This summer was a long one for the New Jersey Devils, with no postseason participation, again, and like his teammates, Travis Zajac is eager to get the new season started as the team looks to end their playoff drought. In 2011-12 the Devils were two wins away from their fourth Stanley Cup and – for a myriad of reasons – they haven’t been back to the playoffs since then.
“It was relaxing a bit. I really tried to relax a little bit,” Zajac told The Hockey Writers with a grin before getting serious. “I worked on some things this offseason and tried to be prepared for the new year.” He spent most of the summer months in his hometown of Winnipeg saying while smiling, “(I was) back home in Winnipeg, so as good as Winnipeg can be, that’s how my summer was.”
He returned to New Jersey at the end of August and was even spotted at a major tennis tournament in the Metro Area — the US Open — with one of his best friends on the team, Patrik Elias, as they rubbed elbows with a former tennis star Martina Hingis and a current one, Karolina Pliskova. “It was awesome,” Zajac said, “it was the first time I’ve gotten to check that out (in person).”
“It was a pretty cool atmosphere, just to be around some of the pros there. A little more relaxing it seemed like than what we go through. But at the same time, they’re competitors and the matches we saw were unbelievable. It was a great experience. I played tennis growing up and I still like watching it, I still enjoy playing it. Hopefully, my kids are involved some way in it. It was a great event, I’d love to go back.”
— Martina Hingis (@mhingis) September 7, 2016
Naturally, THW couldn’t let Zajac get away without answering at least one question about Elias, who is New Jersey’s best offensive player in franchise history, but also 40-years-old, without a contract and coming off of knee surgery; but he is skating on his own at the Devils’ facilities. “Patty is Patty,” he said with a smile when we asked about no. 26’s current status. “He’s doing good. I think from where he was last season he’s feeling better and I think that’s the main thing. Now it’s just about getting himself ready and seeing he wants to go through the grind again.”
The 31-year-old center is now one of the team’s elder statesman, entering his 11th NHL season – all with New Jersey, and is looking to find his scoring touch again. He’s been their face-off ace since his third full NHL season, but he hasn’t come close to the 60-point seasons he registered in years three and four of his career (2008-10). Last season he did put up 17 power play points, the most since his fourth season and that number could grow with some of the players that could be on the roster this season aka Taylor Hall and young up-and-comers such as Pavel Zacha.
“At some point maybe,” Zajac said of playing alongside the dynamic Hall, who for now (three days into camp) has been on the wing of Adam Henrique in a different group during camp. “He’s definitely a dynamic player; a lot of speed, a lot of skill. That’s something you can always add,” he added with a smile. “You’re never going to turn down those types of players. he’s going to be great for this team.”
— Matt Loughlin (@MattLoug) September 24, 2016
Not only Zacha but other young players are looking to stick with the club for the opening night, including Reid Boucher and Joe Blandisi, who have limited NHL experience, along with John Quenneville and Miles Wood who are looking to take that next step. “They’re good players; they play with a lot of skill and they’re going to be pushing us, making sure that we are competing for spots, earning everything,” said Zajac. “They’re trying to make the team. They look good so far but, there’s a lot of camp left and hopefully they keep it going and (help) make us an exciting team.”
Grasshopper Becomes Teacher
As an older player, Zajac is now the one giving advice to youngsters, like when he was getting tips and pointers from players like John Madden, Bobby Holik, etc. “You watch them and you understand why they’re good players, drafted in the first round. It’s good for our team to get some depth and some good young guys, some enthusiasm in the locker room.”
He’s more of a passer, but Travis Zajac has a decent shot too:
“I’m in that part of my career where I can give back and teach them; I’ve been pretty fortunate to play a lot of years and hopefully I’ll continue to play a little more. There are definitely tips and advice I can definitely share which I plan on doing as the camp goes along. Seeing who’s in the group and maybe I get a chance to play with some of these young guys and I can help them out.”
We also got Zajac’s thoughts on the other new additions on the Devils this summer.
On Ben Lovejoy:
“I know Ben’s a competitor, just from playing against him for a number of years. Plays the right way, competes, does all the little things; obviously, that’s why he has a Cup.”
On Beau Bennett:
“Bits and pieces I’ve seen him. He’s a Denver Pioneer, so he’s got that going for him (grins), that’s a good start. He’s a good player, has great hands and it would be fun to see him have a good year.”
On Vernon Fiddler:
“Good face-off guy and works hard. You know what you’re getting from him every night.”
We asked Zajac about what his hockey-playing brothers have been up to – two of which (Darcy and Kelly) were at one point with the Devils’ AHL affiliate the Albany Devils. “They’re still all playing, just in different spots (now). One’s in England, one’s in South Carolina and one’s on a tryout with the Minnesota Wild. Still enjoying the game, which is a big part to why they are still playing.”
Wishing a Happy Birthday to #9 Darcy Zajac from everyone at the club. pic.twitter.com/wchCzNl0iX
— Coventry Blaze 🐲🏒 (@covblazehockey) September 23, 2016
Kelly Zajac just watching the tip drill pic.twitter.com/LZLfF7eVLx
— Max Wolpoff (@Max_Wolpoff) May 11, 2016
Wild defenseman Nolan Zajac. A FA invite from U of Denver, here in Traverse City. Travis' brother. pic.twitter.com/l1y4R9SUAz
— Mike Morreale (@mikemorrealeNHL) September 16, 2016
Thanks to the power of social media we were able to find a picture of all three of the Zajac clan on the ice in various rinks, as you see above.
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.