New Jersey Devils: Travis Zajac’s turnaround


There are few Devils more enigmatic and polarizing than Travis Zajac. He has experienced highs and lows greater than a penny stock would. He has been labeled a top-20 center and a top-10 overpaid player. He has been looked to as the Devils’ top-line center for more than eight years and he has taken on the reputation of a third-line talent most recently.

Early in his career, the 2004 first round pick looked like a top-notch prospect. After centering the famous ZZ Pops line of the mid-2000s (where he lined up with Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner), Zajac was ready to break out of his shell even more and become the Devils’ first bona fide first-line center (really in franchise history). Zajac continued to play well with Parise and also started playing comfortably with Ilya Kovalchuk before missing the majority of the 2011-2012 season due to an ankle injury. Yes, Parise’s departure in July 2012 stung, but most held that this team belonged to Kovalchuk and Zajac was going to be a co-pilot.

Things didn’t work out that way. Kovalchuk, as we all know, would retire from the NHL at the end of the 2013 season. Zajac was now the marquee forward on a team that struggled to score. In 2013-14, Zajac had a breakout year of sorts, largely due to Jaromir Jagr and his fountain of youth. After a disappointing 2014-15 campaign in which most fans called for the Canadian’s head, Zajac seemed to be a shell of his former self, some believed that Zajac was not recovered from his previous injury (a torn Achilles tendon suffered in 2011). Others felt that he was never a good player, merely a product of superb linemates.

Whatever the case may be, Zajac has shown in this young 2015-16 season that his previous failure was nothing more than an aberration.

That is where we are left today. Zajac has appeared in six of the Devils’ seven games this season and has two goals and two assists. The surface extrapolate well (a 55 point season), but that is not what I am looking to show you today. I am going to take a deeper look at #19’s success this season and explain why there is plenty of good hockey left in him.


If you are a hardcore hockey fan (or a statistics nerd – I’m guilty of both) then you probably have seen the term Corsi thrown around. Briefly, Corsi for is a measurement of all shooting attempts (number of shots on goal, shots that go wide, blocked shots for which the player is on the ice) and is usually expressed in Corsi % (percentage of Corsi events for your team). It is a good measurement of on-ice action and how play tends to change when a certain player is on the ice.

For Zajac, Corsi has been a great strength. His solid two-way play and passing ability have given him an above 50% Corsi in most seasons. Keep in mind that Zajac has been a positive possession player against the opposition’s top lines even while starting the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone. Last year, in fact, was the first full season that Zajac played first line minutes in which he was not driving play but was instead being driven by it (CF% of 47.1).

This year, he is back to his normal self. Those types of statistics are the calling card metrics for a player like Zajac. The guy doesn’t shoot the puck and his assist numbers are good but unspectacular. He is great in the defensive zone even if his +/- (the most flawed statistic for skaters) shows otherwise.

For Zajac, driving play against opposing stars like Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Eric Staal is an impressive feat on  its own.

If Zajac can continue to drive play while his linemates pot some goals, then he may be in line for a solid bounceback season.


One mark of a center that often gets overlooked is faceoff ability. Faceoff wins can change the entire momentum of a play. While the metrics on these are generally not very in-depth (since faceoffs tend to be independent of the in-game situation), the superficial statistics favor the pivot.

His marks (54% career) are right in line with some of the league’s renowned two-way superstars: Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews and even not that far off from Patrice Bergeron. It isn’t easy to postulate why Zajac struggled in the faceoff circle last season (53% while having very little success in the offensive and defensive zones) but there tends to be a lot of variance in these numbers from season to season.

What is promising at this point is that his faceoff win percentage is far closer to its recent levels. That will go a long way especially if he continues to take more offensive zone faceoffs (currently winning 71% of those draws).

Zajac and Cammalleri: not the dynamic duo that most expected. Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports


In this section I am giving myself the opportunity to talk about what I’ve seen from #19 this year. I’ve been impressed. He looks more comfortable with Kyle Palmieri than he ever did with Mike Cammalleri and I think the two are benefitting from lining up together. They are both hard-nosed players in the offensive zone who look to win the board battles. That developing chemistry will prove essential later in the season when the team inevitably runs cold and looks for someone to contribute some offense.

In addition, I think that Zajac is making the right moves on offense. He is not passing up on shooting when the chances are good and that has helped his goal scoring numbers.

More from Pucks and Pitchforks

On defense, I have seen Zajac play with a more free-moving stick. His poke checking has been solid this year and reminds me of Dainius Zubrus’ puck-freeing abilities. He is still trusted on the penalty kill and is manning what is generally a top unit.

Overall I don’t think that any part of Zajac’s success has been fluky. His skills look improved. He just had his first three-point game in a season+ against Arizona. He looks to have turned a corner offensively even with sub-stellar linemates. 


Finally, I am going to talk about some his offensive play and how the statistics prove that this success is trending upwards in the long-run. First, Zajac receives a lot of flak because of his refusal to shoot the puck. Many a goal-scoring opportunity has been squandered by Zajac’s decision to make that last pass or to hold the puck too long.

This year, Zajac is surrounded by scorers and he is well aware of that. Still, he averages 1.83 shots per game, which is his second highest rate in the past five seasons. Similarly, his on-ice shooting percentage (for himself and his linemates) is 9.5%. While this is an abnormally high number for Zajac, it may be due to him creating better chances with his linemates.

One caveat of Zajac’s statistics and one reason why it can be dangerous to look at a player’s success in such small sample sizes is that his shooting percentage sits at a sky-high 18.2%. That figure is by far Zajac’s greatest success in his career and is unlikely to stick. But really all this means is that Zajac will not be a 30-goal scorer if he cannot keep this rate up, which I am sure most of us knew.

In sum, I am very impressed with Zajac this season. He looks rejuvenated and comfortable after having a very rough 2014-15 campaign. His offensive ability looks to have returned to its previous level. His possession statistics are truly a sight and he is putting his dangerous Achilles injury behind him. What do you think of Zajac so far? Impressed? Still skeptical? Leave me a comment with what you think. Thanks for reading!

Next: Are the Devils' scoring woes a thing of the past?