BOSTON – The last playoff game that Travis Zajac played in, before getting traded to the Islanders this season, was back on April 21, 2018.
So when the opportunity presented itself, at this season’s trade deadline, to go to a team that had legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations, Zajac waived his no-trade clause with the Devils – the organization he was in the midst of his 15th NHL season with — to make it happen.
“At [this] point in my career and where I’m at, I want a chance to win,” Zajac said in April.
Acquiring the 36-year-old forward, as well as Kyle Palmieri, from the Devils was a strategic depth move by Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello. While Palmieri slotted right into the lineup after the trade, Zajac played a few games but was also a healthy scratch some nights.
Zajac didn’t see any postseason action until after rookie Oliver Wahlstrom went down with a lower-body injury in Game 5 of the first-round series against the Penguins. Now, he’s playing substantial minutes in the thick of the Islanders’ playoff run.
“I’m definitely not taking it for granted,” Zajac said of competing in the playoffs after Monday’s morning skate, a few hours before Game 5 against the Bruins at TD Garden. “It’s been a great experience so far and you want to keep it going. It’s great group of guys. It’s a team that they all enjoy each other’s company, being around together and they do things the right way, so it’s been fun to be a part of.”
Skating on the Islanders’ third line next to Palmieri and Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Zajac has brought a hard-nosed style of play to the trio. Head coach Barry Trotz said after the Islanders’ 4-1 win in Game 4 Saturday that he didn’t think Zajac lost a single puck battle all night.
Zajac, in the final season of the eight-year, $46 million deal he signed with the Devils in 2013, had an assist on the go-ahead goal in his Isles playoff debut in the series-finale against the Penguins last month. But he’s done so much more for the team away from the score sheet.
“When Lou was talking about acquiring Travis, that there was a possibility of that, we talked about what he would bring,” Trotz said. “He would bring leadership, he would bring detail, he would bring an ability to play multiple positions and he has a competitive spirit. He’s played against top players. He’s been in a lot of different situations and that would come to the forefront when the games mattered most.
“Now, the games are mattering most and he’s in the lineup and you see his contributions.”
Trotz lauded Zajac for his attitude toward being in street clothes most games, particularly at the start of the postseason. The coach said telling Zajac the first time that he wouldn’t be dressing was difficult, but the veteran’s outlook on his new role made it easier on Trotz going forward.
“I came from a team where if you weren’t under 25, you didn’t fit in,” Zajac said. “Here, it’s a little different, it’s a veteran team. They play with structure, they play with commitments and it’s an easy group to come in and insert yourself because they’re all smart hockey players, they’ve been around and they have experience.”