Travis Zajac is 34 and in the midst of his 14th season in the NHL.
It would be understandable that, having been subjected to the ravages of time, the Winnipeg native might have lost a step along the way. But, oh, to the contrary.
At a recent New Jersey Devils practice, Zajac left all of his teammates in the dust.
“We track speed in practice and he was No. 1 on the chart,” said New Jersey’s Blake Coleman prior to Tuesday night’s game in Winnipeg against the Jets. “Over 22 (m.p.h.).”
Reminded of this, the Winnipeg product downplayed the feat.
“Well, yeah, (I was fastest) for the day,” a smiling Zajac said, noting that Taylor Hall is the most likely member of the Devils to win any race. “I don’t read into it too much, but I can get up and play in this game and I don’t feel speed has affected me as much as people think.”
Coleman said Zajac’s longevity in the game is due to the centre’s dedicated fitness regime and his focus on the details of the game.
“The thing about Trav is he’s dependable,” said Coleman, Zajac’s regular left-winger since 2017-18. “You can always rely on him and you know what he’s going to bring every night. I don’t think he’s any different right now.
“As a line, we’d like to be producing a little bit more right now but we’ve got our (penalty) kill back on track. He just does so many of the little things that maybe don’t show up on the scoresheet. He’s so reliable in his own end and he’s a good faceoff guy.”
Zajac, who had a goal and four points in 12 games prior to Tuesday’s action, acknowledged his start mirrored the Devils’ roller-coaster ride in 2019-20.
“I think it’s been up and down, kinda like our team,” Zajac said. “I feel like, as a team, the last five or six games we’re trending in the right direction. We’re starting to out-play teams and out-compete teams and win special-teams battles each night. Those are things you want to keep going.”
Zajac played his 935th regular-season game Tuesday and, if he remains healthy, he would reach 1,000 games played on the final day of the 2019-20 regular season.
Is the milestone something he had targeted?
“Not really, to be honest,” Zajac said. “I feel I’m pretty fortunate to have played as long as I have and compete as long as I have. When you first start, you just play, you’re excited to be there. You never think quite past the next game. It’s humbling to see that I’ve played this long and have a chance at getting there.
“Things happen and things change, so you never know.”
After this year, Zajac has one year remaining on an eight-year pact worth US$46 million. He remains noncommittal about how much longer he wants to play.
“I don’t want to look too far ahead, but it just means I’ve played on some good teams, played for some good coaches, with some good players and it’s taken me a long way,” Zajac said. “As long as you’ve got that fire in you, you can play. Once you lose that sense of coming to the rink and trying to improve and grow your game, I think that’s when you know it’s time.”
The recent infusion of superb young talent in New Jersey, particularly No. 1 overall draft selections Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, has also helped to inspire the old pro.
“I like watching (Hughes) in practice,” Zajac said.
“Seeing the skill of some of these young guys is amazing. It makes me want to work harder and try to compete.”
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
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