20 January, 15:11

NHL 1-on-1: Travis Zajac and NJ's barbed wire

By David Kerans

NEWARK, New Jersey (VR)-- “How many NHL teams have a lasting identity?” Colorado Avalanche color commentator and NHL veteran Peter McNab asked play-by-play man Mike Haynes during a game Thursday night.

The broadcast partners swiftly rattled off “Boston, 'the Big, Bad Bruins', Philadelphia (they didn't bother to explain that one, understandably), and Montreal 'the Flying Frenchmen'.” Then McNab added “the New Jersey Devils, who've entrenched a reputation for solid defensive play.”

Of course it took NJ more than Martin Brodeur and Scott Stevens to establish that reputation. It took mid-90s head coach Jacques Lemaire educating his players in defensive coordination across all three zones, and GM Lou Lamoriello diligently restocking the roster with players who can thrive in a system that prioritizes disciplined forechecking and outworking opponents along the boards. NJ is not hidebound by these priorities, of course—the club was willing to tie itself to Ilya Kovalchuk for over a decade, let's not forget. But McNab's characterization of NJ as defined by strong defensive play rings very true.

NJ's barbed wire

Opposing coaches certainly categorize NJ as a different animal. After facing NJ on January 9, Dallas coach Lindy Ruff described the experience as “Like crawling through barbed wire with a wool jacket on.”

When we probed Florida coach Randy Horachek on the peculiarities of playing New Jersey a few hours before the teams met on January 11, he made several telling points.

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Kerans: Adjustments on the run—are they a little easier in a case like this, because you think you know they are predictable?

Horachek-Kerans

Photo credit: © VR

Peter Horachek: Well I don’t know this team. I don’t play them all the time, this is the first time I’ve seen them. I pre-scouted them, I watch their games, and you know exactly where their guys are, so that tells you that there is solid structure there. And they play a good game. They’ve got some veteran players out there. They’re big, and protect pucks really well, and they’re dangerous. You always have to be on when you are playing veteran teams like that, that play a system that—especially in the neutral zone—that’s not what most teams play. And when you’re not used to playing against a new system, there’s just not the little nuances that you can kind of go through and figure out. So, you have to be ready, you have to be on top of your game, and it’s going to take a lot of work. I think more than anything it’s going to be the battles on the 50-50 pucks.

Statistics confirming NJ's defensive diligence leap off the page. To give just two of the most important numbers, NJ concedes just 42.8 shooting attempts per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play in close-score situations (CHI is a distant second at 46.2), and just below 25 shots per game on net (second best is STL, with 25.5).

Of course these achievements depend on much more than drawing up tactical Xs and Os. Coach Peter DeBoer and his assistants fine tune the club in various ways to tackle the different challenges opponents throw at them. And the players have to absorb the team's unusual system of play without the puck, which can take time, as NJ winger Steve Bernier pointed out to us in an interview we will publish soon. Further, the team has to protect the puck in the offensive zone for relatively long stretches—a theme we explored in a feature on Dainius Zubrus in December.

With few exceptions, defensemen at the NHL level are content to focus on limiting opponents' scoring chances at the expense of creating more of their own. Superlative team defense therefore depends largely on the performance of the forwards in playing a 200 foot game. Thus, if we seek a deeper understanding of NJ's defensive success, we have to investigate the play of its forwards. There is no better place to start than with Travis Zajac, NJ's first line center.

Zajac, a genuine three-zone center

Travis Zajac is a quiet-spoken man, and his play on the ice is similarly unassuming. He does not make eye-opening dekes; he does not have breakaway speed; he does not fire one-timers; he does not make highlight reel hits. Nor does he put up big scoring totals—in Zajac's biggest year to-date, 2009-10, he recorded 67 points. Indeed, despite having been the team's #1 center for many years, Devils fans give Zajac little attention. You don't see too many Zajac 19 jerseys in the stands at The Rock.

In fact, Zajac's own mother is guarded in her appraisal of his play. When the MSG network did a feature on Zajac in honor of him playing his first NHL game in his home town of Winnipeg, they asked Mrs. Zajac if she could tell Travis was the best on the ice when he was growing up. “No, he wasn't the best. But he was a hard worker.”

Hard work can pay off, and NJ GM Lou Lamoriello has seen the value in Zajac. In January of 2013 he signed Travis to an 8-year contract worth $46 million. What does Lamoriello see in Zajac?

He probably sees a durable and dependable player who moves puck possession in NJ's direction. We noticed Zajac's knack for winning pucks and commencing breakout plays years ago, and statistics now becoming available confirm the impression. Among NJ's regularly used forwards, only two get the puck out of the defensive end with more efficiency than Zajac. Not surprisingly, they are his two big wingers, Dainius Zubrus and the ageless Jaromir Jagr. Team-wide, over the first half of this season when NJ's forwards got the puck in their own zone they exited with possession almost precisely 50% of the time. Zajac managed 51.2%, Zubrus 55.3%, and Jagr a truly elite 62.8%.

