came down to a lucrative eight-year, $46M deal he signed post-lockout and post-Zach Parise departure which kept him tethered to the team, but amid a deluge of team-level disappointment that would dominate the back half of his career, Zajac never put the blame on others and never stopped leaving everything he had on the ice each night. Even in years when his (admittedly middling in the best of times) offensive talents would take their leave of him, you never felt like Zajac was ever taking shifts off.
The thing about Travis Zajac that stands out most is perhaps how rarely he looked out of place or out of position on the ice. Zajac was not an electric talent, that much we know, but he was an incredibly smart and disciplined player. Even against the very best players in the league, Zajac never looked overmatched. Dozens of other centers have filtered their way through the Devils organization over the course of Zajac’s career but there were none you’d feel more confident matching up against a Sidney Crosby or someone of his ilk. Having Zajac out there meant you weren’t going to get cheated.
People often doubted Zajac’s 1C bona fides for understandable reasons (mostly related to scoring), but at his best he could be a part of a dominant top line and many times was. Zajac was never destined to be the star of the show, but he was perfectly willing to be the guy doing the dirty work while his linemates made hay. Early in his career, Zajac broke out as the pivot of the ZZ Pops line between Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner. Parise was the star and Langenbrunner was the wily veteran captain, but in the middle, Zajac was just the guy playing the most important position on the ice for one of the league’s best lines. He would top out at 6th in Selke voting in 2010 and never get closer to an individual league award again.
Even after the dissolution of the ZZ Pops line, Zajac had more runs as the center for a dominant top line to little fanfare. In 2013-14, with Jaromir Jagr riding shotgun and Dainius Zubrus/[assorted] playing on the other wing, Zajac centered a world-beating first unit that scored over 60% of the 5v5 goals and had a mind-bending 62% of the expected goals in close to 1000 minutes together. Later in 2016-17, Zajac would center a very good top line between Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmeiri that put up a 68% goal share and 57% xG share amidst an otherwise putrid roster that would circle the drain and lose 21 of its last 24 games.
Zajac’s most underappreciated performance as a top center may have come during the team’s high-water mark in his tenure, though: the 2012 playoffs. Many will recall that Zajac missed most of the 2011-12 regular season with an Achilles injury, leading to the emergence of Adam Henrique as the team’s breakout rookie center. Henrique went on to score multiple massive series-ending goals in that playoff run, but Zajac had firmly reclaimed the mantle of number one center during that run, playing more 5v5 minutes than any non-Ilya Kovalchuk forward in those playoffs. Zajac of course had perhaps the signature goal of his career in game six of the opening round series, keeping the fledgling playoff run alive in overtime and capping it with the iconic (at least to me) running man celebration. If I asked you who led the Devils in 5v5 goals during those playoffs, though, would you be able to answer that it was Travis Zajac before reading this sentence? Even me, the guy writing this article, would likely not have answered correctly before looking it up.
The one tragedy of Zajac’s career (aside from the part where the Devils stunk out loud for the second half of it) is perhaps that he was forced into a role that he could handle but only intermittently thrive in due to the dearth of other options the Devils had over his run. The common refrain and one that John even alluded to in his post on Zajac’s retirement announcement was that Zajac was “the poor man’s Jonathan Toews.” If he got drafted into a different era, where he’s not close to the only game in town at center, maybe he’s known as “the rich man’s Sergei Brylin” or “the thinking man’s Bobby Holik” or something. Zajac was such a smart and steady hockey player that he allowed the team to live with him as a 1C, even when his limitations on the offensive side of the ice became clear in the latter portions of his career.
The bottom line on Travis Zajac is that he was one of the solitary pillars of stability for a team that was increasingly founded on quicksand in the 2010s. If he was the shutdown 2C behind an elite 1C that could drive offense, perhaps he has a couple of Stanley Cups to his name and is known as the reliable thorn in the side of opposing teams’ top lines and an engine that helped drive the Devils success. To his eternal credit and perhaps also ultimately to his detriment later in his career, no matter the position you put him in, you could always rely on Travis Zajac to hold up against the toughest of competition on the ice and to responsibly play as many minutes as you could heap on him. In short, he was the player you could trust.