Player Previews: Part 13 – Travis Zajac

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By Ryan Jahnke

#19 – Travis Zajac – Center

2013 Season Stats 

Games played: 48

Average Time on ice: 19:31

Points: 20 (7g, 13a)

Plus/Minus: minus-5

Analysis:

Season Grade: C-

Today, we are finally going to address last season for Travis Zajac, a subject that has sent some Devils fans into fits.

Last year was supposed to be a banner year for the Devils’ top center.  Returning from an injury that cost him all but 15 games of the 2011-2012 season, Travis stepped right back into the fray without missing a beat.  He re-established himself as an intricate part of the team’s attack.  He quickly became a crucial part of the Devils playoff run, with seven goals and seven assists in 24 playoff games, one of which famously saved the Devils from first round elimination by the Florida Panthers.

At the start of this past year, possibly as a reaction to the exit of Zach Parise, Travis was signed to an 8-year, $46 million extension through the 2020-21 season.  While this seemed like a steep price to pay for a player that had yet to firmly establish himself as a true first liner, the Devils needed to ensure their fans that they were committed to getting back to the Cup sooner rather than later.

Unfortunately for Travis and the Devils, the numbers on the ice didn’t really seem to stack up to the numbers on his check.  All around, his season wasn’t terrible.  He was still one of the most prominent special teams players, and he averaged more time on the ice than any other forward not named Ilya Kovalchuk; his stats just weren’t up to par.  While his point total was good for fourth best on the team, let’s not forget that the Devs didn’t set the bar too high last year.  And while I realize that the injuries to the team’s stars hurt everybody’s numbers, Travis’ points were hurting long before that.

2014 Preview

It’s hard to come back from injury, and Travis didn’t do himself any favors by making it look easy during the 2011-2012 playoffs.  Last year was his first full year back after a significant injury to his left Achilles tendon, and on top of that, it was his first year playing without Parise.  While I never once heard Travis use either of these factors as an excuse, it was clear that he wasn’t quite himself in the offensive zone.  Like a quarterback after losing his top receiver, Travis had lost his security blanket and was struggling to figure out how to move forward without it.  This year, that should be a little bit easier.

The additions of Jaromir Jagr and Michael Ryder provide two veteran scorers that already have experience playing in systems similar to Pete DeBoer’s.  These are two players that you can trust to always be in position, allowing them to get into a quick rhythm with the Devils’ top line center.  Then, when you add in a strong and aggressive forechecker like Ryan Clowe, the Devils top lines should be fairly secure in the offensive zone.

While this setup should certainly help Travis get back into the 35-40 assist range, what remains to be seen is whether or not he will get back to pulling the trigger the way that he used to.  Before the last few seasons, Travis Zajac’s scoring numbers were trending upwards in a very promising way.  From 20 goals in 2008-2009, to 25 in 2009-2010, Travis was beginning to come into his own offensively.  While that progress was slowed by the events of the last few years, that potential is still there.  If he can resume that climb, Zajac will be one of the league’s top two-way forwards.

Projections:

This year, Zajac gets back to proving himself in the attacking zone as well as the defensive zone.

His ice time will remain high and might even improve according to the needs of the team.  Zajac remains one of the most important special teams player, as he is the most reliable center on the roster.  But most importantly, he is invaluable on the kill.

In the offensive zone, he’s going to enjoy playing under a more balanced offense.  Travis will bring himself back up over 50 points this year.  The new influx of talent will help him get more assists this year, but the increased focus on spreading out the play will lead to more goals as well.  I’m predicting, conveniently, 19 goals and around 36 assists for Travis Zajac this year.

Last year was the exception, rather than the rule.  Travis Zajac will begin his return to form this year.  It won’t happen overnight; there are still factors that still need to fall into place.  But if Travis plays at the level he has shown that he is capable of, then I’m seeing a lot less questions about his contract after this year.

In case you missed them, here are the first six parts of the series: 

Part 1: Andy Greene

Part 2: Michael Ryder

Part 3: Cory Schneider

Part 4: Andrei Loktionov

Part 5: Patrik Elias

Part 6: Jacob Josefson

Part 7: Adam Henrique

Part 8: Peter Harrold

Part 9: Bryce Salvador

Part 10: Rusty Olesz

Part 11: Jaromir Jagr

Part 12: Steve Bernier