He may not be the main attraction this week at the Jets annual development camp but there’s no doubt he carries the biggest name.
Nolan Zajac, brother to New Jersey Devils’ centre Travis Zajac, is one of 37 players at this year’s camp. After going undrafted in 2010, he was extended an invite after he received a positive review from Jets' amateur scout Brian Renfrew.
Zajac, a 21-year-old Winnipegger, had planned to resume his typical summer regime in the city — filled with workouts and on-ice training — when the phone rang.
“They called me four days before camp and asked me if I was interested,” said Zajac, who tallied five goals and 23 points with the University of Denver Pioneers last season. “I said ‘sure why not.’ Especially it being my hometown, it’s kind of cool.”
Zajac is no stranger to NHL development camps. Winnipeg is his third National Hockey League summer program in as many years. Two years ago he attended the Vancouver Canucks camp, and last year he was in Chicago.
Devils for brothers
Missing one of his front teeth — a common casualty of the game — Zajac looks and acts like a young man who’s dedicated the better part of his life to hockey.
And he has.
It’s not really like he had the choice. He’s the youngest of four brothers in a hockey-crazed family.
Travis, the oldest at 29, will start his second year of an eight-year, $46-million contract when the Devils hit the ice in October.
Darcy, 27, and Kelly, 26, are both members of the Devils' American Hockey League affiliate in Albany.
“Not the talkative one, that’s for sure,” said Zajac, when asked to describe himself within the brotherhood. “I’m probably the quiet one. I keep to myself but I hate losing to them in anything so I think I’m better at every sport.”
It’s the kind of competitive nature that comes from growing up in a household where battles on the outdoor rinks were on the daily. Even today, Zajac admits things can get pretty heated over a “friendly” game of Ping-Pong, making it no coincidence the table is conveniently located in the garage of his parent’s Winnipeg home.
“I’m the best one now I can tell you that,” he boasted.
Zajac’s subtle confidence has translated beautifully on the ice this week. Here to soak in every bit of NHL experience he can, he certainly doesn’t look out of place facing the likes of Canadian Hockey League superstars such as the Jets 2014 first round pick Nikolaj Ehlers, or Portland Winterhawks teammates Chase De Leo and Nic Petan.
In fact, Zajac’s precision skating style stands out, enough so that it’s begun turn a couple of important heads.
“We were all talking after the one drill with fake shots, with different movements and skating, transitioning side to side, forward to backwards and you know what, he stood out,” said Jimmy Roy, the Jets' coordinator of player development.
“He’s got some skill and he’s a good player.”
Standing at 5-foot-10 and weighing 180 pounds, his measurements aren’t exactly in line with today’s NHL elite defenders. But what may be even less traditional is how Zajac became a member of the blue line despite all three of his brothers playing up front, as well as his father, who also attended the U of Denver.
“I wanted to be goalie at one point when I was little,” said Zajac. “But I always liked scoring goals so the best way to defend and score goals was to play defence.”
He describes himself as a two-way player, a style typical to his older brothers, but admits his eagerness to join the offensive rush whenever the opportunity presents itself. In his first year with Denver, he even played wing on the team’s No. 1 power play unit.
“As a smaller D-man I like to push the pace with the puck,” he said. “I have good instincts. I like to be a two-way player and I’m working on that but my offensive side is where I’m best at.”
High hockey IQ
What’s most impressive about his game is his high hockey IQ, according to Jim Montgomery, Zajac’s current coach in Denver and former Manitoba Moose.
“He’s very smart and he reads the ice well,” said Montgomery, who had a standout four years at the University of Maine that led to a 12-year professional career, which included 130 games between five NHL clubs.
“Nolan is an extremely dependable player because of his hockey sense, his awareness and his poise with the puck. And he’s someone I think plays bigger in big games.”
In two seasons with the Pioneers, Zajac has collected 11 goals and 38 assists. In his first year he led the entire team with a plus-12 rating and earned the honours of top freshman, an award chosen by his peers.
Like you’d expect, Zajac’s end goal is to follow the path of his three brothers and pursue a professional career in hockey. Being the youngest, he understands and appreciates the advantage of learning from the three before him, something he calls his biggest asset.
But as important as his brothers are to his development, Zajac is equally as focused on carving his own path. It’s why he decided to go to Denver instead of University of North Dakota where Travis and Darcy attended.
But that doesn’t mean he’s not proud of where he comes from, or the name on the back of his jersey.
“It’s definitely something I embrace and am proud of,” he said. “With the name itself, I want to follow what they’re doing, the pro lifestyle their living, but I want to be on a different path than them. I think I’ve done that already.”
As for right now, it’s not his coaches, but his family he’s looking to impress, and not just on the ice but in the classroom too. Like his brothers Darcy and Kelly before him, Zajac plans to finish his degree before pursuing a hockey career.
“That’s a big thing in our family and I respect that,” said Zajac, who’s working towards a major in communications and minor in business.
“I think that’s important because you never know what happens after hockey.”
Nolan Zajac stats (year, team, games played, G-A-P)
2009-10: Cedar Rapids RoughRiders (USHL) 49GP, 0-11-11
2010-11: Cedar Rapids RoughRiders (USHL) 45GP, 3-27-30
2011-12: Cedar Rapids RoughRiders (USHL) 7GP, 0-1-1
2011-12: Omaha Lancers (USHL) 53GP, 11-28-39
2012-13: U. of Denver (WCHA) 37GP, 6-20-26
2013-14: U of Denver (NCHC) 42GP, 5-18-23
Defence at camp (number, name, team, ht/wt)
#94 Taylor Fleming, Western Michigan (NCHC), 5’11/200
#92 Ralfs Freibergs, Bowling Green (WCHA) 5’11/191
#47 Jack Glover, US-NTDP (USHL), 6’3/185
#79 Shane Hanna, Michigan Tech (WCHA), 5’11/195
#86 Aaron Harstad, Colorado College (WCHA), 6’1/200
#96 Jared Hauf, Seattle (WHL), 6’6/216
#91 Marcus Karlstrom, AIK J20 (SuperElit), 6’2/181
#53 Jan Kostalek, Rimouski (QMJHL), 6’1/185
#78 Kevin Lohan, U of Michigan (Big 10), 6’5/202
#62 Nelson Nogier, Saskatoon (WHL), 6’2/193
#54 Tucker Poolman, Omaha (USHL), 6’3/200
#84 Peter Stoykewych, Colorado College (WCHA), 6’3/200
#64 Nolan Zajac, U of Denver (NCHC), 5’11/180