We all thought Travis Zajac would again produce numbers like he did in his third and fourth years. During the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 seasons, he tallied 45 goals and 129 points, which are totals he hasn’t come close to ever reaching. Stats-wise, Zajac has been nothing short of a disappointment. I’m not saying Zajac isn’t a valuable asset to this team. He’s their best faceoff man, a valuable part of the penalty kill, and (to a lesser extent) the power play. I think it’s clear at this point however that Zajac no longer possesses the offense prowess he had in his early years. When you bring his $5.7 million cap hit of a contract with four remaining years in the picture, it makes you put his expendability with the team into perspective.
Two of the biggest instances where Zajac failed to step up as a top-two center came in the 2010-2011 and 2012-2013 seasons. Due to injury and free agent departure, they were the first two where he had to play without Zach Parise alongside him. He had a 12-goal and 23-point drop in 2010-2011, after having a career year in 2009-2010. In the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season following Parise’s departure to Minnesota, Zajac was one of six Devils players to appear in all 48 games. He only scored seven goals (.14 GPG), which was the start of another detrimental trend for the 30-year old center.
In his first six seasons with Parise on his side, Zajac averaged .21 goals per game. In the subsequent years (2013-present) that number dropped to .17. It doesn’t seem like much at first glance, but has proved costly on a grander scale. He has for example, eight goals in 47 contests this season, which equates to .17 goals per game (his pace since 2013). If he maintained .21 goals per game this season, he would only have two more goals, which could have made a huge difference. The Devils lost 15 one-goal games in 2015-2016. Even if Zajac potted two extra goals in a pair of those regulation losses, those two extra points just from forcing overtime, would put the Devils in the first wildcard spot as of writing this.
With a replenishing forward prospect pool, Zajac’s window is closing. Adam Henrique’s strong redemptive season, along with centers like Pavel Zacha and John Quenneville coming up the pipeline could force Coach Hynes to make some tough decisions, if two or all of the aforementioned players out-produce Zajac. He would make an ideal third line center, and probably falls in that slot on most playoff-caliber team depth charts. Zajac could be relegated to that role in the Devils lineup to make room for more offensively compliant forwards on their first and second lines. The only issue is his $5.7 million price tag, and how worthwhile it’d be to have a third line center averaging less than .20 goals per game.
If Coach Hynes and general manager Ray Shero don’t find the cap and roster space invested in Zajac worth four more seasons, moving him is certainly doable but conflicting amongst Devils fans. If Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, and Vincent Lecavlier can be traded with their burdensome contracts, moving Zajac isn’t out of the question. The biggest concern would be addressing his loss as the Devils’ best faceoff man. His 51.6% success rate is the best out of Henrique, Josefson, and Gionta, who’ve respectively gone 45.7, 47.6, and 43.3%. Consequently, the Devils are the second-worst faceoff team in the league (46.9%). While the Devils have been able to battle through their faceoff struggles, they’re the only team with a bottom-six faceoff percentage that’s in playoff contention. Trading Zajac would be risky in that regard, but could be bountiful if it opens the scoring for the Devils’ top-two lines.
Zajac is New Jersey’s most-played forward on the penalty kill (2:40/game), which is currently among the top-ten in the NHL. Adam Henrique comes in second in shorthanded ice time (2:29/game) amongst forwards, while Jacob Josefson comes in fourth (1:48/game), and could undoubtedly eat some of the minutes that would be freed up by Zajac’s hypothetic departure. Zajac is the fifth-most played forward on the power play (2:26/game), and gained a lot of attention when he scored four power play goals in his first 12 games of the season. Although the Devils have been an efficient power play team, they could only benefit if Zajac’s power play time went to a more consistently productive forward.
I’ve always been a fan of Zajac, but he can’t help this team as a top-two center if he continues producing at this current pace with a $5.7 million cap hit. He’s still an asset to the Devils, and can be for years to come, but shouldn’t be an obstacle for improving the team’s depleted offense. He still has the remainder of the season to replenish his offensive numbers, but shows with each passing game, his scoring touch might have been misperceived.