SUNDAYS WITH STAN: Zeal, Zest and Zoom -- Travis Zajac
Stan Fischler looks back on the career of Devils forward Travis Zajac, who was honored for his 1000th game this past Saturday
/ Special to NewJerseyDevils.com
It's hard not to like Travis Zajac.
Unless you happen to be an opposition goaltender.
And even then, the kudos kayo any animosity because if anything is celebrated today -- apart from the well-earned tribute to The Man's milestone, it's the Winnipeg native as the role model's role model.
"Nobody's perfect," says Devils radio play-by-play analyst and longtime NHL goaltender Glenn Resch, "but when it comes to being a model hockey player -- and person -- Travis is your guy."
Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello selected Zajac 20th overall in the 2004 Entry Draft. After two years of outstanding play at the University of North Dakota, Travis believed he was ready for pro hockey.
And was he ever.
The man who drafted him never had to second guess himself, that's for sure.
Lamoriello: "Travis was a core player for the Devils from Day One and still is. He plays in all situations out there whether the goalie is pulled, whether, trying to tie a game or hold on to a one-goal game.
"He takes all key face-offs and that should say it all about the player but, more important, Travis is liked and respected by his teammates, and he's a coach's dream come true."
Interestingly, Zajac's first National Hockey League game took place on October 6, 2006. Coincidentally, on that same night, Steve Cangialosi made his debut as a member of the Devils broadcast crew.
Cangy was in good voice that night while the rookie center passed his audition with flying colors.
"What I recall," Steve says, "is that this was a strong message from Lou to coach Claude Julien to trust this 21-year-old center who'd played only two AHL games with a second-line role between Patrick Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner."
It was, in fact, a test of Zajac's ability to handle responsibility. As it happened, he complemented the two veterans as he would other wings who complemented Travis through the seasons.
Among the many assets in Zajac's repertoire has been his knack of playing the game of hockey the way it was meant to be played: hard, but clean.
Cangialosi, who has kept an Argus eye on Travis considers the Devil's low penalty total as a barometer of how well as asset he has been.
"Of all the NHLers to appear in 1000 games," Steve explains "only Anze Kopitar and Phil Kessel have accumulated fewer penalty minutes than Zajac's 340.
"Put that into context by considering the hard minutes this guy has played against the opposition's top players for fifteen years. That's a tremendous reflection of his commitment to play hockey the right way."
Two of Zajac's best seasons that exemplifies such exemplary play were the 2008-09 campaign and the following season.
Skating on what was dubbed "The Z-Z-Pops Line, Travis pivoted for Patrick Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner.
In both of the years, Zajac finished in the top ten for Selke Trophy voting. Likewise, his face-off work has been as consistent as his two-way play. During the 2018-19 season, his face-off-winning average was an impressive 58 per cent.
Fans can debate forever over which was their favorite goal. Season-ticket holder Emma Miller of Fairlawn, New Jersey picked one from the 2012 Quarter-Final playoff round against the Florida Panthers.
"What I liked best about it," Miller relates, "is that Travis was playing alongside Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. He took a cross-ice pass from Kovy at the top of the face-off circle and then avoided two defensemen by dodging to the left.
"Then he took a shot from the far side to beat Scott Clemmenson for the goal. That great play by Travis kept the Devils alive and they eventually won the series in double-overtime the next game."
Zajac totalled 14 points in 24 games through New Jersey's Stanley Cup Final run.
Long-time Devils fan Noam Kogen of Manhattan cites Zajac's "reliability in all situations" as his reason for admiring the veteran. "As far as I'm concerned he's the best face-off man in Devils history."
As one who covered Travis for more than a decade during my stint with MSG Networks, I found Zajac to be a newshound's dream come true.
Win or lose, he always was approachable and candid with his answers. He always -- in a hockey framework -- sees things clearly and sees them whole.
This should come as no surprise considering that Travis comes from solid hockey stock. His father, Tom, starred for the University of Denver from the 1973-74 season through 1976-77.
During that span, Tom Zajac totalled 75 points over 96 games. Like father, like-son, Travis relished his collegiate stint.
"It was a situation where I was like my teammates, trying to move up the hockey ladder and, hopefully, make a name for myself in the NHL," he remembers.
The wisdom of Lamoriello plucking Travis in the 20th slot is reflected by the players who surrounded him in that Draft.
The Rangers picked one ahead of Lou had selected Lauri Korpikoski. The Canadiens chose in the 18th slot. Montreal's selection was Kyle Chipchura. 'Nuff said on that matter!
Brian Costello, The Hockey News' managing editor, well remembers when Travis was playing Junior A hockey for the Salmon Arm Silverbacks.
"We were preparing for our Draft Preview in 2004," Costello recalls, "and in those days, someone who was playing below Major Junior as Zajac was in Junior A, was not likely to go in the First Round.
"Frankly, I was skeptical that he'd go that high but he did and the success he's had is a contributing factor to the fact that more Junior A players are picked in the first round."
Travis is only the second player selected that year to reach the 1,000-game mark; the other being Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals.
Tom Zajac remembers the first time he detected the special insight his son had during a game.
Tom: "He was either seven or eight years old and in a game. Suddenly, I said to myself, 'Son, why are you going to that spot on the ice? But then I realized that how far ahead he was in his thinking.
"Turns out that he was going to exactly the right spot to intercept a pass. Over the years I'd say that the biggest strength my son has had as a hockey player is that he's always understood the game."
Tom Zajac can remember Travis' first NHL goal. It was against Dallas on October 7, 2006. Unfortunately the Devils lost the game.
In his post-game interview Travis said that he was relieved getting that first one, "But I'd still rather have a win over the goal."
That's still the Zajac philosophy today. And it helps explain why contemporary analysts such as NBC Networks top play-by-play broadcaster can never stop lauding Travis.
Kenny Albert: "Travis is one of the most underappreciated NHL players of the last decade-and-a-half. It takes a special person to play fifteen seasons and over 1,000 games with one franchise.
"I remember well when Zajac was one of the top goal-scorers during New Jersey's Cup run in 2012. And let's not forget that he was the one who assisted on Jaromir Jagr's 700th goal."
People just don't forget how Travis helped the Devils from the very moment he stepped on the ice. Jersey native, Gus Vic, lead analyst for The Fischler Report, has his own personal X-Ray about Z.
"What I like about Zajac," Vic offers, "is that he's been consistent for his entire career. It's important to bear in mind that he's maintained that style despite having to play against the best players and lines on the opposition.
"On top of that, he's gained Selke votes in half his fourteen seasons. And that really says what one needs to know about his quality of play as well as how his sense of dependability is regarded."
Bottom Line: It's just like the top line. You gotta like Travis Zajac. Everybody does!