In some ways, Dainius Zubrus is what Viktor Kozlov should have been. A big forward with a combination of skill, toughness, and skating ability that goes well together like chocolate chips in chocolate ice cream. Whereas Kozlov never gave anything resembling an effort on the ice for more than, say, 1 game out of 7 or 8; Zubrus has been very willing to do what he's been asked on the ice. Need to throw the body around? Zubrus can do that. Is the line dumping it in and fighting on the boards for possession? Who better than a 6'5", 225 lbs. forward to get in there to make some space. Line up on the fourth line in the first week, but move up to the first about a month and a half later? No problem for Dainius.
But, as I look at how he's playing now in comparison to last season and a few other things, I think he's much, much better than Kozlov. And I'm not just saying that because I really didn't like Kozlov as a Devil. If, say, DRI wrote a song about his time in New Jersey, he'd be known as lineslouch.
What needs to be said first is that in retrospect, Zubrus represented the Devils forwards under Brent Sutter's first season. Zubrus was new to the team like Sutter and both had to feel their way in and figure out what would work and what wouldn't. Sutter tried all kinds of line combinations from game-to-game and almost always changed it up - not the tactics - the lines in-game. In the same way, Zubrus was seen as a challenge to figure out. He's certainly big, but he's too skilled to be a pure grinder. He always managed to get into good positions on offense, but for whatever reason he either get the shot off before being denied by a defender. He wasn't a liability on defense, but he certainly was a checker. He was able to play center; but he seemed to fit better on the wing - even his best position wasn't clear. So, like many of the other forwards, Zubrus was moved around a lot.
The result? The Devils' signed Zubrus to a $3.4 million/year deal through 2012-13 and the first season was 13 goals and 25 assists in 82 games. Even with all the movement within the team's lineup, Zubrus didn't exactly live up to being the fifth-highest paid player on the team.
However, those who have watched Zubrus play this season will tell you right away that he's been much better in season #2 as a Devil. While Sutter has moved him about quite a bit, he's definitely been more effective on the ice so far. He's been exerting himself along the boards more often, he's picked up Zach Parise's habit of crashing the net, and he's found some real chemistry with Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta as of late. As a whole his passing has been better and he's been more noticeable on the ice as a result. As it stands, he's already on pace to top last season's production by a good amount.
2008 - Dainius Zubrus
If you really want to delve into statistics, consider the Corsi stat. A great explanation of the statistic is at Japer's Rink and I recommend you all read it. That said, the bottom line is that in even-strength situations, the Corsi stat measures the number of shots put on net from your team when you're on the ice. Shots against while you're on the ice makes that stat go down. As you would expect, offensive players who have a good enough defense behind them will generally have high Corsi numbers. Players where the other team just steamrolls them when they are out there, will not. A good source for the Corsi stat with a regular update is at Behind the Net. Gabriel Desjardens includes it among some other interesting stats; but the Corsi stat for Zubrus is telling.
Last season, Zubrus had a Corsi stat of 4.5. Not terrible, but it was telling of his role and general play last season. He did some things out there, but it didn't consistently lead to positive results (shots on net, goals, etc.). This season, as of today November 25, 2008, Zubrus has the highest Corsi stat on the team among non-injured Devils with 16.9. Yes, more than Zach Parise, with his 82 shots, team-leading 13 goals and 24 points, and a line that clicks together. Yes, more than Patrik Elias, who generally puts plenty of shots on net and uses his skills on offense regularly. That's a significant improvement and it is a testament to how much better he is in dishing passes to teammates to take shots, winning pucks to keep the offense going, and getting shots on net himself. It also means that Zubrus isn't just a contributor on offense, but it just picks up when he's out there. That's something not easily swayed by a couple of good games earlier.
Do you need another stat to further justify this? Maybe not, but here's one anyway. Hockey Analysis has their own type of Player Ranking, wherein a player's offensive and defensive contributions are considered along with their ice time (contributing quite a bit on both ends, but with little ice time isn't much of a contribution). I don't fully get exactly how the rankings are developed, but it's another metric to go by. And it's another one that shows Zubrus' improvement. Last season, the player's performance in even strength shows Zubrus as a marginal, positive contributor. For his player ranking, Hockey Analysis deemed him to be a bit of a better contributor on defense (1.07 on offense, 1.12 on defense, 1.09 overall) and had him ranked a little higher than average (Aside: I think HA's rankings may favor defenders, look at Martin and Oduya!) Look at this season, and you'll find that Zubrus' performance shows him to be more of a positive contributor on the ice and while his defensive rating has dropped .09 to 1.03, his offense rating has shot up .47 to 1.54 (second highest on the team!) and his overall increased .19 to 1.30! Further proof of improvement under a different set of calculated metrics.
Sunday's game against Tampa Bay was excellent and he should be commended for his overall play and for scoring 4 goals in various fashions. But he truly is playing better hockey than last season and showing off all of his skills to go with his size. And even if you haven't seen him or don't take my word for it, two different forms of stats from two different sites appear to agree that, yes, Dainius Zubrus is contributing more to the team than he did last season. Dare I say it, but not only is he actually playing up to his contract; he's looking to be a great signing if Zubrus keeps it up. He doesn't need to put up 8 shots and score 4 goals a night (though that would be great), what he's been doing all year has been a net positive for the Devils. Should he continue what he's done in his first 20 games and Sutter continues to use him in an offensive role, we could see Zubrus make a bigger impact on the team. So much more than Viktor Kozlov could have ever been for New Jersey.