Exiting the defensive zone with possession (PE%, in the now-developing terminology) may be one of the best predictors of team success. To-date, analysis of available data finds a closer correlation between PE% and goal difference than between “Corsi for” and goal difference (“Corsi for”, or CF%, or CF, or simply Corsi, measures puck possession by dividing the number of shot attempts made by a player's team when he is on the ice by the number of shots the opposing team attempts while that player is on the ice). Zajac's Corsi numbers are also very good: through 48 games, NJ out-attempts opponents by 56-44 in 5-on-5 play when Zajac is on the ice (54-46 without him).

Zajac puck possession

Spinning off defenders and maintaining O-zone possession  Photo credit: © AFP, Jeff Zelevansky

Got no KOVY? Zajac dialing up

Naturally, with the departure of superstar Ilya Kovalchuk to Russia last summer, NJ has asked Zajac to do more this year. And he is delivering.

Coach DeBoer is playing Zajac a bit more in all circumstances. In even strength situations he is on the ice 31% of the time, vs. 29% last year. On the PP he is on the ice 52% this year, vs. 51% last year. And on the PK he is involved 37% of the time this year, up sharply from 32% last year.

Further, Zajac is shooting more this year. Through 48 games he has attempted 159, vs. 146 in last year's 48 game season. And he is getting the extra attempts from just as close: his average distance in both seasons has been steady at 26 feet. Not surprisingly, therefore, Zajac is scoring more. He is contributing 1.09 primary points (goals plus primary assists) per 60 minutes of ice time, significantly up from last year's 0.90.

And Zajac is making game-winning plays. In a tense, scoreless game vs. Dallas on January 9, he received a pass behind the Stars' net while facing the end boards, drifted to his right until he felt a defender on him, made as if to continue to his right, then stuck out his rear end to make space and pivoted around to face the slot with the puck on his forehand and a clear line of sight to teammate Michael Ryder. He put the puck right where Ryder needed it for a snap shot that won the game, 1-0. Quintessential Devils.

Zajac OT

A game-winner to remember--Zajac scores in OT in Game 6 vs. FLA to save NJ's playoff run

Photo credit: © AFP, Bruce Bennett

We had an opportunity to sit down with Travis recently to dig into how he and the Devils are managing to control games despite huge personnel losses (no KOVY).

 

NHL 1-on-1 with Travis Zajac

Kerans: To get started, I have seen you play for a long time, but you were part of one of the more amazing scenes we’ve ever had in the NHL, maybe the most amazing season, 2010-11. It started out like a train wreck, and like the stone age—the team couldn’t score a goal, (was) in the bottom five in the history of the NHL in scoring. And then all of a sudden Lemaire comes, and I have a few questions about him as a coach. It’s in the past, I know, but how could it be possible for a team to do an entire 180 and be so strong? {sitting 29th in the NHL at the halfway point, New Jersey then went on a 23-3-2 tear and challenged for a playoff spot}

Zajac: Uh, I’m not sure. It has a lot to do with confidence. When you’re losing it’s always tough to get back on a winning track, and I think we carried that around too much as a team, and you just saw us struggle and struggle, and we couldn’t dig our way out of it.

Kerans: Lemaire said he had to get you playing as a five-man unit. I’m sure he’s generalizing, it’s impossible to orchestrate an entire team perfectly. But the team sort of got momentum? Did you start playing together, and the momentum gathered, and it was a snowball, and everybody started feeling confident and was playing well? Was it as simple as that, really

Zajac: Yeah, exactly. You know it takes five guys on the ice, up and down, in every zone. I think it’s not so much the system, it’s just trusting each other and wanting to work for each other. And I think we got away from that early in the season. We were able to find a way to get that back, and good things happen when you play as a team, when you trust everybody. And you saw what we were able to accomplish.

Kerans: That’s a lesson you keep, obviously, and not just for that year. Phil Housley, the great defenseman, said the one thing he remembered from his short time with Lemaire was that he said “Don’t use up all of your energy on the boards. Just control the guy. Don’t try to overpower him.” Any one or two things, any wisdom from Lemaire that you remember for yourself?

Zajac: Uh, there were lots of details, but yeah, he was big on not wasting energy. I just remember he never wanted me to be first in on the forecheck. As a centerman he wanted me to save my energy to play in the defensive zone, and let the wingers do all the hard work.

Kerans: Ah, I’m glad I asked, because that’s an interesting point. I have to ask about Kovalchuk, because we are Voice of Russia here. Did he become a different player over his time here? I mean, the press maybe makes too much of the fact that Lemaire turned him into a defensive player. He was capable of playing well all over the ice all the time. Did you really notice much of a change in him as a person or as a player?

Zajac: Yeah, I think when he came here he tried, he tried to work on different parts of his game. And he had some good success here with Jacques, and even with Pete. I think he played hard for Pete while he was here, and I think some of his best all-around hockey was with that team.

