The deal is the maximum length allowed under the recently signed collective bargaining agreement and is the first long-term contract signed since the lockout ended. And while some may be surprised to see Zajac on the receiving end of a deal worth $5.75 million each year, the deal makes a good deal of sense.
To be fair, the former first-round pick is far from a perfect player. Through six seasons, Zajac's career high in goals is 25—he's only reached 20 one other time—and he's only put up more than 50 points twice. He's been the Devils' iron man, playing in 401 consecutive games from 2006 to 2011, but that streak ended after a training injury during the 2011 offseason kept him off his skates for most of the season. At 6'3", 200 pounds, he's not too physically imposing and isn't a supremely fast skater.
But Travis Zajac is more than just his statistics. He's a player with intangibles, described by Devils GM Lou Lamoriello as a "true devil." And head coach Pete DeBoer echoed that sentiment, saying, "He's such a prototypical New Jersey Devil. He's a big strong guy. He plays the right way. He plays both ends of the rink. Centermen like that are very hard to find."
Why does management have so much faith in Zajac? Well, there're a few reasons.
Zajac hasn't had a losing faceoff percentage since his rookie season, helping the Devils consistently have one of the league's best faceoff teams. Zajac can regularly win between 52 and 54 percent of his draws, and that number's on the rise, going above 55 percent in 2011. In his limited time in 2012, he was winning nearly 58 percent of his faceoffs.
Those numbers may not be flooring, but any fan should know the importance of having a go-to faceoff player who can be depended on in key situations.
On top of that, what DeBoer says is true: Zajac is an exceptional two-way player. That's not to say he's Zach Parise or Pavel Datsyuk, but he can be called upon in any situation, with any man advantage or disadvantage. Of his 91 career goals, 25 have come on the power play, two have been shorthanded and 11 have won games. After going minus-10 over his first two seasons, he went plus-55 over the following two.
He's never going to be a top player in the game, but realistically, he isn't being paid like one.
Yes, $5.75 million is an absurd amount of money, and as an average annual salary, it seems unimaginably large. By NHL standards, though, it's really nothing special. Consider these cap hits, via Capgeek.com:
- Mike Cammalleri has an annual cap hit of $6 million, while defensemen Mike Green and Kimmo Timonen are a bit higher, at $6.083 million and $6.333 million, respectively.
- Danny Briere, Dion Phaneuf and the infamous Wade Redden each account for $6.5 million.
- For cap hits between $6.5 and $7 million, you see the likes of Dan Boyle, Paul Stastny, Jay Bouwmeester and Mikko Koivu, among many others.
- Alex Semin makes $7 million per year, while Thomas Vanek and Scott Gomez make slightly more.
- Near the top, there's Vinny Lecavalier at over $7.7 million, Rick Nash at $7.8 and Eric Staal with $8.25 million.
- Of course, no one really comes close to the league's highest cap hit, Alex Ovechkin's whopping $9.5 million.
Most of those players are better than Travis Zajac, many of them by a large amount. But the fact is, salaries are going up. Travis Zajac is a first-line center who will play man-up and man-down and do a satisfactory job of it. Isn't that worth $5.75 million annually in an already grossly inflated market?
But there is one other driving force behind this signing, and it can't be understated.
Look at the roster of the Los Angeles Kings. You see how good they are? And with Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Justin Williams, Jarrett Stoll, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick signed on to play through the 2015-16 season, they are set up to compete for a very long time. Richards, Carter, Doughty and Quick are each under contract to play at least another four seasons after that!
In 2016, the Flyers will still have Scott Hartnell, Jakub Voracek, Maxime Talbot, Wayne Simmonds, Braydon Coburn, Luke Schenn, Nicklas Grossman and Ilya Bryzgalov.
The Red Wings will still have Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader and Niklas Kronwall.
Do you know who will still be on the Devils roster by then? Ilya Kovalchuk and Anton Volchenkov. That's it. During a period where the best teams are building long-term rosters, the Devils have to do their best to keep up. It would've been great to sign Zach Parise to an eight-year deal instead of Zajac, but that didn't happen.
Right now, Kovalchuk is the offensive future of the team. Adam Henrique and a few others may look promising, but only time will tell, and Patrik Elias will keep playing excellent hockey until he retires in the not-too-distant future. At that point, the Devils can now be confident that they will still have two-thirds of their first line intact.