Travis Zajac is indeed furthering his education by turning pro, but he's not turning his back on college completely.
Zajac, the Winnipegger who signed his first pro contract with the New Jersey Devils on Thursday and signed an amateur tryout offer with the Albany River Rats of the AHL yesterday, will make his debut tonight against the Providence Bruins.
And after suiting up tomorrow against the Binghamton Senators, Zajac will return to the University of North Dakota to finish up the semester.
There was some speculation Zajac, who will forego his final two seasons of college eligibility, might be promoted to the big club for the Devils playoff run, but since his entry-level contract only begins next season he is ineligible for the post-season.
"It was one of the toughest decisions, I've ever made," Zajac said yesterday from Albany, N.Y., after skating with his new teammates for the first time. "I just felt I was ready to take the next step. I had two great development years and I felt comfortable I could leave and help the New Jersey Devils in the near future."
What types of things will Zajac focus on this weekend?
"I want to carry the mentality that I'm not a rookie and I can play at this level," said Zajac, who credits the hockey program at North Dakota for aiding in his development. "That way I can go into camp with the Devils in the fall and not everything is new to me. It's been very exciting for me. I was nervous on the plane ride but when I got on the ice everything was fine. I love to be out there and I want to just play the same way I've been playing all season."
Devils head coach and general manager Lou Lamoriello is thrilled to be bringing Zajac, the Devils first round pick (20th overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, into the fold.
"He's come leaps and bounds," Lamoriello said in a telephone interview yesterday from East Rutherford, N.J. "Offensively, he could always score goals and put up points but he's become a complete player."
When asked if he expected Zajac to compete for an NHL job or need a season in the minors, Lamoriello said the philosophy of the organization is to not rush young players along.
"If they surprise us, great but we don't really put any added pressure on them," said Lamoriello.
Zajac, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound centre, had 18 goals and 47 points in 46 games this season and helped the Fighting Sioux reach the Frozen Four for the second consecutive season.
That high-level experience should help Zajac as he adjusts from amateur to pro hockey.
"No question," said Lamoriello. "That experience is important and there are positives that come from both the highs and the lows. Some people don't see it that way, but we do."
River Rats head coach Robbie Ftorek said it's important to get a look at Zajac, even though his team isn't in the playoff picture.
"He's a good player," Ftorek told the Schenectady Gazette yesterday.
"He can skate, he's got a good shot, he passes the puck well and he's a smart player. He knows the game."