When he first entered the League in 2006-07, Travis Zajac was regarded as the quintessential support player.
This season, the 23-year-old center has evolved into an essential ingredient to the success of the Atlantic Division champion New Jersey Devils and their top offensive unit -- Zajac, Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner.
Sure, Zajac already established career highs in goals, assists and points this season, but his value goes much deeper. For instance, linemate Zach Parise knows first-hand how Zajac has gone about his business.
"One reason our line has done so well this year is because Travis has played in our zone," Parise told NHL.com. "We don't spend a lot of time in our end and he's done a really good job defensively in stealing pucks and getting us started on the rush. That's why we have the puck a lot when we're out there."
The ZZ-Pop Line, as Devil fans have dubbed the unit, has become one of the most productive in the NHL this season. Together, they've combined for 94 goals, 225 points, 245 hits and 116 steals. Zajac leads the Devils with 48 takeaways and is second behind Bobby Holik with a 53.1-percent face-off winning efficiency on a team-leading 1,287 draws.
Zajac acknowledges having the confidence in his ability has played a key role in his evolution this season.
"Last year didn't end up the way we wanted it to and I think we learned a lot about having the right attitude and carrying the right attitude into games this season," Zajac said. "I wanted to be more consistent, which was something I wasn't last season. That said, I'm able to do different things with the puck and, as a result, we're able to make plays that maybe we wouldn't have made last year. We all have each other's back and that's a good thing."
Devils coach Brent Sutter isn't surprised that the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Zajac, who boasts 14 multiple-point games this season, has emerged as a legitimate threat on the team's top unit.
"Sometimes we get so caught up with young players that we expect certain things to happen right off the bat," Sutter said. "Everybody develops at different stages and so long as they have the intangible things to make them good players, they'll eventually succeed. For me, it's not a surprise to see him playing like he is. He's always been a very talented, skilled player, and as he matures he'll improve even more."
Zajac struck for 14 goals and 34 points in 82 games last season, but also finished the year with a minus-11 rating. This season, he's posted 20 goals and 62 points with a career-best plus-33 rating in 82 games.
"The best way to put this is that Travis has taken the necessary steps needed to be a good pro," Sutter said. "In his first year, he came in here and everything worked for him, everything went well. Last year, he had a tougher time with it. It was just a matter of becoming mentally and physically stronger; but we knew that would come as he matured.
"He had a great summer of training, which he started a week after the season was over and he showed disciplin with how he trained and what he did. He came back with a whole different perspective toward the game and what type of player he needed to be from the first day of camp. That dedication is paying off now."
Zajac admits playing alongside very talented linemates has accelerated his progression as a professional.
"I think, as a line, we're full of confidence and that leads to scoring goals and creating chances," he said. "Anytime you have the puck and are playing with confidence, you're able to make smart plays and better plays."
It also helps that all there players seemed to be on the same page from the get-go.
"Our line likes to cycle and control the puck; it's always a three-man thing," Parise said. "It's very rare to see one guy going end to end. It seems like each of us touch the puck at least one time before it finally enters the cage."
And, that bond has to do with more than just shared hockey skill. Zajac still considers Parise his big brother. Both players attended the University of North Dakota, although Zajac reported to campus the year after Parise left school to turn pro.
"I looked up to Zach when I first came to New Jersey and he sort of helped me out a lot through my first year," Zajac said. "Being able to watch him on the ice and learn from him really helped me out and, along with the older guys who have all won before, I really learned about what it took to win. I just studied their habits and it helped me out a lot. I owe a lot to them."
With the way Zajac has performed this season, it won't be surprising if his teammates called it even.