Travis Zajac is two NHL games from reaching the 1,000–game milestone, and though the New Jersey Devils forward has plenty of seasons behind him, he’s looking ahead by helping to build a better future for his team.
He was scheduled to reach the milestone this weekend but could be out for the Devils’ games against the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Center on Saturday (1 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, MSG-B, MSG+, NHL.TV), and Sunday after entering COVID-19 protocol on Friday.
When he does play two more games, he will join defenseman Ken Daneyko (1,283 games), goalie Martin Brodeur (1,259) and forward Patrik Elias (1,240) as the only players with 1,000 games for the Devils.
The 35-year-old center knows the path New Jersey is taking with its youth movement and feels his experience and leadership can be a big part of it.
“I think we both know where this team’s headed and the direction they want to go in,” Zajac said. “It’s about developing their younger players and getting them to be leaders and push this team to be successful for a number of years.
“At the same time, I think I can help a lot of these younger players by just playing the right way, showing them exactly how to be a pro on and off the ice just like guys did for me when I first entered the League.”
Zajac has scored two goals and is fourth among Devils forwards in average ice time (16:48) in seven games this season. He’d like nothing more than another shot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, something he’s had in six of his first 14 NHL seasons. It’s only happened once in his past eight, however.
To have that chance, he knows the offense will be centered on 19-year-old forward Jack Hughes, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, and 22-year-old forward Nico Hischier, selected No. 1 in the 2017 NHL Draft. Forwards Jesper Bratt, 22, Michael McLeod, 22, Nathan Bastian, 23, Jesper Boqvist, 22, and Janne Kuokkanen, 22; defenseman Ty Smith, 20; and goalie Mackenzie Blackwood, 24, make up the rest of the Devils young core.
“I feel like there’s a lot of pressure on some young guys to perform right away and have a lot of success,” Zajac said. “But I think where the game has changed is that young players may be given more opportunities right off the bat.”
Hughes, who leads the Devils with seven points (three goals, four assists) and has been the No. 1 center while Hischier is out because of a leg injury, is grateful that Zajac is there to help.
“He’s been really good for me,” Hughes said. “Obviously he’s a guy who’s been a pillar with the Devils organization for a long time. He’s played through lots of injuries, played with a lot of teammates and for different coaches. It just speaks volumes to the pro that he is.”
Zajac has been working with Hughes on face-offs. Since entering the NHL in 2006-07, Zajac has won 53.5 percent of his face-offs, tied for 26th among NHL players to take at least 5,000 face-offs.
Hughes was in a learning phase as an 18-year-old rookie last season when he won 36.2 percent of his face-offs. He’s up to 36.5 percent this season, but that includes an increase in defensive-zone success, winning 38.9 percent this season compared to 27.8 percent last season.
“We talked about [face-offs] early in the season, just some of the things I look for, some of the things that have helped me and what I think I can do to help [Hughes],” Zajac said. “We talk about different guys before the game, what their tendencies are, and he’s very open to that. He’s a guy that wants to learn and get better so he’s always asking questions to try and be better.”
Zajac, who’s in the final season of an eight-year contract he signed in January 2013 and can become an unrestricted free agent after the season, remembers what his linemates, Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner, did for him as a 21-year-old rookie in 2006-07.
“I was fortunate to come in and have those guys to lean on like [Langenbrunner] and Scott Gomez, [Elias] and John Madden,” Zajac said. “I came into a winning culture right away and I think that kind of helped me become a pro.”
The longest-tenured player on the Devils roster finds it hard to believe he’s two games shy of reaching 1,000 and joining Brodeur and Daneyko, who were part of three Stanley Cup-winning teams with the Devils, and Elias, who won two Cup championships with New Jersey.
“I guess it’s humbling just knowing the company I’m in because they’re all winners,” Zajac said. “I’m not at their level as far as what they’ve done in their careers, but I have wanted to push myself to try and get to where they are and that’s helped me throughout my career.”
Coach Lindy Ruff is glad to have Zajac on the bench and in the locker room.
“What you want out of your top players is to carry the coach’s message, to believe in it, to trust it,” Ruff said. “To help the young guys who may be in between all that from where they’ve come to where they need to get to. Travis believes in the way we’re playing, the way we operate and practice.
“Anybody in this League who gets to 1,000 games is just a real good player and he’s been a real good player for this organization since Day One.”