The big news on Wednesday evening for the New York Islanders was that they acquired a top-line winger to play with Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle in Kyle Palmieri. But they also brought in another piece in the trade that could be big, Travis Zajac.
The longtime New Jersey Devils forward doesn’t jump out as a huge acquisition, but he could be much bigger than anyone realizes.
Earlier in the season, Zajac hit the 1,000 game milestone, which received high praise from around the league, including from his coach in New Jersey.
“For (Zajac) to accomplish what he has is terrific. And I know why. He’s good in all areas. He’s a student of the game,” Devils head coach Lindy Ruff said a few weeks back when Zajac reached the 1,000-game plateau. “He’s coach-able and a good leader; on the ice and off the ice. He deserves all the good words about him because of the way Travis plays.”
Zajac is a strong, defensive-zone player that should fit nicely in head coach Barry Trotz’s system. He has received votes for the Selke trophy seven times throughout his career and he served as one of the Devils’ main penalty killers over the past decade, a penalty kill that that was top-10 in the NHL the last five of the past seven seasons prior to this year.
“I know what (Zajac and Palmieri) bring on the ice,” Lou Lamoriello said after the trade. “I know who they are as people and how they’ll fit in the locker room.
“Chemistry is extremely important.”
On top of that, Zajac has been a strong faceoff man his entire career despite his numbers sitting at 49.9 percent this season. Still, for his career, he sits at 53.8 percent. If Zajac doesn’t get his faceoff percentage over 50 percent in these last few weeks of the season, it would mark the first time in his career he hasn’t won more than 50 percent of his face-offs.
“Unless you play with him, you don’t understand how really good he is,” Zach Parise, Zajac’s teammate from 2006-2012, said. “I was fortunate to play with him for a long time. I don’t know how this guy he’s one of the most underrated players.”
This trade also reunites Zajac with his longtime teammate in New Jersey and his former captain Andy Greene. The pair helped lead New Jersey to the Stanley Cup final in 2012.
“We couldn’t have gone as far as we did — to the Cup Final — without him,” Zajac’s former coach Peter DeBoer said while reflecting on the Devils 2012 playoff run while honoring Zajac’s 1,000 game achievement. “He became our most effective and consistent player.”
It is also worth noting that Lamoriello drafted Zajac back in 2004 when he was with the Devils. Lamoriello phoned in about Zajac last season before settling on Greene and eventually J.G. Pageau.
The Devils weren’t able to move Zajac last season when he refused to waive his full no-trade clause, something he did to come to the Islanders this year.
The bottom line is this trade brought a temporary replacement for Anders Lee in Palmieri, but they also brought in Zajac, another key role player that can help this team get to the promise land.
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