Devil of a time for Zajac

KEN WIEBE

, Last Updated: 7:48 AM ET

Getting ahead of the learning curve during his rookie season was both a blessing and a curse for Travis Zajac.

Zajac, the slick centre from Winnipeg, is enjoying his second NHL campaign with the New Jersey Devils but there have been a few more bumps in the road.

Playing for a new head coach, Brent Sutter, has been an adjustment for the Devils' first round pick (20th overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

"There's always a feeling-out process, but it's been good for our team to have Coach Sutter on the bench," said Zajac, who starred for two seasons at the University of North Dakota before turning pro.

"I'm playing the same role as last year. I've got to produce offensively and be good defensively. You've got to be good at both ends of the ice and if you aren't, you'll hear about it."

With 14 goals and 34 points in 78 games this season, the numbers are respectable but his production has dropped off a bit from last season (17 goals, 42 points in 80 games) and on a team that doesn't score a lot of goals, Zajac is relied on to produce a bit more.

"The second year is always the toughest, you're coming off the first year where there is so much excitement and everything is new," said Zajac. "I want to take my game to another level. The points will come, but that's not what our team is about. The New Jersey Devils organization has always been about hard work and system and defence. Those are the most important things."

Sutter said Zajac's game has been coming around lately.

NO DIFFERENT

"He's starting to find his way again," said Sutter. "He's a young man still learning what it takes to be a consistent player at this level, not just physically but mentally too. There's a process young men go through at this level. We all go through it as players and he's no different than the majority of the others. He has to compete at a high level every night."

Zajac is one of three Manitobans playing for the Devils the year, the second being Portage la Prairie product Arron Asham, who signed a free agent deal with New Jersey after spending the past four NHL seasons with the New York Islanders.

The opportunity to compete for a championship was the driving force behind the decision.

"Definitely, that's the reason why I came here," said Asham, who has six goals and 10 points in 73 games this season. "This is a first-class organization and this is my best chance to win a Stanley Cup. (Sutter) demands a lot from his players and he wants to win every game. It's great to play for a coach who hates losing."

The third Manitoban on the Devils, defenceman Bryce Salvador, is on the sidelines with an undisclosed "lower-body" injury.

Salvador, a Brandon product, has played just eight games since he was acquired from the St. Louis Blues at the NHL trade deadline.


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