Zajac's Time in the Spotlight: How a Healthy Zajac Can Help the Devils in 2012-2013

With the departure of Zach Parise this offseason, finding the silver lining on what has been a lackluster summer has been difficult for Devils fans. The loss of the captain has been a tough pill to swallow but there are still many pieces from the Eastern Conference Champion team returning. One of the major components is Travis Zajac. On the final year of his contract, Zajac is returning from an injury that kept him out for all but 15 regular season games and 24 playoff games in 2011-2012 and he still has a lot to prove as a young star in the NHL. One thing that is known about Zajac is his consistency as a player, and that can provide some solace for nervous fans heading into October.

With the loss of Parise, Ponikarovsky, and perhaps Sykora, Zajac's contributions will be more important now than ever. After the jump, I will discuss how Zajac has impacted the team in the past, along with his opportunity to take on a bigger role with the shoes Parise left to fill.

First let's take a look at Zajac's numbers since his first season as a Devil. He started his career with the team playing 80 games in 2006-2007 and didn't miss a game until this past season:

SEASON

GP

G

A

P

+/-

S

S%

2006-2007

80

17

25

42

1

134

12.7

2007-2008

82

14

20

34

-11

155

9

2008-2009

82

20

42

62

33

185

10.8

2009-2010

82

25

42

67

22

210

11.9

2010-2011

82

13

31

44

-6

173

7.5

2011-2012

15

2

4

6

-3

25

8

Per http://www.nhl.com

Because Zajac was limited to 15 games in the 2011-12 season, I'll be using his numbers from 2010-11 to analyze his impact on the team. In 2010-11 Zajac took 1,278 faceoffs and won 55.3% of them. In contrast, the Devil with the next most faceoffs was David Steckel at 820 split between two teams (the Devils and the Capitals). 56.6% of Zajac's shifts began in the offensive zone, making it his job to win the faceoff and set up a goal (as evidenced by his number of assists almost doubling his number of goals consistently). Coaches use him regularly in important game situations because of his dependability on the ice.

While his overall numbers may not be the strongest, Zajac often finds himself lining up against the best the opposition has to offer - and he succeeds. Since 2008 he has only had a negative corsi once during the regular season - this past year (-4.35) - but he reached the second highest corsi rating of his career during the 2011-12 playoffs (14.22). Along with the tough competition Zajac is used in a variety of on ice situations, playing significant amount of time both at even strength and on special teams. In 2010-11, he averaged 19:46 total TOI, with a little over 4 minutes of that time coming on special teams (2:05 short handed, and 2:34 with the man advantage).

Speaking of the power play and penalty kill, in the 2010-11 season, Zajac took 24 penalty minutes, or 0.3 penalties per game. While it's not worthy of the Lady Byng trophy, 24 minutes over an 82 game season doesn't keep him off the ice for long. In addition, Zajac was able to draw 32 minutes of power play time, or 0.4 penalties per game, for the Devils. Throughout the season, he drew 4 more penalties than he took, leaving the Devils with an extra 8 minutes on the man advantage due to his play alone.

Beyond Zajac's numbers are assets that cannot be calculated. Before he was injured during the summer of 2011, Zajac broke the Devils "Iron Man" record for most consecutive games played originally set by Ken Daneyko. Now that he is fully recovered, he can start the season with the rest of the team, which will help his numbers improve - especially if he gets the opportunity to play with Kovalchuk on a regular basis. E.J. Hradek of NHL.com believes this could be the year Kovalchuk becomes the first Devil to reach the 50-goal mark with Zajac being his set-up man.

"I can't imagine working alongside Zajac (who missed most of last season due to injury) on a more regular basis would hurt. The lanky pivot is a clever playmaker that also can finish around the net."

During the 2010-11 season, Zajac played along side Kovalchuk while Parise was injured and they had good chemistry, especially after the coaching change. If the two of them work together on a more consistent basis, it will give both opportunity to excel.

Along with his health and potential line mates, Zajac will have the opportunity to take on a much bigger leadership role with the team. While he may not wear the "C" on his jersey, Zajac can step up and take charge in the locker room earning even more respect from his teammates and coaches.

Are you looking forward to a full season with Zajac as the Devils’ top centerman? What new leadership roles do you expect him to take on? How do you think he will react to playing without Parise? Do you think it’s important for the Devils to sign him long term?

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