Rookie Kelly Zajac proving his worth
After being limited by injury to 29 games last season, only 14 of those in the AHL with the Albany Devils, Kelly Zajac has answered any questions about how he might bounce back and what kind of contribution he could make as a rookie center playing a full AHL slate.
Entering the weekend, Zajac has 10 goals and 30 assists in 60 games, along with a plus-five rating. In his last seven games, he has two goals and five assists. In March, he had four multi-point games.
Zajac has been centering Mattias Tedenby and Stefan Matteau on the second line.
“When you look at those two guys, Stef and Teddy — Teddy’s so fast, he’s so skilled, and he’s that first guy on the forecheck because he beats guys with those first two steps. He beats D-men wide every time,” Zajac said. “Stef’s a big body who can really control the puck in the corner. That’s his go-to; he’s really good at it. He’s an NHL-type player. They create space. We’re connecting right now with the first passes and knowing where each other are.”
“We weren’t expecting to slide him into that second role,” Albany coach Rick Kowalsky said. “We looked at, potentially, a top-six role, but he grabbed it and hasn’t let go of it.”
While other rookies, like Matteau and Reid Boucher, came into the season with a bit of hype around them, Zajac entered the season on the sidelines as he continued to recover from a nagging lower-body injury. He missed much of the summer and training camp, then missed the first five games of the season before returning to center a line with Cam Janssen and Chris McKelvie.
He worked his way into more playing time and chances to play in more situations. He now plays both on the penalty kill and power play.
Initially, Kowalsky wasn’t sure what to expect from Zajac, who stands 5-foot-11 and weighs 175 pounds.
“Obviously, the size and pace, there was a little concern about that, but his hockey sense, he makes up for it in other areas,” Kowalsky said. “On most nights, he’s rock-solid at both ends of the ice. He’s killing penalties for us now, as well as obviously being a big part of the power play.”
“I think that has to do with my speed,” Zajac said. “I have pretty quick feet, I think. It’s about not getting caught in the train tracks and keeping moving so the big guys can’t hold you down. I’m not afraid to go into the corner and get the puck, but it’s just about moving and trying to find open spaces. It is a quick league and there are big guys, but you just have to keep moving.”
This season, too, presented a better set of circumstances not only for Zajac, but for all the rookies on the Devils. Last season’s lockout resulted in more players in Albany and fewer opportunities for rookies, especially rookies like Zajac who still had to prove themselves.
“Last year was kind of a different year. We had a lot of players,” Zajac said. “It’s a little different this year with maybe having just a couple extra guys, so rookies can really get into each game. It’s a young group. Myself, I’m a little older  as a rookie, but the young guys are having fun.”
The other rookies this season are no slouches. Starting from the back and moving forward, goalie Scott Wedgewood has been outstanding recently. For the season, he is 14-13-3 with a goals-against average of 2.46 and save percentage of .897. In his last seven starts, he is 5-2-0 with 13 goals allowed and a save percentage of .922.
Defenseman Seth Helgeson is the only Devil to have played in all 68 games and has a plus-10 rating. He has been paired with second-year man Corbin McPherson (plus-15), and they have routinely been sent out against opposing teams’ top lines.
Defenseman Reece Scarlett has a plus-nine and 17 points (four goals, 13 assists). He may return from an upper-body injury this weekend.
Left wing Matteau has 13 goals, 11 assists and a plus-three in 59 games, and left wing Boucher has 19 goals and 14 assists through 48 games.