The New Jersey Devils made history as soon as the lockout ended when they re-signed center Travis Zajac. It was the first contract under the new collective bargaining agreement. He signed an eight-year deal for a total of $46 million.
The deal made sense at the time. The Devils were coming off a Stanley Cup Finals run for the ages. Despite being the underdog against the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, they beat both rivals on the way to an extremely competitive final against the Los Angeles Kings. They just lost their captain and best player Zach Parise in the previous offseason, and were not looking to have that happen again (despite it happening again when Ilya Kovalchuk up and retired).
The issue is: Zajac hasn’t been very good.
When he signed, he had 75 point upside. General Manager Lou Lamoriello thought he would get better with time. Instead, he gets worse every year. It culminated last year when he was outplayed by Scott Gomez, who was with the team after a successful camp tryout. He only scored 25 points playing as the No. 1 center for the majority of the season. For a team that is desperate for offense, those numbers are unacceptable.
It seems like Zajac is playing timid. He only took 112 shots on the season. He is looking for the pass, which you could understand when Mike Cammalleri was on fire, but there were times he needed to shoot instead of pass. The center needs to know which situation is which.
If Zajac hit his ceiling, that means the only place to go is down from here. He is 30 years old and should have plenty of years left, but his play on the ice hasn’t been up to snuff, especially when the best offensive player has been regulated to second-line center. Adam Henrique should be learning from Zajac, but he is surpassing him.
The Devils don’t have many options with Zajac. He isn’t marketable right now. He makes too much money with too many years left to be an asset on the trade block. The Devils need to find a way to get him to be a No. 1 center again. It has been three long years since Zajac scored 14 points in the Devils postseason run. He showed promise at different times, but he needs to hone his talent once again. There is room for him to be better, but he needs to be fixed fast.