A Closer Look at Travis Zajac's Season As He Becomes an Ironman for the New Jersey Devils

Barring something unforeseeable, Travis Zajac will break the New Jersey Devils franchise record of consecutive games played on Thursday night in Ottawa.   The soon-to-be broken streak of 388 games was previously held by Ken Daneyko.  Since Zajac is about to break the record and legitimately be called an ironman, now is a good time to see how he has performed this season.  What can we gather from the common stats available? What do the underlying advanced stats say about him at even strength?  Both will be answered after the jump.

Summary

Like most of the Devils, he suffered in the first two months.  After losing Zach Parise to injury, there wasn't much consistency in terms of who he would center. He got hot in December with 3 goals and 7 assists (6 on the power play) and enjoyed a shooting percentage above 10%.  However, he was still in flux at even strength as the team tried to do something to stop the losing.

It wasn't until Jacques Lemaire became the interim head coach when it was established that he would be the center for Ilya Kovalchuk.  Once Nick Palmieri got called up, his performances pleased Lemaire enough to try him with the two offensive forwards.  They've been together for the most part ever since, and Zajac has picked up more points at even strength.

Common Stats from NHL.com

(The following stats all come from NHL.com)

What has been consistent for Zajac this season has been his ice time. He averages 19:48 per game, second most among forwards on the Devils and fourth overall on the team.  He is the first choice at center for both the power play (2:37 TOI/G) and the penalty kill (2:11 TOI/G).  Both John MacLean and Lemaire understood that he should be playing in all situations. That he keeps getting these minutes is proof that he's performing well enough in those spots. 

Another area where Zajac has been consistent is in taking faceoffs.  He's been consistently awesome, to be more precise.  He has been sent out to take more draws than any other Devil with 1,109 total faceoffs; and he's won 623 of them.  This gives him a team-leading faceoff percentage of 56.2%.   As of right now, Zajac is twelfth in the league in faceoff winning percentage; and eighteenth in total faceoffs taken.  Not only is that great by itself, but it's a career high for him right now.  It's a big jump from last season's 52.9% winning percentage and 2008-09's winning percentage of 53.1%. He's come a long way from a rookie season where he only won 46.9% of 904 draws to being one of the better draw-winners in the league.

A third point of good consistency for Zajac is his discipline.  He doesn't take a lot of penalties.  He has 12 minors and that's it from him.  He's only taken more than 30 PIM in one season and in 2007-08, he took 31.  No one will confuse Zajac for being a banger or a gritty player.  Yet, knowing that he's not likely take an infraction on most nights is a benefit.  In a season that was entirely frustrating until half-way through January, that speaks well of his character and approach to the game.


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG SOG PCT
2010-11 - Travis Zajac 69 13 28 41 2 24 2 1 1 148 8.8

However, it's all but certain that Zajac won't be hitting 60 points for a third straight season.  A big part of this has to do with his shooting percentage.  Even with last night's goal bumping up his shooting percentage in March to 23.2%; his shooting percentage for the season would be a career low if it ended today.   Not only that, but since the entire team's shooting percentage was terrible by the end of November, Zajac wasn't picking up a lot of assists in addition to not scoring goals.  The first two months saw the center with only 2 goals and 7 assists in 24 games. His scoring since December has been more palatable with 32 points in 45 games.  The power play getting hot in December plus the rise in overall shooting percentage (not to mention Ilya Kovalchuk's own percentage) in January, February, and March has helped a lot.  Still, the first two months (and any future cooling off) will prevent him from hitting the 60 plateau again.  50 points would be a reach (9 points in 13 games), come to think of it.

Another part of his season that has slipped is his overall shooting.  Zajac currently has 148 shots on net, a rate of 2.14 shots per game. This is a decrease from last season, where Zajac shot over 200 pucks for the first time in his career.  In 2009-10, he put up 210 shots on net, a rate of 2.56 shots per game.  He's even currently below his 2008-09 season in shots; where Zajac put up 185 shots, a rate of 2.25 per game.   Granted, this may not be a big deal since he's played seemingly always with Zach Parise in the last two seasons; and mostly riding with Kovalchuk this season.  Both are shooters and generally you want them to be firing away.  Still, it does help partially explain his drop in goals this season.

Advanced Stats for Even Strength Play from Behind the Net

(The following stats all come from Behind The Net)

Of course, the underlying stats tend to be more interesting.  Let's start by comparing Zajac with himself for a number of advanced stats at Behind the Net.  Behind the Net goes as far back as 2007-08, so these stats go all the way back to his sophmore NHL season.

