When Travis Zajac signed his 8-year contract extension just before the shortened 2013 season, the contract was met with some mixed reviews. Some were relieved that the Devils were actually locking down at least one solid player before they got to free agency, but others were struggling with the type of term and money given to a player who is by no means a top scorer in the NHL.
The concerns were only bolstered by Zajac's down year in 2013. Fresh off an injury-plagued season, plus the departure of Zach Parise, Zajac struggled to produce, putting up only 20 points in the shortened 48-game campaign. I wrote about some of his struggles late last season citing a combination of bad luck and dipping shot output. Heading into the new season, there were certainly doubts regarding Zajac's value and whether he could live up to his contract. A rough October only served to make the criticisms louder, with some subsets of the fanbase even suggesting cutting bait on Zajac altogether. Since returning from a short injury stint in November, those complaints have certainly died down though, as Zajac has been producing well in addition to being a dominant possession force against top competition.
So what changed? Well, his linemates are probably the number one culprit of his early season production woes. In his first 14 contests, the list of players who served as his main linemates in a game included Michael Ryder, Steve Bernier, Damien Brunner, Mattias Tedenby, Ryane Clowe, Dainius Zubrus, Adam Henrique, and Rostislav Olesz. And despite spending his time with that mostly haggard bunch, he was still putting up an on-ice Corsi% of around 60, early on. Basically, he was dragging a bunch of inferior linemates forward but getting nothing to show for it. A combination of bad luck, bad shooting by him, and lack of ability on his wings probably played into it, but by the end of October, Zajac had a grand total of one (yes, one) even-strength point for his troubles.
The turning point for Zajac's production, like most good things for the Devils this season, can be traced back to Jaromir Jagr. Zajac's linemate carousel finally stopped once the Zajac-Zubrus-Jagr line was assembled in a 5-0 bludgeoning the Devils gave to Nashville on November 10th. The move certainly helped Jagr, but it was a season-saver for Travis Zajac. Ever since he and Jaromir Jagr were put together on a line in mid-November, they have been pretty consistently blowing the doors off of their competition at evens, and Zajac has started to re-find his scoring touch again.
Prior to the Zajac-Jagr combination, Travis was running at a paltry 23.4 points-per-82-games pace (albeit in a small sample). Zajac was helping move play forward, but he just wasn't getting rewarded on the scoreboard. Since the line was assembled, he has been putting up 51.3 points/82 instead (Jagr saw his pace rise from 56.4 points/82 to 71.8). Perhaps most importantly, Zajac has seen his even-strength point production go from basically non-existent to second on the team behind Jagr, with 23. The duo's 5v5 Corsi when they are on the ice together is a dominant 59.5% in 760 minutes.
Zajac has come on particularly strong since the new year, putting up 21 points in 31 games. He has found a little bit of his shooting touch, and he and Jagr continue to dominate in shot attempts, regardless of who ends up on their left wing. Zajac sits at second in Corsi % behind Jagr among regulars and sees the toughest competition of any player on the team. Post-Olympics, he has been especially good, tallying 10 points in 13 games and averaging 2.2 shots per contest. Him getting himself right on the scoresheet has helped the Devils hang around in the playoff race for sure. He has also shown some patience and precision that you don't always see from him on some of his goals. Case in point:
Most people realize that Zajac likely never returns to his top-output seasons he had with Parise (nor will Parise, for what it's worth), but the way he has played overall this season has me feeling good about him being a part of this team long term. When the Devils find him a winger that he meshes well with, it's like the opposite team isn't even allowed to touch the puck at times. Being with Jagr certainly helps, but I think most people would agree that his play has been very solid, especially over the last few months. I think if he is able to keep up the 55-point pace he has had since the start of 2014, he is a great value at the cap hit he's getting going forward.
So how do you feel about Zajac's season at this point? Is he doing enough to justify his contract at this point? Is there a point total in your head that he has to achieve to be worth it? Are you concerned about his production away from Jagr? Comment with your thoughts below and thanks for reading.