Just one year after the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was put in place, many NHL teams are now icing players who have made the decision to leave college early to get a crack at the world’s best league.
According to New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, “I think the new rules might have something to do with it because you only retain their rights for three full years. They can become a free agent at the end of their fourth year.”
Indeed many GMs are now working harder to sign players early out of college to get the most out of their rights.
One such player the Devils managed to lure away from college hockey was the Devils 2004 first-round draft pick Travis Zajac.
“We thought the way he had progressed his first year then the improvement his second year that he was ready to play,” explained Lamoriello. “We thought he was similar to Paul Martin two years ago. You know he had played in championship games and he got himself to a point where we felt he was very close and so we wanted to find out [if he was ready].”
Despite New Jersey’s confidence in him, Zajac said leaving the University of North Dakota after just two seasons was a difficult decision.
“I chose North Dakota to become a better hockey player,” said Zajac. “I wanted to improve my game there. After two years I thought I was ready to take the next step in my career and so far it’s turned out for the best.”
Zajac’s decision has turned out well but the Winnipeg, Manitoba native took a big chance leaving college as he didn’t have a guarantee he’d make the Devils NHL team.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen this year,” acknowledged Zajac, “And coming in I just wanted to be like everyone else and fight for a spot on the team and I was able to do that. Hopefully now I’ll just learn every day, improve every day and take it one day at a time.”
Not only did Zajac make the team, the 21-year-old center has become a key member of the New Jersey offense. He has averaged 15:19 minutes of ice time per game with a +3 rating. Zajac has scored 6 goals and 14 points in 23 games while playing most consistently on the line dubbed the “Minny-Winny” line for the Devils. The line consisting of Minnesotans Jamie Langenbrunner and Zach Parise has provided needed scoring while the Devils top line was mired in a slump.
Despite the line’s success, Devils coach Claude Julien opted to break the line up during the Devils recent trip to Anaheim in hopes of sparking Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta out of their respective slumps. Zajac and Langenbrunner were then placed on a line with the Devils captain.
“I’ve played with Patty before and he’s a good player,” said the 6’2, 200-pound center. “You just play with whoever you’re put out there with and we’ve played together before so we did have some chemistry out there.”
The change in lines did manage to spark additional scoring for Devils.
And while Zajac has proven to be one of the top scoring Devils, he has quickly risen to the top of the NHL’s rookie statistics. He ranks seventh overall among all NHL rookies for points scored (14), sixth overall for power-play goals (3) and seventh for plus/minus (+3).
Zajac credits his teammates for helping with him successfully transition to the NHL.
“Before the season [I was intimated] a little bit, but when I started playing with them but they’re just like me,” said Zajac. “They’ve been helping me out on the ice and letting me know what to do and that’s been making me feel a lot more comfortable on the ice and I think it’s helped me out a lot and I’m able to do more things now and I’m more confident with the puck.”
Lamoriello has also been pleased with Zajac’s play in his first professional season.
“He’s a complete player,” said Lamoriello. “He’s a young man who plays both sides of the puck. He has a great attitude, great character. He has hockey strength and has a great future.”
While Lamoriello has been pleased with the young center, Zajac is most pleased with the way the team has played. The Devils have come a long way since the start of the season. They were one team, many people were watching as the team struggled to get under the salary cap. The team which has seen a loss of big stars in the past two years including Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens has surprised many with their 14-9-2 record and currently sit in first place in the Atlantic Division.
“We’ve got some young guys in the back end that have really done the job for us so far this year. I think we’ve been good defensively so far this year not having given teams too much.”
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