When a player signs a big contract, the level of expectations for the player rises. They have to justify the significant sum of money that they get. It's usually not enough to keep doing what they've been doing. We want to see more from the player. More goals. More assists. More points. More minutes. More something. More everything. More. A lot of bad deals have been given out in the league for very good yet unsustainable seasons as well as overpaying players in response to other moves to keep them around while convincing them that they are elite. Deals like that will likely continue. The New Jersey Devils have definitely had a few of those and arguably have a few of them on the roster right now. Today, I want to focus on one player that may fall into that category: Travis Zajac.
Zajac signed a big contract extension worth $46 million over eight years before last season. At the time, I thought it was a good deal. Zajac was an all-situations center and generally did well. The only caveat was his production but if he was the prolific scorer some think a #1 center truly has to be, then he'd be one of the best centers in the entire league.
Even so, I did state that he'd have to continue to be a tough-minutes center that comes out ahead in possession while putting up 50-60 points. But with the big raise and long-term deal, I can understand why fans would want more from him. He had a down year in 2013 like most of the team. So far in 2013-14, he has yet to stand out, especially from an offensive point of view. Zajac has one goal and three assists. The one goal came in a 5-on-3 situation and his three assists are primary assists. His four points currently places him in a tie with Adam Henrique for seventh on the team in scoring. For someone firmly placed in the top six, that's not a very good start. For a team that has only has two wins due in part of their lack of goal scoring, that's not helpful. I can understand why fans may be frustrated with his season so far.
However, a little more digging into his numbers shows that Zajac hasn't been skating about like he's got a lot of money in his pants. For starters, Zajac has 21 shots on net, or just under two per game. He's only cracked the two-shots-per-game rate three times in his career: 2008-09, 2009-10, and 2010-11. He topped twenty goals and sixtypoints in the first two seasons and the third came in a season where almost no one on the team shot well, though he put up thirteen goals and 44 points. While Zajac has never been a very productive player, the fact that he's shooting at a decent rate bodes well for him providing significant scoring over a season.
The metrics recorded at Extra Skater reveal much more goodness for Zajac's play this season at 5-on-5. Zajac is ranked third on the team with a Corsi percentage of 58.1%. For the uninitiated, that's the ratio of shooting attempts by the Devils when he's on the ice against shooting attempts by the opponent when he's on the ice. This is usually a way to identify how possession goes when the player is on the ice; higher is clearly better. In Zajac's case, the Devils are usually attacking more often in 5-on-5 play when Zajac's out there than defending. For a guy who hasn't put up a lot of points, this is a reason to think the points will eventually come. It's really hard to keep out-attempting your opponents and not end up with points for long stretches of time. The only players ahead of him on the Devils are Eric Gelinas, who played all of two games with protected minutes, and Patrik Elias, who is amazing.
It gets better for Zajac at Extra Skater. His relative Corsi percentage, or the differenence in Corsi percentage when the Zajac's on the ice minus when he's not on the ice, is positive at 6.6%. In other words, the Devils' are attempting more shots with him on the ice than he's not in 5-on-5 play. His relative percentage is the fourth highest on the team, bested only by Gelinas, Jacob Josefson (only two games played, more limited minutes), and Elias. This is further evidence that Zajac being out there has been good for the Devils in the run of play so far this season.
What really makes both stats impressive is the fact that Zajac doesn't have it easy out there. In addition to playing over eighteen minutes per game with regular shifts on the power play and penalty kill, Zajac doesn't often start out in an advantageous position. According to Extra Skater, Zajac is more likely to take neutral zone and defensive zone faceoffs than offensive zone starts. His ratio of offensive to defensive zone starts is only 44.6%, the fourth lowest on the team. His unit has usually had to get a zone exit and/or a zone entry to generate shooting attempts; that's a lot of work for a pivot to handle night-in, night-out. The work would presumably be harder when the wingers aren't always good possession players, much less consistent teammates of Zajac. According to Hockey Analysis, only four forwards have played more than twenty minutes with him in 5-on-5 situations: Michael Ryder (doesn't drive possession), Adam Henrique (who's been on separate lines as of late), Damien Brunner (like Ryder, up-and-down this season), and Mattias Tedenby (who's done little at this level). So while his linemates aren't set, they're not necessarily good for possession, and he's usually starting outside of the offensive zone, the Devils still come out ahead in terms of shooting attempts when #19 is on the ice at even strength. Zajac's has to be doing something right out there.
