The New Jersey Devils have locked up Travis Zajac, giving the center a new eight-year deal worth $46 million, as reported by ESPN's Pierre LeBrun. The deal will pay Zajac an average of $5.75 million a year over the course of the next eight years and contains a full no-trade clause. Zajac, 27, will be 35 when his eight-year deal expires.
Did the Devils pay a bit too much to retain Zajac or did they make the smart move by retaining their top center for years to come?
Prior to the announcement of his new deal, Zajac was in the final year of a four-year $15.55 million contract. His last couple years have been pretty rocky for the Devils, causing fans around the NHL to question whether or not he's worth this massive new contract, especially in the dawn of a new collective bargaining agreement.
It's rather ironic that the first major contract following the lockout is an eight-year deal that has many raising their eyebrows. Fresh off owners complaining that contracts are too big and too long, one team goes out and immediately gives the maximum number of years and arguably too much money to one of their players. Irony, thy name is NHL hockey.
In 2011-12, Zajac appeared in just 15 games due to an Achilles injury. He contributed six points but his play in the playoffs (seven goals, seven helpers in 24 games) reminded fans what he's capable of. Looking a bit further back, Zajac notched 44 points in 82 games in 2010-11 and had his best year statistically in 2009-10 when he scored 25 goals and 42 assists for a total of 67 points.
Some fans that question the contract will point to the fact the Devils are now on the hook for an average of $5.75 million a year over the next eight years for a guy that has never scored more than 25 goals in a season and has never surpassed 67 points. These are troubling points at it's difficult to reason why Zajac deserves so much money when he's accomplished so little – relatively speaking – in terms of offensive production.
It's worth noting that a player such as Zajac is difficult to dissect. His numbers may not be very impressive but he excels in other areas on the ice that won't appear in the charts. He always works hard, always gets back on defense and is a great option to have at center. Are these intangibles worthy of such a large contract?
Zajac will have to step up his production and tangible production in order for us to deem this a worthwhile contract. He needs to build off of his production from 2009-10 (67 points) – not his production from 2010-11 (44 points). He is one of the most underrated centers in the league but he'll still need to take his game to the next level. Perhaps most importantly, Zajac will have to continue to find chemistry with Ilya Kovalchuk and push Kovalchuk's game to a higher level for this deal to be considered reasonable.
On a different note, it's interesting that the Devils will apparently give the "C" to Bryce Salvador as opposed to the man they just locked up for eight more season.
It's safe to say Lou Lamoriello, GM of the Devils, wanted to make a statement after he lost Zach Parise to free agency. A loud, bold statement that his team might regret sometime in the next eight years. Stay tuned.