They aren’t the Dynamic Duo that Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier were two seasons ago when the New Jersey Devils made their lone playoff appearance in nine seasons but Travis Zajac and Blake Coleman have been two of the more consistent performers this season. They have been linemates for quite some time now and with the addition of Nikita Gusev, they have now become a formidable trio, perhaps the only one the Devils currently have, on a nightly basis.
To say the Devils’ season has been weird would be an understatement. In between defeating the Capitals in Washington and the Tampa Bay Lightning in New Jersey the next night – probably two of their better performances in this lost season – ownership decided to relieve GM Ray Shero of his responsibilities. Two hours before game time. Not the next day when they had off or ten days prior when they reportedly came to this decision.
This season Coleman is the team’s current goal leader (18), Gusev is tops on the team in assists (20), and Zajac recently moved into third place on the franchise’s all-time points list (525). Coleman is four goals away from tying his career-high and ten points away from tying his career-high with 36 games remaining.
We spoke with Coleman and Zajac following New Jersey’s 3-1 win against the Lightning to find out when they found that Shero was being let go, why the two have such great chemistry on the ice, why Gusev is just scratching the surface of his potential, and more.
The Hockey Writers: When did the team find out about Ray Shero being fired?
Blake Coleman: Maybe around 5:20 pm or so, just before our first meeting. The owners called us in and just dropped it on us. It’s unfortunate. He’s done a heckuva job, I think, but unfortunately, there have been a few casualties with the staff. Ultimately it’s on the players and there haven’t been many changes in this room and you see that we are capable of winning. It’s been on us, and we know that, and it’s unfortunate that he won’t be with us anymore. It’s part of the business, unfortunately.
THW: Was there anything said amongst the team after it was over and you’re all back in the locker room?
BC: Today it was so close to game time that it was really just business as usual. Maybe a little bit of shock because you don’t walk into a day expecting to hear news like that. It’s still our job to show up and perform, and not get rattled by stuff like that. I thought we had a good response tonight.
THW: You guys must sort of be used to this, having seen John Hynes fired and Taylor Hall get traded on game days, right?
BC: It’s probably not the end of it. This season has been disappointing for everyone and when people don’t perform to their expectations there are typically changes that will follow. It’s a little familiar now, unfortunately, hopefully, we can keep the wins coming and prevent more faces leaving.
THW: How were you able to beat the Caps and Tampa on consecutive nights?
BC: Commitment to defense. I think in the last month we’ve certainly found our offense, found ways to score. The games we were losing we weren’t losing because of a lack of offense, it was a lack of detail on defense. Maybe one stride behind but the last two nights we defended hard and that has been the difference.
Travis Zajac: You can see there is a commitment to our game – defensively, skating, checking. We’re a good team because our speed is our asset. Because of that, we have been able to smother some teams and play with the puck a little bit more. As we’re in these games you see us starting to get more and more confidence in these situations, and making better, smarter plays. It’s led to wins.
Devilish Dynamic Duo
THW: The chemistry between the two of you is very reminiscent of former Devils who also excelled as a penalty-killing duo in addition to 5v5 play – John Madden and Jay Pandolfo. When did the chemistry start between the two of you?
BC: Trav thinks the game at a high level, higher than most people. He’s typically one step ahead of defenders and I’ve had the luxury of playing alongside him for a while now. So I know where he’s looking to put pucks, and speed is one of my better assets so I know how to jump into holes, he’s great at finding me, and finding plays off my back if a pass to me is not there. Just a lot of experience playing together and when you have linemates that can think the game well it makes your job easy.
TZ: It started a couple of years ago when we had that playoff run (in 2018). He reminds me of Zach (Parise) in a lot of ways – with his speed, his shot, and his tenaciousness. You know what you are getting from him every shift and those are the guys that are easy to play with. I’m comfortable with that scenario.
THW: You never played on the PK with Zach though.
TZ: No. No, (grins) Zach wasn’t a PKer.
The Goose is Loose
THW: What has it been like to see Gusev reaching his potential in this league after a slow start?
BC: That’s why they went out and got him. He’s so dynamic and it was just a matter of time before he got going. He really thrives with guys that can put the puck in his hands or go get to for him. That’s probably why he’s found so much success with us on a line. He’s similar to Trav in that he’s always one step ahead, he thinks the game really well.
I enjoy playing with guys like that and it helps put me in great positions to make plays. His passing ability is up there with the best in the league and he should’ve had a highlight-reel goal tonight if I didn’t clip the goalie’s skate I guess. Those are the kind of plays he can make…sometimes (grins) I catch myself watching him make those plays out there.
TZ: I think he’s getting more and more comfortable here. He’s a gamer. He likes having the puck and he can make guys miss. You can see the more comfortable he is getting, his confidence is rising, and he’s making more and more plays. He can create space for himself and for other players, and more often than not he’s making the right decision with the puck. That helps our line out.
Goose can create space out there. I think myself and Colesy are more North-South players, whereas Goose can slow the game down and make some plays that benefit us. He can put us in good areas to get pucks back with time and space.
THW: Blake has told us before that despite Nikita not knowing much English that communication isn’t an issue because you all ‘speak hockey’. Is that true from your point of view?
TZ: We know Goose’s game enough now that we’ve had some success here. He speaks good English (smiles), better than he leads on. He’ll tell you if he was open or if he wants the puck.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.