It doesn't seem that way and I think a good part of that is out of Zajac's hands. Zajac's shooting at 4.8% right now. That's hideously low. The lowest shooting percentage he's ever finished a season at was 7.5% back in 2010-11, so I doubt he's going to undercut that low point unless he's really unfortunate. On top of that, the team has shot at 5.6% when he's been on the ice at 5-on-5 while the goalies have collectively put up a save percentage of 87.3% according to Extra Skater. While Zajac is a two-way player with a big deal, he can't just make everyone shoot so much better nor make the goalies stop more pucks. Zajac's luck could be better. If it was, not only would he have more goals but the Devils would look better while he's out there driving the play in 5-on-5.
But aside from that, I'd say the only real concern with Zajac this season is his production. He is the one thing I said he wasn't going to be way back when his extension was announced: he's not a top scorer. But the underlying numbers suggest that he's not going to be lacking in that department for long. The team generates shooting attempts when he's out there and he's a big part of that at evens. More attempts mean more opportunities for shots, which could lead to goals and assists for Zajac. He continues to play significant minutes on the power play and should that get to be more consistently effective, he'll benefit there. He's not likely going to keep shooting below 5% nor will the team keep shooting below 6% when he's out there.
I do think there are steps that could be taken to help out instead of just being patient, though. Two come to my mind. First, I think Zajac could stand to get closer to the net for his shots. Extra Skater's player page for Zajac lists many stats for this and last season. Under Shooting, Zajac shot at 8.5% with an average shot distance of 19.1 feet last season. This season, he's shooting at 4.8% with an average shot distance of 30.3 feet. While this alone isn't why Zajac has only one goal in eleven games - Henrique's got three with the same average shot distance - it's something that could be adjusted. I like that he's shooting more. He could look to take an extra stride towards the net and perhaps there he'll see opportunities open up for plays and shots on target.
Second, Peter DeBoer should start figuring out who he should play with regularly and have them work together more often. He's done this with Jaromir Jagr and Elias, which has played a role as to why Jagr's been so important early this season. This is a bit tricky since quite a few other forwards on the Devils haven't been playing with a lot of consistency. Ryder, Brunner, Dainius Zubrus, and Rostislav Olesz, to name a few, haven't exactly established themselves just yet. Ideally, I'd like the idea of Brunner just firing away on the right side alongside Zajac with Olesz on the left side. However, it's not clear whether that would work on ice. DeBoer initially had Ryder with Zajac quite a bit to start this season but in the hopes of getting others going, this has been understandably changed. While Zajac may still get more neutral and defensive zone starts, having a more consistent group of forwards to work with could only help him make more plays going forward, which could lead to production.
But even with those steps, we just have to wait for the games for Zajac to show up on the scoresheet. I think it'll happen more and more as long as he continues to keep doing what he's doing at evens. Unfortunately, I can't tell you when it will or when it should. That's not in his hands. And so I understand the unhappiness given his big contract extension and the fact that the Devils really could use more goals to win games. If we're honest with ourselves, a lack of production from the forwards is a bigger deal than who is the #6 defenseman. But my main point remains: Zajac is playing like he has been over the last few seasons. If, or more appropriately when, the points start being awarded to #19, the praise will appear for him similar to what I wrote about Jagr a few days back all of a sudden. Just know that you knew it didn't just come from nowhere and that Zajac hasn't been useless despite only one goal four points in eleven games. The production has yet to come, but the metrics suggest that it will.
How do you regard Zajac's season so far? What do you think he needs to do for us to say that he's having a good season? Were you surprised to see that he's been driving play rather well so far this season? What do you think Zajac or the team can do to spark his production, if anything? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Zajac in the comments. Thank you for reading.