North Dakota players Smaby, Zajac to leave for NHL

Updated: April 15, 2006, 1:30 AM ET
Associated Press

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- University of North Dakota defenseman Matt Smaby and forward Travis Zajac are leaving early to sign professional hockey contracts.

Smaby, a junior and team captain this past season, on Thursday signed with Tampa Bay, UND said. The Lightning selected him in the second round of the 2003 NHL draft.

Zajac, a sophomore this past season, signed with New Jersey. The Devils selected him in the first round -- 20th overall -- in the 2004 draft.

Terms of the contracts were not disclosed.

"It's something I always dreamed of doing, and I think it became more and more realistic recently," Smaby said. "This year I elevated my game, my level of play. I think I have a game that suits the next level."

Zajac did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment left with the Sioux athletic department on Thursday. UND coach Dave Hakstol also did not immediately respond.

Zajac will report this week to New Jersey's American Hockey League affiliate in Albany, N.Y., UND said. Smaby said he will report to the Lightning this summer, after finishing the spring semester at UND.

Smaby, from Minneapolis, played in 129 games for the Fighting Sioux over three seasons, with six goals and 23 assists. He had a career-best four goals and 15 assists this past season, during which UND made it to the NCAA Frozen Four for the second year in a row.

Zajac, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, was UND's second-leading scorer this past season with 47 points (18 goals, 29 assists). He played in all 91 games during his two-year college career, scoring 38 goals and recording 48 assists.

This past season, he had six points (three goals, three assists) in three NCAA Tournament games, tying for the tournament lead in total points and points per game.

UND had 11 NHL draft picks on the roster last season.

"I think there's going to be a couple of other guys who are going to have the opportunity to move on if they want to," Smaby said.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press