The New Jersey Devils signed Travis Zajac to a big contract extension just prior to this lockout shortened season. Devils fans, for the most part, rejoiced at the signing, fresh off the bitterness of Zach Parise's departure last summer. Many people, myself included, looked at the Devils roster and the upcoming wave of unrestricted free agency, which included Zajac, Patrik Elias, Dainius Zubrus,
Cam Janssen, and David Clarkson, and worried about exactly what this team was going to look like after this summer. Zajac took some of that and uncertainty away signed up long-term to be a integral part of this team's core for the better part of the next decade. Supporters of the Devils were just excited that a forward not named Ilya Kovalchuk was signed with the team past next season.
So how has Zajac looked in this truncated season to this point? Well, a cursory look at his basic stats don't paint the most encouraging picture (stats do not include last night's NYI game):
|2012-13 - Travis Zajac||35||5||8||13||-3||12||1||0||1||59||8.5|
Through 35 games, Zajac has only mustered five goals and eight assists for 13 points. Spread out over an entire 82-game season, that is roughly a 30-point pace. For a player who is set to earn $5.75-million over the next eight seasons, that level of production is certainly cause for concern. No one is expecting Travis Zajac to be a point-per-game player, but the Devils and their faithful will definitely want more production out of him going forward. It's no secret that this team has had a rough time finding the back of the net this year, and number 19 has been unfortunately been part of the problem.
Bad Luck for TZ?
Often times, when a player is having trouble scoring, one can point to a run of poor luck to explain a dip in production. In Zajac's case this season, bad luck appears to be playing some part in his troubles, though it doesn't necessarily explain all of them. As far as his shooting percentage, it's below his career average, but not by an extremely wide margin. Zajac has shot 8.5% this year, which is a bit below his career average of 10.2%, but certainly not floor-shattering. Adjusting his shooting percentage to 10.2% would only bump him up to six goals on the season, still leaving him around his career-low scoring pace.
Where bad luck may actually be having a significant negative effect for Zajac is in his assist numbers. According to Behind the Net, the team's shooting percentage when TZ is on the ice has been putrid. The team is shooting 5.7% at evens while Zajac is on the ice this year. League-wide shooting percentage hovers somewhere in the 9% range these days (even strength is closer to 8%). Presumably, if the rest of his teammates could buy a goal while he's been on the ice, his numbers would likely look a little better right now in the assists column.
You Remember the Net, Right Travis? It's that Rectangle the Goalie Typically Stands in Front of.
To score consistently in the NHL, the key is to put pucks on net with some regularity. Zajac's shot production this year has slipped significantly. Removing last season's injury-marred campaign, Zajac is on pace for his lowest shot output (138, prorated to 82 games) since his rookie season. Simply put, Zajac is never going to be able to approach his career high seasons again unless he starts getting more rubber on the net. His time on ice is as high as ever with about 20 minutes per game, second most for a Devils forward, so limited ice time isn't the issue. It's not even that he is just Rolstoning all of his shots and missing the net (though he could still stand to improve there), he just isn't sending the puck in that direction enough, ranking in the 300s among forwards in the NHL in attempts/60, as John pointed out in his post on 5-v-5 shooting accuracy.
What About Possession?
It's a well-known fact that Travis Zajac's value goes beyond just what is on the NHL.com stats sheet. He's a two-way forward and playing good defense and driving play forward has always been a staple of his game. So how does he look this year? Well, he's been pretty good thus far, posting an on-ice Corsi of over +10 and CorsiRel good for 5th on the team (20+ GP). The only issue is that Zajac apparently hasn't been seeing the same level of competition as he has in the past. Of players who have been in 20 games for the Devils, Zajac's CorsiRelQoC ranks 12th on the team and 8th amongst forwards. He's also seeing a little over 50% O-zone starts. Based on the info we have, Zajac is driving play forward, but he's not doing it against the toughest competition right now like he has done in the past.
It's pretty much been a year to forget at this point for Travis (aside from the whole signing a $46-million contract thing). As far as raw production goes, he's had a bit of a rough time, being on pace for a career-low (prorated) points total. He isn't firing enough pucks at the net thus far and he's also failing to hit the net too often when he does send them in that direction. He's also doing this against softer competition, possession-wise, than he's seen in the past. Zajac is a crucial part of this team right now and for the foreseeable future. The Devils are thin at forward as it stands already and Zajac's swoon this season certainly hasn't helped matters. This team is counting on him to produce and drive play against top competition, so bottom line is he has to be better.
There are some mitigating factors to the down year Zajac has been having. As was pointed out, shooting percentages, particularly by his teammates while he's been on the ice have been down, so if those return to normal, that would help out a bit. Zajac's Corsi numbers also show that play is moving forward with some regularity while he's on the ice, even if it hasn't necessarily been against the top possession forwards of other teams. Zajac also has the most PK time/60 of any forward on the team (20+ GP) and the second lowest GA/60 for those minutes (important note: also has the second highest on-ice SV% there). So, he is still contributing meaningful minutes to this team. Additionally, he's been bounced between lines a bit, having a plethora of different players on his wings this season. Maybe not a huge factor, but it's probably a little harder to find a grove when different skaters are flanking you all the time.
It's also important to note that with this shortened season, everyone is dealing in small sample sizes. No, Zajac's numbers haven't been great but if he gets hot the last three weeks of the season, his totals could paint a completely different picture than they do right now. This caveat is important to keep in mind evaluating any player in a truncated season such as this one.
Zajac is going to be around for a while, and I think most of us are still pretty happy about that fact, but this year's production does at least raise a little concern. If it were purely percentages, it would be a bit easier to dismiss, but his drop in shots and lack of attempts in general are somewhat troubling. Still, I think Zajac will be an effective forward for the Devils heading into the future. I personally don't think we will see the boon that was the two-year stretch with Parise from 08-10 again, as Zajac rode higher shot totals as well as good shooting percentages in those seasons, but. I think somewhere in the 50 to 55-point range is a reasonable expectation. And if he can go back to controlling possession against top competition as he did prior to last season's injury shortened campaign and as I expect he will, then that is plenty. We're signed up with Zajac for eight years either way, so I hope I'm right.
New Writer Alert: I just wanted to briefly introduce myself here. Many of you have known me as nyynygnjd over the years here, but as you can see, I will be going by my infinitely-more-comprehensible real name, Mike Stromberg, from now on. Thanks to John for the opportunity to write about our beloved Devils, hopefully I don't screw it up too bad. Here's hoping we'll see some winning hockey return to this site some time soon. Go Devils.