While his numbers aren't as outstanding as his 2009-10 season, he's not doing too bad.  What doesn't look good is that he just above even in Corsi relative to quality of teammates, he's got the worst on-ice Corsi rate this season while enjoying a high offensive zone start percentage (56.1%), and his quality of competition Corsi is also just above even. That said, he's positive across the board in Corsi, his on-ice Corsi rate is still positive even with zone starts, he's always had a high zone start percentage, and he's continued to finish his shifts in the offensive zone 52% of the time.

The drop in Corsi is best explained by the fact that he's not with Zach Parise this season, who was pretty much a Corsi-machine in the last 3 seasons.  In a way, that Zajac's Corsi dropped to 7.02 is actually a compliment as it is (more) evidence that Zajac is a good player. He's not more than a guy benefiting from Parise's awesomeness.

This is more clearly seen when you compare some of these stats against his fellow Devils.  Here's how Zajac's stats stack up for this season compared to all Devils who have played 20 or more games this season.  Zajac has the third best on-ice Corsi rate on the team, much higher than his current linemates of Ilya Kovalchuk (2.87) and Nick Palmieri (2.90).  To me, this shows that Zajac's driving his line in terms of possession.  Zajac didn't have to do this in the last three seasons because Parise made it happen and Zajac complemented him incredibly well.   This season has shown that while he may not be a stud at it like Parise, he's not at all an anchor when it comes to possession.

That said, it's not all sunshine and lollipops for Zajac.  His quality of competition is surprisingly below zero at -0.010, something that has been maintained in this half of the season because Jacques Lemaire has used the Elias line often against tough competition.   His quality of teammates is positive, but not terribly high at 0.035.   Moreover, he isn't a stand out on his own team: 8th out of 20 in Corsi Rel QoC, 9th out of 20 in Corsi QoC.  The same goes for Corsi with respect to his quality of teammates: 9th out of 20 in both Corsi Rel QoT and Corsi QoT.   Again, it's OK that he's positive across the board, but it's not anything to jump up and down about.

As for zone finishes go, Zajac fares well on his own team.  He's fifth at 52.3% and his teammates are close by (Kovalchuk at 53.8%, Palmieri at 51.4%).  Zajac, of course as noted earlier, starts a lot in the offensive zone.  His 56.1% zone start percentage is the fourth highest on the team, only behind his linemates (Kovalchuk - 56.4%, Palmieri - 57.1%) and Mattias Tedenby (57.3%). This shouldn't be a surprise, he's an offensive player in between a rookie (Palmieri) and an offensive weapon (Kovalchuk).  It's expected that he would have a high zone start percentage.  Still his on-ice Corsi rate would definitely take a hit when adjusted for these zone starts. 

Lastly, take a quick look at solely Zajac for this season in terms of on-ice & off-ice numbers at even strength.  When Zajac steps on the ice, the biggest change is the rate of goals at even strength.  It jumps from 1.66 goals for per 60 to 2.44.  That's definitely something you want to see for an offensive player who plays as much as him.   However, the team's rates don't have the same effect for goals against. The goals against per 60 rate only drops from 2.33 to 2.32 when he comes on the ice.  That's not bad, really, it's just not something great either. At least it didn't go up. The change in shooting rates does look much better. When Zajac's on the ice, the shots for per 60 goes up from 26.0 to 27.1 and the shots against per 60 go down from 24.0 to 23.2.  Not a massive change, but it's still a positive effect.

Conclusion

Since he doesn't have (a healthy) Zach Parise on his wing this season, that hurts several of his underlying numbers. However, he's done quite well playing largely with someone who isn't Zach Parise.  He's not a possession monster beating up on tough competition night after night this season; but when steps on the ice, good things tend to happen. At a minimum, he's proven this season that while his points may be noticeably down, he still brings something to the table.   He's established himself as a center who can play in all situations, who's excellent on faceoffs, who doesn't take a lot of penalties, and generally get the puck forward at evens.  And after Thursday's game, he can be called an ironman of sorts.    At the end of all this, I think it's fair to say that Zajac is having a fine season and he should continue to have several more in his career.  Hopefully, they'll be with New Jersey.

What do you think of Travis Zajac's performance this season?  Are you pleased with what he has done this season?   Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Zajac in the comments. Thanks for reading.

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