Travis Zajac: The Elite Question

Travis Zajac has scored two goals in two games, recently signed an eight-year contract extension and appears on track to being the next Devils captain after Bryce Salvador turns over the “C.” Oh, and he also helped replace the departed Zach Parise on the Devils’ top line this season. That’s a heck of a two weeks for Zajac, who missed basically all of last season due to injury. Obviously, Zajac won’t score 48 goals this season (his current pace), but what’s the next logical step for him?

Pete DeBoer answered that at practice Thursday:

He’s always good defensively. His compete level’s always good. The next level for him is a true No. 1 center in the NHL and there’s probably only a dozen to 15 of those guys. So that’s the elite level he’s looking to get to and I don’t see any reason he cant get to that group.

Corey Griffin

Parise got paid like an elite player. Does that make him elite? Not sure about that. Don’t get me wrong, he’s REALLY good, but elite — ehhhhhh. He does a lot of things — great leader, great in the room, natural talent, hard worker. I could go on and on, but for the sake of this conversation, let’s leave Zach out of this an focus on the elite centermen in the NHL now. Fair to say that group starts with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (still ridiculous they’re on the same team) and includes Steven Stamkos, Claude Giroux, Henrik Sedin, Jonathan Toews and Henrik Zetterberg. After that, you get into murky territory. You want to throw in John Tavares and Eric Staal? Okay, I’ll buy that. But Mike Richards? Only when’s motivated. Brad Richards? Maybe 3-4 years ago.

I think we all agree Zajac isn’t elite or even very good right now. Potential to get to the very good level? Yeah, I see it, but elite? Not sure I’m buying that. He’s a very sound two-way player and he’s got the potential to put up 80 points in an 82-game season, I believe, especially now that he’s skating on the top line. But something DeBoer said yesterday stuck with me when thinking about the Zajac-elite discussion. When talking about Ilya Kovalchuk moving to RW last year, DeBoer made the point that NHL will eventually find a way to shut you down and coaches have to find a way to maximize your talents in other ways. That’s true over the long haul of the regular season and over a two-month playoff run, but the really, really good players, the ones that are even close to that elite level, they find ways themselves to stop or beat whatever plan you’ve concocted to stop them. Does anyone watch Travis Zajac play and think, “Man, I really think he can be unstoppable some nights.” I don’t get that sense. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m just saying that Zajac has at least another level or two go before he’s even in the discussion of getting to THAT level.