Travis Zajac is playing in their third season in the NHL and he is truly doing better this season then ever before. He is, as one would say, "breaking out;" taking it to the proverbial "next level" to reach new heights in both their careers. It has also been beneficial to the team, as Zajac's improvement is helping to keep the Devils competitive in spite of their injury woes this season.
Generally, when a player breaks out it happens like this. A player who wasn't particularly great or even outright bad, puts together not only a strong season but does so in by being a better hockey player. The ideal situation is where the player maintains some consistency with that quality after said season and goes on to have a pretty solid career. However, it's not uncommon to see a player have one ridiculously good season but not come close to reaching it again for one reason or another. A great example of this is Brian Gionta. He literally exploded in the slot with 48 goals and 41 assists in 2005-2006; but he has since yet to reach even the 30 goal plateau again, much less anything higher.
Travis Zajac would fit in this definition based on this season. However, I think how he's doing now is going to remain largely as permanent improvement. Just look at how far he has come since coming into the league in the 2006-2007 season. By all accounts, he had a pretty good rookie year. 17 goals, 25 assists, just over 16 minutes of ice time a night on average (16:02 to be precise), and a starting spot centering the second line. He had seemingly instant chemistry with Zach Parise and, when combined with Jamie Langenbrunner on the right, they formed a pretty solid line for the Devils that year that had a multitude of names (Puzzle Line, Pretzel Line, ZZ Pops, etc.). While Zajac didn't make people think he'd be a superstar or rookie of the year, you could tell he had the potential of being a pretty good second line pivot who can get some points. It was a good year, looking back on it.
However, Zajac hit the fabled rookie wall hard and had a terrible sophmore slump. To my surprise, his production didn't drop dramatically - 14 goals and 20 assists - but he did fall in all stat categories save for penalty minutes and his winning percentage on faceoffs (46.9% to 51.4%). He only ended up with a little more ice time on average - 16:44/game - which is a surpise as he was shifted around a lot as the season went on. Yet, stats alone don't tell the fall of Zajac. He didn't stick around with Parise for too long, like, well, every Devil forward under the first season in coach Brent Sutter's tenure. We saw all kinds of combinations to try and jump start Zajac's play, even many returns with Parise, but it amounted to nothing. By season's end, you would see Zajac more on the fourth line rather than the second. And he definitely didn't play with the same intensity he had in his rookie season. On some nights he was just "there." You'd have to wonder whether or not Zajac was just in a slump or whether the Devils need to move him before he busts.
Needless to say, the Devils didn't do anything with Zajac and he certainly didn't bust. The poor second season did not get Zajac down. He became more focused and got stronger for this season, and it shows. He's now consistently playing with Parise (and Langenbrunner), as he has essentially returned to his role as the second line center. Sutter still coaches the team and so it seems there will always be changes in lines during games; but Zajac has generally been on the ice when Parise has been. Though, based on the ice time as of late, you could argue he's the first line center; but that's beside the point. Zajac may only have 2 goals so far, but he's been an important part of the offense with a team-leading 11 assists. Sutter has rewarded this improved play with more minutes for Zajac. Given how well he works with the Devils' most consistently productive forward this season, he's featured in a lot of late game situations where the Devils need a goal. But Zajac is more than just Parise's wingman. He's up to an average of 19:44 a night, with 20+ minute performances in each of the last seven games. Zajac has been getting shifts on the penalty kill, which is a compliment to his defensive game (to a fault, the Devils' penalty kill is still horrible) considering he wasn't regularly killing penalties in either of the last two seasons. What's more is that he's even better on faceoffs with a success rate of 54.2%, a consistent improvement across all three seasons.
But to me, the biggest sign of improvement came in the 5-0 win over Dallas back on October 22, which I recapped at ILWT ver. 1.0 but wasn't smart enough to include this. A puck goes past Zajac and a Star and into the Stars' zone. Even though Zajac started off behind the defender, he managed to catch up to him, shove him aside with his free arm, and essentially muscle past him for possession of the puck. Zajac shot it afterward, which was easily saved, but that demonstration of his strength and explosiveness still sticks out in my mind. I never knew he had that in him, and yet he did it right before the home crowd like it was as simple as eating a waffle. I don't think that's something that easily goes away after a season. Zajac not only has earned more responsibilites on the team now, but he's doing pretty well at them (penalty killing aside). He is enjoying his hockey right now and again, much of what he has done to better himself will stay with him if he continues to focus and keep up his condition. That's definitely good news for Devils fans and I for one appreciate his improved performance. (Note: All stats from NHL.com.)