New Jersey Devils Travis Zajac (Brandon Titus/Inside Hockey)
New Jersey Devils Travis Zajac (Brandon Titus/Inside Hockey)

Zajac’s Devils Commitment Worthy of Honor

In today’s edition of ‘Time Flies,’ can you believe it’s somehow been 10 years since the 2011-12 Devils triumphant run to the Stanley Cup Final?

That run, which was ultimately thwarted by the Kings in six games, capturing L.A.’s first Cup in franchise history, is the singular moment of organizational success in the last 10-plus seasons for New Jersey and perhaps, the biggest since the 04-05 lockout, only rivaled by the opening of the Prudential Center in 2007.

That run though was nearly halted dead in its tracks in a first round meeting with the surprise from Sunrise–the Florida Panthers. Dale Tallon, in his first go-around as GM, assembled a veteran-heavy squad that included the likes of ex-Devil, John Madden, Bryan Campbell, Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg and were backstopped by ex-Devil Scott Clemmensen and Jose Theodore, 10 years removed from being the last Hart and Vezina winning goaltender.

It was that Cats’ team that put the Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Martin Brodeur-led Devils to the brink of elimination in the opening round for a fourth time in five seasons. That might have made Parise, who agonized over his free agent process, to have more clarity in his need to move on to a contender; Kovalchuk, who’d play one more season in New Jersey, might have pulled the chute on NJ faster and Brodeur–would he have stuck around in the face of the Vanderbeek ownership issues? How difficult would the final years of Lou Lamoriello’s tenure with the Devils have been?

Enter Travis Zajac 5:39 into overtime in game six at the Rock.

His OT-winner, in a season in which he was limited to 15 games due to an achilles injury, not only pushed some of those looming questions down the road, it helped propel the Devils to their finest stretch since hoisting a Cup in 2003. The Devils would win the series one game later off the heroics of rookie Adam Henrique in overtime and take care of the rival Flyers and Rangers en route to the Cup Final, dropping just three games in pursuit.

After New Jersey bowed out in six games to the Kings, coming back from an 0-3 deficit, Parise did depart to Minnesota. Kovalchuk, would leave for the KHL despite having 12 more years remaining on his lucrative 15-year, $100 million contract–the cap ramifications of that still partially with the club. Brodeur would return after giving serious consideration to Toronto, among others. And by 2015, Lamoriello had exited his 28-year run in New Jersey to join the front office of the Leafs.

Pete DeBoer, who led the 2012 Devils behind the bench, lasted two and a half more seasons before the ultimate by-committee approach that culminated in the eventual changes at the top.

Sometimes linemate, David Clarkson, Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus all retired by the 2015-16 season. Andy Greene, the last other holdover from the 2012 squad, was traded at the 2020 deadline.

All this, while Zajac, a soft spoken 14-year, 1,000-plus game center from Winnipeg, seemed to watch over the franchise–even if unintentional or by no doings of his own.

Since 2012, there’s been sometimes linemate, Mike Cammalleri Kyle Palmieri, Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes–among nearly a decade worth of Devils’ teams.

Zajac spent all but 27 games in his pro career with New Jersey. He and Palmieri were acquired by the Lamoriello-led New York Islanders before last season’s trade deadline. He saw 13 games of action in the regular season and took one final run for it all in the postseason, seeing 14 games of the Isles three-round postseason.

On Thursday, the Devils will give a proper honor to No. 19 in front of fans.

The 36-year-old has remained around the organization at times this season in a player development role, splitting his time here and in his hometown of Winnipeg. Besides being a one-time first-line center, a regular shutdown option against Sidney Crosby, among others and a resume of over 1,000 NHL games, it might be his demeanor that endears himself to a group that is trying to emulate some of the success he saw during the first half of his career with New Jersey, culminating in the 2012 run.

The current cast, a mostly young squad, though many he played with in parts of the last two seasons, know that questions for them will soon be looming. About a team who is young, but in need of showing its growth process on-ice and in the standings. About a team who will have important personnel decisions on the horizon. About a team who knows the expectations that should come with a team that’s selected two first overall centers in the last five entry drafts.

And enter Zajac, who even in retirement will try and get the Devils to push those questions down the road if not away entirely as they look for success. That commitment much like his playing days all the more reason to honor a near-career New Jersey Devil.