After a 15-year NHL career and 1,037 regular-season games (1,024 of which came in a red and black uniform), Travis Zajac is calling it a career. He signed a one-day contract with the New Jersey Devils on Sept. 20 to retire with the team he spent most of his career with.
Drafted back in 2004, Zajac is the last link to the most successful era in franchise history. Although he was drafted in 2004 (20th overall) following the Devils’ third Stanley Cup championship in 2003 and never got his name on one himself, he grew up in New Jersey learning from legends when he began his NHL career in 2006 and passed that knowledge on as his career evolved.
Zajac was just a fresh-faced NHL newbie as a part of the ZZ-Pops line (Zach Parise, and Jamie Langenbrunner) early in his career. Ironically, his last games as Devil before a trade to the New York Islanders were centering fresh-faced pups Janne Kuokkanen and Yegor Sharangovich. The student had become the master. Those weren’t the only players he mentored though. Blake Coleman and Miles Wood are on that list, as well as Nico Hischier, Adam Henrique, David Clarkson, Kevin Rooney, and probably every young player that came through the Devils system during his tenure.
Cool as Ice
For years upon years, Zajac was the Devils’ no. 1 shutdown center. How many nights did he go toe-to-toe with other top-flight centers in the Eastern Conference over the past 15 years? Sidney Crosby. Nicklas Backstrom. Patrice Bergeron. Claude Giroux. Brad Richards or whatever center the Rangers had from year to year (there are so, so many, that it’s hard to keep track). How many of those nights did those players have quiet nights while some relatively unknown player had a great night against someone else on the roster?
At one point Zajac played 401 consecutive games (2006-2011) and is only the fourth player in franchise history to play at least 1,000 games with them. Zajac finished his Devils career with 550 points (202g-348a) and he had his best chance to win the Cup in 2012 when New Jersey lost the Cup Final to Los Angeles in six games. How many more chances would he have had if he wasn’t playing in a division/conference with Pittsburgh, Washington, Boston in the mix every season?
The start of that Cup Final run saw Zajac score perhaps the biggest goal of his career, a double-overtime winner at Prudential Center to stave off elimination against the Florida Panthers in a Game 6. We’ll never forget his version of the running man around the back of the net once the puck crossed the goal line. Funny how things work out, April 2012 was when I started the previous stop in my career and my first article was how Zajac was going to be an X-Factor in the series, as he was coming off an Achilles injury that cost him all but 15 regular-season games.
Retire 19 For Zajac?
Some Devils fans, naturally, were asking if the team should retire his no. 19, and honestly, I don’t believe they should. John MacLean’s no. 15 isn’t up there. Neither are Sergei Brylin’s no. 18 or John Madden’s no. 11. While I appreciated a lot of Zajac’s career a lot more than most (you know who you are), I don’t think his tenure in red and black was superior to any of those three. But I think he definitely deserves some type of recognition – other than the planned ceremony to honor his 1000th NHL game against the team from his hometown, the Winnipeg Jets, on March 10th.
Now if we’re talking Ring of Honor (remember that thing?!?) then I’m all in with honoring Zajac that way, as well as MacLean, Madden, Brylin, Brian Rafalski, Lou Lamoriello, Pat Burns, Jacques Lemaire, Larry Robinson, etc.
What’s Next For Zajac?
Now here I sit, writing my first article for a new employer about that same player. What I’ll remember most about him was watching him grow up over the years. I was there in 2006 when he debuted with the Devils, watched him and Parise wreak havoc for a few seasons as best friends and linemates. I watched him center baby-faced teammates (Sharangovich), young (Ilya Kovalchuk), old (Mike Cammalleri), and really old (Jaromir Jagr). I watched him become the last link to New Jersey’s old rink in East Rutherford, and the last link to their Cup run in 2012.
Zajac could have accepted a trade out of New Jersey at any time or asked for one during the long rebuild. He politely declined every time, until this past trade deadline. He knew the end was likely near and Long Island is close enough to home, which is now New Jersey. It was one more shot at that elusive Cup alongside a few familiar faces from the Devils. Things didn’t work out for the Isles, but Zajac left it all out on the ice every time he played. He was a player that no matter the score, no matter the position in the standings, Zajac played the same way. Maybe it didn’t look like he was the hardest working guy, or the strongest, or the most skilled.
He was a face-off ace, a constant in the lineup, a true, consummate professional – as many have said over the past 12 hours. His family has grown up here now too, all three kids born and raised in Jersey. Zajac will still be around, joining the Devils front office “in an on/off-ice player development and consulting role, while also working to grow the club’s youth hockey initiatives.” So we can expect to see him still rockin’ the polo alongside Grant Marshall, Bruce Driver, etc.
He ended his retirement letter perfectly: “Born in Winnipeg, Made in Jersey.” It’s not often that we see players stay with one franchise for 15 years in sports anymore, so cherish this one Devils faithful. He was a good one, and you should be proud. Thanks to Travis for always being thoughtful with his answers to my questions over the years. Some players make doing interviews seem like pulling teeth, but no. 19 was always polite and personable. The consummate pro.