Two seasons ago, New Jersey Devils center Travis Zajac was sidelined by injury for more than half the schedule, but the team persevered and went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Los Angeles Kings in six games.
A healthy Zajac returned to the lineup and appeared in all 48 games last season, but produced seven goals and 20 points, not the output one would expect from a player about to begin the first season of an eight-year, $46 million contract.
In order for the Devils to have success in 2013-14, they'll need Zajac to rediscover his offensive game.
It got to a point last season that coach Peter DeBoer had no choice but to move Zajac to a third-line role in an effort to relieve some pressure and, perhaps, jump-start the offense. When the Devils opened the season 8-1-3 and Zajac stumbled out the gate with two goals and one assist during that stretch, it was much easier to accept because the team was winning.
Then the Devils began to struggle, and Zajac, who arguably is the organization's top center, couldn't seem to shift into that next gear. It wasn't too much of a surprise that Zajac's offensive woes were magnified following the departure of Zach Parise via free agency to the Minnesota Wild in the summer of 2012. But that's ancient history now, and it's time the 2004 first-round pick (No. 20) begins to shoulder more of the offensive burden as a respected 28-year-old top-line center in the League.
With Ilya Kovalchuk gone now, too, the Devils really need Zajac to regain his form from 2008-09 and 2009-10, when he had at least 20 goals and 60 points in each season.
One area DeBoer needn't concern himself with is Zajac's ability on faceoffs. He has ranked among the top two players on the team in faceoff winning percentage in five of the past six seasons; the only time he didn't was his injury-plagued 2011-12.
Zajac led the team with a 57.4 percent faceoff percentage last season, winning 506 of 881 draws.
Don't be surprised if DeBoer has Zajac centering Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder to open the season in an attempt to give him a fresh start and, at the same time, begin forming some chemistry with two of the newest Devils.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter: @mikemorrealeNHL
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