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My Draft Day: Travis Zajac

A first-round surprise for New Jersey's top center

Tuesday, 06.14.2011 / 2:05 PM ET / Draft
By Eric Marin
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My Draft Day: Travis Zajac
Zajac's draft day portrait.
Of all the prospects whose lives were about to change, there was one teen at the RBC Center who simply didn't expect to hear his name as early as he did.

Travis Zajac's prospect capsule touted him as "patient", "clutch" and "confident." The Associated Press included him on a list of "possible" first-rounders. Yet the humble 19-year-old from Winnipeg wasn't convinced he'd go in the first 30 selections of the 2004 Entry Draft.

Sitting at 22, the Devils traded up two spots, sending a first and a third to Dallas. His agent seemed to know what was about to happen, but Zajac wouldn't have believed it if he hadn't experienced it himself.

The agent was right. Having just enjoyed a 43-goal, 112-point season with Salmon Arm (BCHL), Zajac was taken 20th overall by the three-time Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils.

Zajac spent the next two seasons at University of North Dakota, following in the footsteps of future Devils linemate Zach Parise. The Sioux reached the NCAA title game in 2005, Zajac's freshman season. A year later they were back at the Frozen Four.

Zajac left Grand Forks to begin his pro career and played 80 games as a Devils rookie in 2006-07. He's been one of the game's most reliable two-way centers ever since. The two-time 20-goal scorer and 60-point getter has cracked 40 points in four of his five seasons, hitting the 30-assist plateau in each of the last three.

And he's durable, too. Zajac made his 389th consecutive appearance on March 17, surpassing Ken Daneyko as the Devils' all-time ironman. By season's end, his streak had reached 401, a span that goes all the way back to Oct. 26, 2006.

With the 2011 NHL Entry Draft set for Friday, June 24, we caught up with Zajac to talk about his draft experience. The Devils are set to pick fourth overall, their highest selection since 1991, when they drafted Scott Niedermayer third.

What do you remember from your draft day?
It was in Carolina, I remember that. I wasn’t sure where I was going to go in the draft. I didn’t think I was going to go first round and just sitting there during the draft, I remember my agent telling me that I was going to be up next with the 20th pick, and I’m like, ‘No way.’ I didn’t believe him, and he was like, ‘Yeah, watch.’ I just remember getting called down the stadium and it was pretty exciting. It was a dream come true, obviously, being picked by New Jersey. It was one of the more special moments in my life.

What does that feel like when you first hear your name and reach the podium?
I don’t remember much. My heart was pounding a little. I was a little nervous walking down there. I remember getting on stage with Lou [President, CEO, GM Lamoriello] and [Executive Vice President, Hockey Operations/Director of Scouting] David Conte and thinking to myself, 'Oh, I’m a lot taller than these guys.’ It was fun. It was great to put on the jersey and the hat. That was probably the most exciting part for me was taking the pictures on stage when you put the jersey and hat on.

Had you interviewed much with the Devils?
I did a little bit, yeah. I did before the draft and then at the draft, a couple of days before the draft started. I did some extra interviewing with them so I thought they were maybe one of the teams that could pick me, but like I said, I didn’t really expect to go as high as I did. But it was pretty special. I was there with my dad, and I know he really enjoyed the experience too.

How about being drafted the same day as Kris Chucko, your teammate on Salmon Arm?
It was really cool just because we both had really good years the year before and were obviously good friends. He got drafted 24th (by Calgary) and I remember just seeing him downstairs after. It was pretty fun to see him get drafted and I was happy for him. It was great because we’d both had great seasons to work hard and were pretty excited about it.

You were headed to North Dakota, where Zach had enjoyed two productive seasons before he was drafted by New Jersey.
Yeah, I knew he got drafted by the Devils. I watched him play when I went down on my visit to North Dakota. I just realized then he was a pretty special player. It was pretty neat to see another guy from the Sioux get drafted.

Do you want to hear your prospect capsule? 

“Uses good skating skill to control pace of the game. ... Patient with the puck in drawing opponents to him. Then thrives on one-on-one battles. ... Clutch player who is not afraid to go into the corners. ... A confident puck carrier.”

Is that all still true?

I hope so! That sounds pretty good.

Sounds like you were the perfect player.
I’ve got a lot to live up to, then.