Kerans: I notice that you win pucks all over the ice. I appreciate it; it doesn’t show up in the stats, but it struck me without my wanting to notice it. It wasn’t like I was looking for it, but you win pucks all over the ice. You’re also good on the boards, and I think this line, Zubrus-Zajac-Jagr, gets a lot of play on the boards. I was at the game in Washington, for instance, (and saw that the puck) is not going to come out, because you guys are good on the boards. Do you practice more on the boards, individually or as a unit, than you did at the University of North Dakota or at other times? Is this a club where you spend more time on it, or is it just happening by itself?

Zajac: I think it just kind of happens. I think we’re kind of a meat and potatoes team. We play a lot on the boards, and we’re all about winning battles and getting pucks in low and trying to outwork teams in the offensive zone. So I think that’s kind of where our game is at, and you see a lot of that from our line.

Zajac to the net

Zajac working hard, getting all the way to the net   Photo credit: © AFP, Paul Bereswill

Kerans: As a player, do you get individual attention from defensive coaches, from Larry Robinson, from Scott Stevens? Do they ever work with you individually, or do they just trust you already?

Zajac: You can always learn, especially from those guys.

Kerans: {interrupting} Do they take you aside and work on you in certain ways?

Zajac: Not so much. But they point out on video different things positionally, where you can be, and maybe get the puck more quickly and get on the attack.

Kerans: You talk to players around the league, you know what’s happening. It doesn’t seem to me that New Jersey does a lot of shot blocking. That’s fine with me. But is it safe to say there isn’t any heavy emphasis on blocking shots in this club? Or is that a silly thing to say?

Zajac: Well…

Kerans: {interrupting} If you have to, you do it?

Zajac: Exactly. It’s a big part of the game, obviously. The teams that do it, they‘ve had some success. I think for us it’s just about paying the price. There’s a time in the game when everyone needs to step up and take one for the team, and I think everyone’s capable of doing that.

Kerans: Adam Henrique told me the team always stresses defense. When you’re doing video reviews, there’s pretty much always something they’ve got to say, to pick on details in the defensive zone? There’s a lot of coaching going on like that?

Zajac: Yeah, there’s a lot. I think the better defense you can play, the more you’re going to have the puck. We want to be jumping guys all over the ice defensively, and create turnovers, and make sure we can get that puck and get it in the offensive zone.

Zajac jumps 'em

Jumping ‘em all over the ice   Photo credit: © AFP, Vincent Pugliese

Kerans: The Olympics are coming up. You’ve played in a big event, The Frozen Four {Zajac played in two of them}. Do you remember any piece of wisdom? It doesn’t have to be some hokey locker room speech. I played in a big tournament once, a national tournament, and the coach said “you represent yourself, and you represent your family,” and I think he mentioned the school too. But it was interesting that he was trying to keep us in the concrete, not in the abstract. Like, it’s not about life or death. It’s something we could handle: “you represent yourself, you represent your family.” That’s something that I remember. Anything that you remember, before your Frozen Fours?

Zajac: Yeah, I just remember the coaching staff coming in, and, kind of the same lesson—telling us it’s just a game, and to go out there and just work as hard as possible. We worked all year for it. It’s really tough, I think, to get to The Frozen Four. It’s not a playoff series, it’s a one-game, where anything can happen, so they just wanted us to enjoy it and take it all in.

Kerans: You’ve played with players on many of the Olympic teams. You’re Canadian, so I take it you’ll support Canada. But if you had to guess, and I know it’s a guess, if there’s one other team that might win, what would Travis Zajac’s guess be? Just make it a guess. Depends how the puck bounces, right?

Zajac: Exactly. It’s tough just because it’s a one-game tournament. You know, you get a bounce and anything like that. Other than Canada, I do like Sweden. I think they’re always pretty competitive in those tournaments.

Kerans: You think about making yourself a better player, because you’re a pro. And you’ll have a couple of weeks during the Olympic break. You’ll also have off-season, of course. What would be on your wish list to improve, if you have one? Do you have some really directed study (in mind)? Or maybe just a power skating coach? Or do you just trust yourself to stay fit and stay sharp?

Zajac: You know, what I’ve tried to work on a little this season is my shooting, trying to get a couple more shots to the net and get into those scoring areas. I think there’s always something, you can add a few more goals if you work on your release and your timing.

Zajac shot

                                                                                     Photo credit: © AFP, Jim McIsaac

Kerans: Final two questions here. You’ve been around the league, you’ve seen a lot of people. Do you think about pursuing another career ever? Do you think about going to school off-season, or do you have business ideas cropping up? Or are you just putting your focus on hockey?

Zajac: Oh, it’s funny you say that. My dad bugs me every year about finishing my degree. I’ve got two years under my belt, and…

Kerans: {interrupting} I’ll let him bug you!

Zajac: Yeah!

Kerans: Are you talkative enough to replace Chico Resch sometime later in the century?

Zajac: {laughing} No, I don’t if anyone’s talkative enough there. That guy is great at what he does.

Kerans: I’ll say honestly that I like watching you play.

Zajac: Thanks!

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