The Devil You Know or the Devils You Don't: Second Line Center Thoughts

One of the biggest complaints/concerns that Devils fans have in this offseason is that the Devils need a center for the second line.  Not that the Devils don't have players who can play there, but that they would like to see someone better than Dainius Zubrus play in that position.   I can certainly understand the argument. Zubrus played a majority of the 2008-09 season with Patrik Elias (78 points in 77 games) and Brian Gionta (60 points in 81 games), and yet he ends up with this statline:


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
2008 - Dainius Zubrus 82 15 25 40 6 69 1 0 3 0 130 11.5

Let it be known that I wrote about Zubrus earlier this offseason with this post entitled the Zubrus Conundrum.  In case you didn't/don't want to read it, let me sum up my central point: figuring out what to do with Zubrus isn't easy. Yes, his production has not justified his contract.  Yes, it's disappointing that he hasn't produced more.  However, he is not a bust - he provided value in the run of play on that line with Elias and Gionta, made space down low, and worked quite hard all season long.  He helped make Sutter's offensive system work incredibly well last season.   I will absolutely not accept arguments that he's lazy, useless, as bad/worse as Viktor Kozlov based on how much I saw of him last season.  

However, the conundrum arises in that he's got the skills to be useful on a scoring line that would be wasted on a third line; while not being productive enough to really justify his spot on said scoring line.  Still, I did say that the Devils could use an upgrade there back before July 1.

Since then, in various projected line-ups I've seen here, at Gulitti's blog, on HF, etc. - Nothinggoespast's fanpost is an example of this, not that I'm picking on him/her specifically - Zubrus is slotted elsewhere while Brian Rolston or Patrik Elias is in the center on the second line.   I can see a benefit of that - it opens up a wing spot for a prospect (e.g. Nicklas Bergfors) or another Devil (e.g. David Clarkson); and if Zubrus is only going to put up 40 points or so, it'd be at fewer minutes.   Rather than going with the Devil who played at the second line center spot; since Zubrus didn't do as well as expected, then someone else should be given the chance.  The Devil they don't know over the Devil they do.

However, I have made the argument, specifically about Rolston, that they aren't centers and so I disagree with the projected lines.   Rather than leaving it at that, I looked into the stats in each of these three players' careers to see if even my own argument made sense.  What I found was certainly enlightening and it gives evidence to go with the Devil you know for this spot on the line up.

So I went to NHL.com and looked up the faceoff wins and totals for Zubrus, Rolston, and Elias.  If a player really was a center for a majority for a season, then it stands that he would take a significant number of faceoffs.  It's possible that the player was only a center for a part of a season, but I feel the totals will bear that out. I went as far back as the stats would allow: 1997-98.  So I'm including back when Zubrus, Rolston, and Elias were still relatively new to the NHL.

Before I hit you all with a chart, let me start with an apology.  Brian Rolston was most definitely a center.  I have said that he wasn't, but the stats have told me that I'm not completely correct.  Rolston has had seasons where he has taken upwards of 1,100 faceoffs.   So I am sorry for not digging deeper getting that wrong.

Zubrusrolstonelias_faceoffs_medium

However, I am also not completly wrong.  Rolston wasn't primarly used as a center in Minnesota.  Rolston took all those faceoffs when he was with Boston, which was 4 seasons and a lockout ago.     Moreover, as you can see by the chart, Rolston wasn't all that great when he took a large number of faceoffs.  He cracked the 50% plateau once and it wasn't by much - 8.5 faceoff wins, to be precise.  In the three seasons where he was mainly a center and used constantly for faceoffs, Rolston's faceoff winning percentage over those seasons is 48.24%.

I can agree that in 2005-06, his first season with the Wild, he was a center for a portion of the season.  However, his falling faceoff totals in subsequent seasons combined with merely taking just over 400 faceoffs in 2005-06 indicate that he was moved to wing in that season and has largely remained there. 

Incidentally, that was his most productive season in terms of points.  More interestingly is that his most productive season as a center in Boston was in 2001-02 with 31 goals and 31 assists.  Rolston exceeded that in 2006-07 with 31 goals and 33 assists, and tied that goal production in 2007-08 with 31 goals and 28 assists.  Both seasons where Rolston did not play at center.   Therefore, I don't believe slotting Rolston at center is going to really improve his production and if anything, it's more evidence to keep him at wing.

Speaking of keeping players at wing, this chart should be screaming at you to not even consider Elias as a center!  He has been mainly a center for a part of 2002-03 season and in the 2007-08 season.  Even then, it wasn't a lot of faceoffs taken, and Elias didn't even win a majority of those.  He can fill in at the faceoff dot as necessary, but don't expect him to do a good job at the actual faceoff based on these numbers.   Moreover, in both of those seasons, Elias didn't even break 60 points.  Elias' best seasons have came while he was at left wing and so he should stay there.

Now, look at Zubrus.  Whereas Rolston was a center at Boston and got shifted to wing at Minnesota; Zubrus was a center in Washington and, I believe, stayed at center in Buffalo.  He wasn't used at center in his first year in New Jersey, but he was fine at faceoff dot last season with a 51.25% winning percentage.  Over the past five seasons, Zubrus was a center in four of them.  In my opinion, this is all telling.  To hammer the point further, while no one will confuse Zubrus with Manny Malhotra or Yanic Perreault, Zubrus' faceoff winning percentage over those four seasons is 49.66%. That's better than Rolston when he was in Boston over 4 seasons ago.   Moreover, while a 60 point season won't wow you, it is his career best; and it came in 2006-07 when he was, you guessed it, a center.

To recap, Zubrus is the only one among those three who has been a center recently, he's has had the most success at center among these three, and he was even playing in that spot last season.  Rolston and Elias have had their most productive seasons or just plain productive seasons while at wing, where as Zubrus has experienced this more as a center.

Yes, it's entirely possible that either Elias or Rolston can do very well at center.  But based on the stats I just compiled, I really don't think Rolston or Elias should be centers for the 2009-10 season.  They have not been good at winning the faceoffs and they don't have the experience

I personally believe it's best to keep a player in positions where they have been successful when possible.  Despite all the turnover the Devils' roster has seen this summer, I don't see why Elias-Zubrus-Rolston isn't the current line.  This would keep Elias and Rolston in positions where they have succeeded, and Zubrus is already familiar with what the role entails.   Moving Zubrus down to the third line or moving him to right wing may suit Zubrus, but it creates a hole at center for the second line.   

Of course, should the Devils sign a center or trade for one, then no problem.  Lou has even suggested as such, as reported by Chere a few days ago. But the Devils haven't done that.  And there's no center in the system that can take that spot right now anyway. Therefore, based on what I have found, I think the smarter decision is to go with the Devil we know.  Right now, pencil Zubrus in at centering the second line again. 

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