Zajac trying to grind his way to NHL
ALBANY Scoring points by the bucket and making it look pretty, that’s just not how Darcy Zajac plays the game.
The only thing flashy about the game when he’s on the ice is the glare of the arena lights on the glass as it flexes back and forth, set in motion by a hit in the corner.
That doesn’t mean the Albany Devils’ third-year centerman doesn’t turn in big plays. When his line is at its best, the Devils have been at theirs, feeding off the energy brought by the physical role players.
“I think it’s something that line, we, individually, appreciate,” Zajac said. “Scoring out there, for us, is a byproduct of working hard and getting the puck in deep, just working the other team. On any given night, if we can chip in offensively and do the other stuff along with that and help the team win, it’s a great night.”
The other stuff, that’s the grit Zajac brings to the game — finishing checks, chipping pucks, fighting when necessary, getting in on the forecheck and being a pest around the goal — which has never been as celebrated as the pretty goals that make the highlight reels, scored by players with a different skill set, maybe a little more finesse, more geared toward point production.
Players like, say, his older brother Travis and younger brother Kelly.
Travis is the top-line center for the New Jersey Devils, Kelly a rookie center on Darcy’s AHL team in Albany. Both are more offensive-minded, with Kelly — who ranks first in career assists (91) for Union College and second in points (128) — still developing into whatever type or caliber of scorer he will be as a pro.
Darcy’s contribution is not measured in goals and assists, it’s measured on an intangible scale, at the top of which is the phrase “tough to play against, every night.”
Albany coach Rick Kowalsky said that’s the kind of player Darcy has to be to get to the next level.
“Darcy should be a guy that defensemen and other forwards are saying, ‘I’m out here against this guy, he’s in my face, he’s finishing his checks, he’s protecting the puck, and every time we’re against him, they’re in our zone,’ [that] type of deal,” Kowalsky said. “That’s what we want to create, that’s we’ve been trying to create this year, and we feel we’ve got to that point. He’s a guy who needs to play like that and play like that all the time.”
GROWING INTO A ROLE
Talk to the three oldest Zajac brothers and three different versions of the story come out.
Darcy laughed and said Kelly was more the troublemaker. Kelly said Darcy was more of an “outlaw,” but in saying “He was definitely one I could start a fight with,” Kelly admits he also had a nose for the favorite pasttime of siblings the world over. Travis said Darcy knew what buttons to push and when to push them.
“We fought a lot growing up — fought, wrestled, whatever,” Travis said. “He liked to trash talk and get under your skin. That led to a lot of confrontations between us.”
That was more than Darcy just being a little brother.
Travis and Kelly said from the beginning, when the four brothers — including Nolan, who is a freshman defenseman with the University of Denver this season — would play on the outdoor rinks in their hometown of Winnipeg, Darcy’s style of play stood out.
“He was a lot different from, I think, all of us. A little fiercer on the ice, kind of like he is now,” Travis said. “I think he’s always been that type of player. He likes to play with an edge, he likes the game, he likes to compete and I think you saw that from an early age. He’s still got some good skills that he’s improved on. I think he’s embraced the role that suits him. He’s a good checking forward, he can score goals, he can do a lot of the little things well. Now he’s got that fighting aspect to his game, and that helps out a lot, too.”
“On the outdoor rinks, it’s a little different than playing in these competitive leagues,” Kelly said, “so it’s not like he was going around two-handing guys and yapping at guys, but his style of play was the same on the outdoor rinks — pretty aggressive, get in there and grind it out.”
That aggressive nature turned out to be an ace up Darcy’s sleeve.
His freshman year at the University of North Dakota came just after Travis finished his sophomore (and final) year at the school. Travis posted 18 goals and 29 assists to finish second on the team in points during the 2005-06 season. Darcy came in for the 2006-07 season thinking he might do the same.
“In juniors, I always thought I was going to be one of the team’s leading scorers, but when I made the transition to college at the University of North Dakota, you kind of take a back seat to some of the stars that are there like [Jonathan] Toews and [T.J.] Oshie and a bunch of other guys,” Darcy said. “But I wanted to find a role. I wanted to play every night. That [aggressive, physical hockey] is something I was good at and something I took a lot of pride in doing. So I just continued on, working on the little details of the game — faceoffs, winning battles on the boards and just bringing energy every night.”
THE NEXT BIG STEP
That’s the key if he wants to find a spot on an NHL roster.
His third season has been his most consistent. He has played in all but six games, earning a spot as a regular even through the NHL lockout when Albany had a handful of players who belonged in Newark.
To make the jump to the next level, though, he will have to continue to fine-tune his game and make sure he doesn’t get too fancy or start worrying too much about point production.
“The thing about Darcy is he’s a smart enough player where I can use him in different situations,” Kowalsky said. “But you know, he still has to work on pace in his game. If he’s going to potentially make it as one of those role players, he has to play the same way every night, as far as banging and chipping pucks.
“And he’s going to have some nights where he contributes with goals and his confidence gets up, and the biggest thing is you don’t want to change your role or make the decision that you’re a different player. With him, I think it’s understanding that, accepting it and realizing it’s something he’s going to have to embrace and do every night.”
Translating grit into a spot in the NHL seems a little tougher than making it as a scorer. Darcy tried to explain how it’s not, that it’s just a different road, but as he spoke, that road sounded more and more difficult.
“I wouldn’t say it’s tougher in a sense, I would just say you deal with different scenarios coming in,” Darcy said. “You’re usually not a drafted guy, so that doesn’t really help. You don’t put up a lot of points, so that doesn’t help, as well. And there’s usually only three or four guys on a team that fall into that role, so there’s less opportunity.
“But if you’re competing every night, and you’re going out there and doing all the little things, someone’s watching, somewhere. You just hope for the best down the road.”
THE GIONTA EFFECT
Centerman Stephen Gionta was grinding out his sixth season with New Jersey’s AHL affiliate when he was recalled for the last game of the 2011-12 NHL season. He scored his first NHL goal that night and was kept on for the postseason run that brought the Devils to the Stanley Cup finals.
At 5-foot-7, the odds were stacked against Gionta in the top league, but his energy and tenacity earned him a spot on the fourth line. He played in 24 playoff games, posting three more goals and four assists.
The Devils rewarded this role player with a new contract that is one-way this season, meaning Gionta will be paid an NHL salary, even if they send him to Albany for a few games at some point. So, he is likely to be with the big club all season.
“It just shows you that someone is watching,” Darcy said. “You don’t have to be the biggest guy, the most skilled guy, the fastest guy. You just need to fit into a role they need at the moment, show up and fill that role, be consistent at it and do the little things night in and night out. The opportunity will come, if you do that, and you’ve just got to keep working, no matter what happens.”
It’s a smart move by New Jersey, because not only does it reward Gionta for the work he has put in over the years, it gives every hard-working player in the organization hope and incentive.
“It’s just being consistent and winning the little battles and
doing the right things every game,” Darcy said. “If I do that and keep working on the little things, just putting the puck in the right place, winning my faceoffs, kind of being nasty away from the faceoffs, I think there will come a time when they need a guy like me up there, and I’ll just be ready for it and be waiting for it.”