The end of an era. That’s what happened when the New Jersey Devils traded Travis Zajac to the New York Islanders on Apr. 7. He was always an underappreciated player in New Jersey, oftentimes it was hard to understand why. But with the trade of the franchise’s last link to the glory days, we think we figured out why.
Of course, Zajac wasn’t the only part of the deal that saw the Devils receive two draft picks (1st rounder in 2021, conditional 4th rounder in 2022) and two AHL players. Kyle Palmieri was also in the deal that now opens up two spots on New Jersey’s NHL roster.
Zajac leaves New Jersey fourth on the franchise’s all-time games played list (1,024), third in points (550), tied for third in goals (202), and fifth in assists (348).
While Palmieri was playing for the Devils (2015-21) he scored at least 24 goals and 44 points in every season except this current shortened one. The void left by the two veterans means that now the roster is truly in the hands of the kids.
Modern Day Mr. Devil
But back to Zajac. His departure had fans feeling all sorts of ways in the immediate aftermath. He was never the best player on the team in any of his 15 seasons in New Jersey. But no. 19 was the last remaining Devils player to play a home game in the Meadowlands Arena. He was also the last link to the Devils 2012 Eastern Conference Championship team.
Zajac needed only two games in the AHL, before playing all 1,024 games of his NHL career in New Jersey, debuting in the 2006-07 season. It was Zach Parise and Zajac who took the torch from players like Patrik Elias and Scott Gomez, and now it is Zajac passing that torch to Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes – who are the new faces of the franchise going forward. This is their team, and its success will depend a lot on how they perform and how the franchise surrounds them with or without talent.
Maybe that’s why this one stings for Devils fans, who have been starved for some sustained success since 2007. New Jersey made the playoffs in each of Zajac’s first four seasons, in five of his first six seasons. But only seven times in his 15 seasons in red and black.
He’s the final link to those days. It’s been like ripping off a band-aid in a painstakingly slow way. Now he joins the Islanders and former GM Lou Lamoriello, who signed him to the massive eight-year contract that ends after this season. Zajac could have left last season via trade, and probably could have left other times too. But he loved living in New Jersey, loved being a Devil.
“I know Travis quite well, drafted him. I spent a lot of time with him,” said Lamoriello after the trade was announced. What he brings on the ice and what he brings to a team atmosphere on the ice and off the ice (and similar with Kyle).”
“It’s very important that people accept whatever role is given to them, and they give up sometimes their own identity to have success. That, to me, is what I’ve seen Travis do year in and year out. Whatever he was asked to do, he did and did it to the highest level.”
Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald talked about how he and Zajac had spoken numerous times over the past few weeks navigating all of this, and he also admitted that Zajac didn’t make the decision to waive his No-Trade Clause until hours before the deal was completed.
Cup Or Bust on The Island
“At this point in my career and where I’m at, I wanted a chance to win, and just believe this is a team that has all the aspects of a winning hockey team. To be able to be a part of that and help them in any way, I think it was, for me, it was the right time,” Zajac said in his first media availability with the Islanders.
In our opinion, this is probably his final NHL season which is why he accepted the trade to a team that isn’t far away at all and has some familiar faces on it as well. Makes it all a bit easier than if he was traded to Boston or Pittsburgh. Zajac and Palmieri rejoin their good friends Andy Greene and Cory Schneider on the Island.
If the Isles do win the 2021 Stanley Cup, you can almost guarantee that Zajac (and probably Greene) would retire. Two warriors who have played their entire careers chasing that elusive Cup.
If the Devils do find success in the next few years, you can almost guarantee that Hughes and Hischier would be quick to praise the assistance and guidance that Zajac gave them as they navigated their way into the NHL.
Older fans of the team may remember Valeri Zelepukin. Younger fans: go watch some old games. In our minds, Zajac is that same type of player – reliable, and a guy who you could put out in any role, in any situation, and you know what you’re getting. A hard worker, a good soldier in the Devils Army willing to do anything, accept any role, to help the team. John Madden was the same way.
His legacy will live on in New Jersey. It’s unlikely the franchise retires no. 19, but whenever they decide to start adding more names than the one (Dr. Jack McMullen) that sits in the Devils Ring of Honor – they should add Travis Zajac to that list.
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.