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Zajac finding faceoff groove

Centerman turned to Oates, bigger stick blade to improve on draws

Tuesday, 12.14.2010 / 5:01 PM ET / News
By Eric Marin
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Zajac finding faceoff groove
Zajac battles Vancouver's Manny Malhotra.
Travis Zajac has used guidance from faceoff guru Adam Oates to find nirvana inside the circles.

In a season that’s featured its share of disappointing team statistics, Zajac’s faceoff percentage stands tall.

His 57.9 percent success rate ranks ninth in the NHL, ahead of standouts like Pavel Datsyuk, Jason Spezza and Sidney Crosby.

Zajac has won 288 of 497 draws this season. He won 52.9 percent last year, following seasons of 53.1 (‘08-09), 51.2 (‘07-08) and 46.9 percent as a rookie in 2006-07. Operating at almost 60 percent these days, he’s shoulder to shoulder with the League’s best.

“I think the biggest thing that’s helped me is working with Oates on faceoffs,” Zajac said. “It’s unbelievable some of the little things he teaches you. It’s helped me a lot, obviously.”

One of the top playmakers in history, Oates was also one of the best ever on draws. What Oates learned in 1,337 regular-season games has had a big impact on Zajac.

“For me, I always used to go in the faceoff and try and go in last and get the edge,” Zajac said. “Oates was telling me just to get my stick in there first and it’s not a big motion to win the draw. It’s just a little flick of the wrist and being strong and most of the pucks go back. It’s something I’ve been concentrating on during games, and it’s definitely helped.”

John MacLean has noticed the improvement.

“Him and Oatesy talk a lot,” the head coach said. “Oatesy’s a former centerman so he gives him the little tricks of the trade. That’s always helpful.”

From the moment he enters the circle, Zajac focuses on one thing.

“You’re watching the puck, you’re always watching the puck,” he said. “Obviously it’s the most important thing on the ice. That’s basically it. I’m not too worried anymore what other players are doing. I’m just going in knowing how I want to win this draw.”

Zajac hasn’t just revised his approach, he’s also wielding a bigger stick. He credited a new blade pattern with giving him a new edge.

“I had a really small, short blade before and I went a little longer and a little thicker,” he explained. “It helps just being able to get more of the pucks on faceoffs. I haven’t changed too much, I think it’s just something you learn over the years and try and improve on, get better on.”
Though his offensive totals aren’t where he’d like them to be, the fifth-year centerman’s versatility makes him a core member of the Devils’ man-advantage and even-strength play, as well as their eighth-ranked penalty kill (84.3%).

“Trav’s game overall it’s been a good game, just sometimes because we’re not scoring you look at the offensive more,” MacLean said. “Maybe his offensive numbers aren’t what we would like, but his overall game kind of counteracts that. He’s played well and hopefully he can get some more offense with that as well and not lose any of his overall play.”

-- The Devils placed forward Brian Rolston on waivers. Teams have until noon Wednesday to claim him.

-- Defenseman Anssi Salmela will make his season debut when the Devils host Phoenix on Wednesday. He had been sidelined following offseason knee surgery.

"He skates well, he moves the puck well," MacLean said. "In our own zone, if he uses his abilities and doesn’t try to do too much, and moves the puck and uses his skating ability, get his shot  through from the point, it’d be helpful. He’s got a good shot."

-- Center Tim Sestito was recalled from Albany (AHL) on Tuesday. It’s Sestito’s second call-up this season. He has two goals, five assists in 12 games with the Devils’ top minor-league affiliate.

“I’m more comfortable with it, but I’m always glad to be back,” Sestito said. “You always love the call, whether it’s your first or your tenth. I’m happy to be here and hoping to contribute.”