Should the Maple Leafs Look to Acquire Travis Zajac?

In 2004, Lou Lamoriello, then-GM of the New Jersey Devils, drafted Travis Zajac with the 20th overall pick. Now that his long tenure with the Devils is over, it seems that Lamoriello might want to reunite with his former No. 1 center. Elliotte Freidman of Sportsnet, in his 30 thoughts feature, said that more than one NHL exec believe that to be true.

Zajac is entering his tenth season in the NHL. In the previous nine, he has 127 goals and 221 assists for 348 points in 625 games. He has played relatively injury-free hockey. Other than the lockout and 2011-12 season in which he played only 15 games, the lowest amount of games he has played in a season is 74 games. He has played every game in a season five times, including the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

Should the Leafs go after him though?

He would probably be able to step in as the Leafs No. 1 center. He’s a two-way center, so perhaps the year after had their entire top line in very low minus stat, the Leafs could have better defense from their prime offensive unit.

What would the Leafs have to give up to acquire Zajac? Well, since the Devils aren’t that deep at center, you’d have to assume that they would have to send a center back. The most likely name to be thrown around is Tyler Bozak. Other than that, you’d have to get real creative. Bozak’s cap hit is $1.55 million less than Zajac’s.

A Nonsensical Acquisition?

That’s where the reasons to not acquire Zajac start to pile up. Not only does Zajac carry a $5.75 million cap hit, the contract does not end until after the 2020-21 season. Do the Leafs want to have him in the lineup for that long? You’d have to assume that centers William Nylander and Mitch Marner would be playing for the Leafs by that point. Do the Leafs move Zajac down to No. 3 and pay that much money?

(Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)
(Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

The Leafs wouldn’t even be getting the benefit of cap relief. The Leafs would need to send at least another $1.55 million in cap hits the other way as the Leafs have just under $1.3 million in cap space. It’s true that the Leafs could put Nathan Horton on LTIR to get the cap relief, but that would seriously hamper the Leafs efforts at the trade deadline. If the Leafs could get a higher draft pick or a top prospect by taking on a bad contract at the deadline, they wouldn’t be able to do much.

There’s also the fact that Zajac’s play has been declining. In the three seasons prior to the 2011-12 season, he had 173 points. In the three seasons since, he has only 93 points. Even Bozak has more points in the same time frame (126). So after trading away Phil Kessel, the Leafs would be need to replace even more offense if they swapped the centers.

A trade like this would make more sense if it had transpired a few years earlier, when the Leafs were still trying desperately to get to the playoffs. For a team in a rebuild, it’s not worth it. Sure, he would bring veteran experience but that’s not enough. Plus, half the Leafs forward corps are either centers, or have the versatility to play the position. The Leafs really don’t need to acquire another one or just replace one with another.