As reported in the Star Ledger, with no agreement in sight, it looks like the Devils and Travis Zajac are headed for arbitration this Friday. 24-year old Travis Zajac is coming off a career year after tallying 20 goals and 62 points. He's been lauded for his astounding chemistry with Zach Parise, and is rendered as someone who would be in Jersey long term.
How many times have we seen this before? Off the top of my head, I recall players like Bobby Holik, Scott Gomez, and Scott Niedermayer going to arbitration, signing 1-year deals, and sign elsewhere the following summer, leaving a huge void in the Devils roster, which Lou patches up with a player who isn't half as skilled as his predecessor.
After coming off a career year, one could assume Zajac's confidence is high, especially after rebounding from a sophomore slump. He's undoubtedly a proven center that can only get better. Seems like the ideal guy to sign long term right? It's likely one or two things is going on. Either Zajac's asking price is too high or he is getting low balled. Originally, I thought the arbitration filing was to secure Zajac, since Lou had a lot on his plate. I was confident a long term deal would be signed by now and the Devils would have secured an essential part of their core.
So what happens if all goes as it looks? Based on Lou's track record with restricted free agents that go to arbitration, I wouldn't be surprised if Zajac is on another team a year from now. You can add another notch in Lou's big UFA losses column and another void in the Devils roster. Whoever's right or wrong depends on the situation. If Zajac's asking price was too high, I wouldn't blame Lou for letting him go, but if this is a matter of Lou being stubborn...again, then it should be the final push towards Lou retiring, resigning, or getting fired. Nonetheless, Zajac's departure would be a devastating and unacceptable loss. Not only do the Devils lose their top center and Parise's most compatible line mate at such a young age, but Zajac's departure could drive future unrestricted free agents such as Paul Martin, Zach Parise, and Johnny Oduya to sign elsewhere as well depending on the success the team and players experience afterwards.
Zajac is no Lecavlier or Thornton and I'm sure he could be replaced properly if Lou decides to. His loss would be monumental because of the role he's assumed as the team's best center since Scott Gomez. If you lose 2 No. 1 centers in 3 years, you have to act fast the second time around. As it stands, the only natural centers on the Devils are Zajac and Rod Pelley. If Lou thinks the Devils are still contenders next summer with Zajac unlikely to return, dipping into the minors for an internal replacement won't cut it, especially if Zajac's successor is playing with Zach Parise. To maintain team stability, a proper replacement for Zajac needs to be a proven natural center of equal or greater talent...It's called making a splash.
Am I over reacting or making any sense? The fact Zajac is headed towards arbitration is scary in itself, especially when you look at the Devil's luck in keeping their big unrestricted free agents. It is said history repeats itself in all aspects of life in some shape, way, or form. Hopefully things are different this time around. Hopefully Lou gets a deal done now or afterwards and keeps Travis in New Jersey long term. I would hate the Devils to lose another asset to unrestricted free agency again, especially a valuable player like Zajac. How he does this coming season, along with his age can make him a very attractive target next July and further lessen the Devil's chances of even getting a chance to retain him. As a fan looking from the outside in, the only thing you can do is hope, speculate, and wait for the outcome when the time arrives.
UPDATE July 22nd: The Devils have re-signed Travis Zajac to a multi-year deal. As usual, the terms of the deal have yet to be disclosed. I guess Devils fans breathe easily now...