NEWARK, N.J. -- New Jersey Devils center Travis Zajac has relished his role as a dual threat this season under the direction of first-year coach John Hynes.
Not that Zajac, 30, didn't serve that all-purpose role in his previous nine seasons with the Devils, but there's something different about him these days.
Zajac not only ranks among the top five in the NHL in shooting percentage with six goals on 21 shots (28.6 percent), but he's on pace to surpass his career-high of 25 goals set during the 2009-10 season.
Critics of Zajac say he shouldn't be included among the elite when discussing top-line centers in the NHL, and the fact he's topped 50-plus points twice in his career (2008-09, 2009-10) might be a reason.
New Jersey Devils center Travis Zajac has relished his role as a dual threat this season under the direction of first-year coach John Hynes. (Photo: Andy Marlin/NHLI)
To Hynes and those who have played with Zajac, however, he's irreplaceable.
"It's very valuable to have a player [like Zajac] in the lineup," Hynes said. "He's a dual threat. He's playing against the other team's top lines and has defended a lot, but he also brings an offensive element where he's not only playing against the top units but scoring against them."
In a 4-2 win against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks on Nov. 6, Zajac went head-to-head against Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews. He won 52 percent of his faceoffs, had a goal and an assist and limited Toews to no shots on goal for the first time this season.
"The thing that struck me right away about Travis when I arrived in New Jersey was his compete level," said Devils right wing Kyle Palmieri, acquired over the summer in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks. "I don't think he gets enough credit for that. He doesn't go out and lay someone out, but he goes out there, competes every night and wins his battles, wins his faceoffs and does all those little things that add up to be successful."
Not only does Hynes have complete confidence in matching Zajac against any top-line center, but he can use him in any situation and for any big faceoff. Zajac ranks among the top 10 in the NHL in defensive zone faceoff wins (73) and faceoff wins when close (123) and the top 20 in overall faceoff winning percentage (54.8).
"He's probably stronger than people realize," Devils wing Lee Stempniak said. "He's able to use one arm to kind of create separation from guys and is able to fight a lot of guys off to maintain puck possession. I think that's something that has been a bit of a revelation with me. He's skilled, he's big and rangy and has a good shot, but it's his strength on the ice and on the puck that really allow him to extend plays."
Zajac feels Hynes has been able to help extract his feisty side this season. He is on pace to accumulate a career-high in hits and ranks first in takeaways. In a 3-2 win at Chicago on Thursday, he won 62 percent of his faceoffs and delivered a game-high seven hits.
"I think [Hynes] has done a good job of challenging me to be more offensive and be tougher to play against," Zajac said. "Defensively I think I've always had that part, but it's a matter of playing with confidence throughout the whole game, wanting to make plays and wanting to be a difference."
According to war-on-ice.com, Zajac has five years and $31 million remaining on an eight-year contract extension he signed on Jan. 16, 2013. The contract includes a no-trade clause, significant because there were rumors prior to this season that he might be traded.
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello, the former Devils GM who signed Zajac to that extension, was said to be in hot pursuit. To his credit, Zajac took it all in stride.
"I understand this is a business, but I'm committed to the Devils," he said at the time. "I'm trying to get better and prove myself to the coaching staff here. I can be a player to help this team and get it going in the right direction."
Zajac also realizes he's coming off a season in which he scored 11 goals in 74 games and knows that isn't good enough.
Prior to riding shotgun with Zajac, Palmieri was skating alongside Ryan Getzlaf and, at times, Ryan Kesler when he played for the Ducks. Palmieri feels Zajac is definitely in the mix of top centers in the game today.
"Travis is kind of a hybrid between Getzlaf and Kesler," Palmieri said. "Obviously he's got the size and hands of a Getzlaf, but that competitive nature that has made Kesler successful all these years is present too. So it wasn't foreign for me to come in and play with him. It was kind of almost like playing with one of those guys again.
"[Zajac] plays the game with a little different style than Getzlaf and Kesler, but there's definitely similarities to the two of them and without a doubt, I feel he's up there with the top centers."
Zajac at this point in the season has more goals and points than Getzlaf and Kesler combined.
Devils forward Adam Henrique, who has found good chemistry with Zajac on the top penalty-killing unit, has always considered him a leader.
"Everybody kind of feeds off each other's energy and [Zajac] is prepared every single night," Henrique said. "He's been playing awesome in all situations, whether 5-on-5, the penalty kill or power play; we lean on him."
Zajac said he learned a lot from the veteran players when he first entered the League in 2006-07. One player in particular was Scott Gomez, who returned to the Devils in 2014-15 before signing with the St. Louis Blues this season.
"His all-around game is so good that even when he might be struggling to score, you just forget," Gomez said. "Travis plays hard every night, is a great teammate and one of those guys that if you truly know the game, you understand this is a player every team needs on its roster. I think he learned a lot when Adam Oates was coaching our team and you can tell he's more confident this season."
Hynes didn't know much about Zajac when he was named coach, but was immediately impressed after their initial discussion about the state of the Devils.
"You could tell there was a lot of depth to him as a human being and a player," Hynes said. "He was really well thought out and well-spoken about what had gone on here, what he felt as an individual he needed, and that was impressive. He's come and backed it up with just his professionalism every day. You see him in the morning, he's ready to go and pays attention in meetings. His practices are excellent and you can see now that he's a very passionate player.
"I think he's getting rewarded for his efforts right now and that's fueling that energy that he continues to bring for us."