When Brad Berry recruited Travis Zajac to play for the University of North Dakota, the former knew he was getting a talented offensive centreman.
Zajac proved as much when, as a scrawny 18-year-old, he checked in with a whopping 53 goals and 135 points in 73 combined regular season and playoff games for the 2003-04 Salmon Arm Silverbacks of the British Columbia Hockey League.
But when Berry began working with Zajac at the Grand Forks, N.D., school the former Winnipeg Jets and Canadian national team defenceman was delighted to learn that his new recruit was determined to become as skilled at the defensive part of the game.
"He is a very humble, hardworking guy," said Berry, now a pro scout for the Vancouver Canucks who also runs The Hockey Academy in Grand Forks. "To that point, he embraced the penalty-killing role and shutting down the opposition's top line as much as he does playing offensively."
This was welcome news for Berry, then an associate coach at North Dakota, because he was in charge of the team's penalty-killing unit. It was so stingy that with Zajac, along with current NHLers Drew Stafford and Matt Greene, North Dakota advanced to the NCAA final that season, only to lose to the University of Denver.
Now in his fourth NHL season, the 24-year-old Zajac has developed into a No. 1 centre on one of the league's elite-level teams, the New Jersey Devils.
"I actually consider myself a defensive forward, first and foremost," Zajac said. "I'm a defensive forward who can chip in offensively."
Zajac already has scored a career-high 21 goals this season and is four points shy of reaching 63 points, which would establish his best point total yet in the NHL. The Devils have 12 games remaining, including a tilt at home against the St. Louis Blues on Saturday evening.
Against the Blues, Zajac will play in his 307th consecutive game. He has missed only two NHL games, early in his rookie season due to a bruised thigh. Berry predicts Zajac will continue to be durable and improve his overall game because his 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame will only get stronger.
Chemistry formed with Parise, Langenbrunner
To illustrate though how efficient Zajac has become in the defensive zone, take a look at his combined plus-minus rating of plus-47 over the past two seasons. But what has helped his cause has been the chemistry he has developed with offensive whiz Zach Parise.
Parise preceded Zajac at North Dakota and his brother Jordan Parise was the school's goaltender during Zajac's two years in Grand Forks.
So the older Parise and Zajac quickly formed a bond because of their ties when they met at the Devils training camp in 2006. They have developed chemistry on-and-off the ice, along with linemate and Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner.
"We certainly have some chemistry on the ice," Zajac said. "We know where each other will be. We also talk a lot off the ice about how we can better."
Another factor in Zajac's swift development is the Devil's team philosophy of trying to draft character players as well as those who fit into their defensive responsible ways.
The Devils liked Zajac so much that they surrendered a third-round pick to move up two spots to take centre in the 20th spot in the 2004 draft that saw Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin chosen first and second overall. Six years later, we now know Zajac should have been a top-five selection that year.
New Jersey executive vice-president of hockey operations and scouting director David Conte credited his B.C.-area scout Glen Dirk with the Zajac find. The Devils selected Zajac after his final year in Salmon Arm.
"He's not the franchise, but he certainly is a valuable player and person," Conte said. "He comes from a good family and he definitely fits in the New Jersey philosophy."
Zajac was raised in Winnipeg and counts Chicago's Jonathan Toews, also from Winnipeg and who later played one season with Zajac at North Dakota, among his close friends. They skate together and push each other in the summer and text often during the season.
Zajac comes from a hockey a hockey family. His father Tom played at the University of Denver. His three younger brothers Darcy, 23, Kelly, 21, and Nolan, 17, also play. There were often epic family battles on the neighbourhood outdoor rink in Winnipeg.
"Whoever lost usually was playing with the old man," Travis joked. "He was my coach for the most of my life. He pushed me towards college and was big on education. It turned out to be a win-win situation for me."
The other sons, too, are in good situations. Darcy is a senior at North Dakota. Kelly is in his sophomore year at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. Nolan, the only defenceman in the family, plays in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the U.S. junior loop. He likely will be selected in the 2010 NHL draft this June.
But with Travis in New Jersey, the family is assured of one bonafide NHLer for years to come.