Travis Zajac missed nearly the entire regular season last year, returning just in time for a magical playoff run. The return of Travis Zajac to the lineup resulted in immensely elevated play by the New Jersey Devils, and it’s certainly no coincidence. Travis Zajac gives the Devils stability through the middle. He’s a dynamic offensive presence on the top line, and excels in faceoffs. Travis Zajac, in fact,might be more important than Zach Parise was to the New Jersey Devils.
I don’t think the New Jersey Devils are a Stanley Cup contender with the roster as it is currently constructed. Remember, New Jersey had a fully healthy Travis Zajac playing alongside Zach Parise during their Stanley Cup push. I do think New Jersey is a playoff team with Travis Zajac back in the lineup for the start of the 2012-13 season. With Travis Zajac back in the lineup, New Jersey won’t suffer this regular season.
Without Travis Zajac in the lineup, the New Jersey Devils were crushed on faceoffs. It seemed that without their top-line center the Devils failed on every crucial draw all year. The New Jersey Devils finished 29th in faceoff percentage in 2011-12. With Travis Zajac back in the circle, that number is sure to climb. Zajac winning more than half of his faceoffs will be a tremendous boost to the 2012-13 Devils, helping New Jersey to be a more successful possession team. Faceoffs, not scoring, was the Devils biggest weakness during the regular season campaign. Travis Zajac addresses that need in a way Zach Parise never could. As such, Parise is in fact more expendable than Zajac.
The New Jersey Devils will miss the leadership that Zach Parise provided on the ice. He was a spark all season. Zach Parise is an effort player with scoring skill, which is rare in the NHL. He attacks on the forecheck, plays the boards, pressures the puck, and makes a difference every shift. However, the Devils are ready to move on. They have leadership in place, including Ilya Kovalchuk, a collection of veterans, and relatively young players like Adam Henrique and Zajac that are ready to step up. Travis Zajac owns the record as New Jersey’s ironman for consecutive games played and the team responds to him. Ultimately, Zach Parise’s leadership is as replaceable as his 69 points. After all, Travis Zajac himself is just two seasons removed from a breakout 67-point year.
The Devils have depth. They have the ability to pull a 30-goal scorer from the third line and replace Zach Parise. After signing Bobby Butler, the Devils have a surplus of forwards with Mattias Tedenby and Peter Harrold battling for the final forward slot. If they elect to re-sign Petr Sykora, they have even more scoring depth available with his possible 40+ points in the mix. Personally, I don’t think the Devils particularly need Sykora because of the depth New Jersey already has. Any combination of Tedenby, Harrold, or Sykora will produce enough to successfully round out the roster. By adding a healthy Travis Zajac into the regular season lineup as a top-line centerman, the Devils should be just as competitive this season as they were all of last year. He produces, he wins faceoffs, and he plays both sides of the ice.
The New Jersey Devils are likely the fourth-best team in a loaded Atlantic Division, which should be good enough for another playoff season. Zach Parise is gone, and perhaps the magic of the playoffs run is gone with him, but with Travis Zajac the Devils have better depth and more consistent production than they did all regular season last year. They will certainly be better on faceoffs than they were all season, which cannot be undervalued. It’s a trade off that may suggest that Travis Zajac is actually more important than Zach Parise ever was to the New Jersey Devils. The Devils will be fine without Parise, and Travis Zajac is a huge part of successfully replacing last year’s captain.