Over the course of the last two seasons there hasn't been a Devil that has received more criticism than Travis Zajac, That's not to say he wasn't deserving of it, but on a team that was underwhelming at every position except goaltender, he took the brunt of the fan's frustrations. Well, times have changed, and so has Travis Zajac's importance to this team.
Does he have the scoring touch of a Mike Cammalleri or a Kyle Palmieri? He unquestionably does not. Does he have the creativity or playmaking ability of an Adam Henrique? Fleetingly, at best. Still, the player many depended on to help lead this team offensively after the departure Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk has finally gotten the free start he so desperately needed and he's taken full advantage of it.
That's why his absence has been so glaring in a lineup that, to a significant degree, depends on his abilities. Look at the last three games, including tonight's against the Maple Leafs. The Devils have played some of their worst hockey since opening up the season on a four game losing streak. Sure, they have been able to eek out points, and even a victory, but a powerplay that had remained amongst the best in the league has done wonders in covering up this team's recent flaws. Without much debate, the Devils have largely been outplayed in every game since Zajac went down to injury. That's not a coincidence. There's a reason you have spent more time biting your nails, and it's because the puck has been spending a lot more time around the Devils net. A net that is usually protected, in part, by one of the best defensive forwards in hockey
I don't think it's a secret that, despite the Devils surprising start, their offensive players are playing over their heads. Their 4th liners are mostly AHLers. Their 3rd liners are probably better suited as 4th liners. I think you're catching my drift. Well, those deficiencies only become exacerbated when the team's 2nd line center, who also happens to be their best defensive forward and most proficient face-off taker, is out of the lineup. Whatever skills Travis Zajac lacks in the offensive end, he makes up for in spades in his own end.
Ever since earning a hefty, long term contract Zajac has been an easy target for criticism, especially when the Devils are struggling. While he may not resemble a $6 million dollar per year player on the stat sheet, he is undoubtedly that valuable to the Devils current lineup. For an organization that is still very much dependent on keeping pucks out of their own net, Travis Zajac is worth every penny. That has been all too evident as the Devils have been unsuccessful in the face-off circle and spent far too much time hemmed in their own end over the last few games. This Devils team has plenty of heart, but one thing they don't have is the depth to overcome a nagging injury to a player in their top 6. That's why they need Travis Zajac back as soon as possible. He does the little things to help this team win, and with the margin for error being so small given their talent level, Zajac is an invaluable piece to a puzzle that's much more than sum of it's parts.
P.S. Pray for Adam Henrique...