What Should Devils Fans Expect: Dainius Zubrus

Today will be a relatively quick one as I've given my thoughts on Dainius Zubrus before.   Back in May, I wrote about the conundrum that the Lithuanian Freight Train provides to the Devils.  In summary, it's that he provides value by winning faceoffs (51.2% won out of 923) and performing very well under Brent Sutter's offense, where puck possession was emphasized. Zubrus won a ton of battles for the puck and his size alone commanded attention from the defense, especially down low.  Yet, his offensive production isn't enough to justify his salary ($3.4 million/year through 2012-13) and it was disappointing that in a consistent spot on an offensive line between Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta, he scored a whopping 2 more points than he did in his first season as a Devil.   As a result, many fans felt the Devils needed an upgrade at center for the second line - something I can definitely sympathize with.


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

However, after the initial free agent frenzy in a summer, the Devils did not make any moves for one reason or another.  And so we stand here with the Devils having three natural centers on the New Jersey roster: Travis Zajac, who will certainly center the first line; Zubrus, and Rod Pelley, who is a defensive-minded center with 67 games of NHL experience.  Back in July, I argued that among the three Devils penciled in on the second line, Zubrus would be the best choice for center over Brian Rolston and Elias.  As fortune would have it, Lou said the following to Tom Gulitti with respect to Rolston's role in 2009-10 last Friday:

The final answer to the Brian Rolston question won't be known until after training camp, but right now the Devils' plans are for Rolston to play wing in 2009-10 and not center, which he played for most of last season. Rolston flourished as a left wing in his three seasons with head coach Jacques Lemaire in Minnesota and he admits that is the position in which he is most comfortable. 

"We'll see how training camp goes, but most probably he'll be at wing," Lamoriello admitted.

Since moving Elias to center would make no sense, by default, Zubrus' spot on the team as of right now is easy to figure out: second line center.   You may not like it, you don't have to like it, and the Devils could change it with a signing or a trade.  But there are no real alternatives within the current roster and system right now.  Zubrus is a center who has played on the second line, played with Elias for most of last season, and has done a good job at everything but scoring while in that role.  No one else on the roster is more qualified as far as I know. 

That said, figuring out what to expect from Zubrus is quite difficult.

For starters, his best offensive seasons did come fairly recently in 2005-06 and 2006-07, topping 20 goals and 55 points in each.  However, it's worth noting he was playing right next to Alexander Ovechkin on the Capitals in those two seasons.  Not that Elias is chopped liver, but let's be honest with ourselves.  He was playing with Alexander Ovechkin. He may not hit these numbers again. And that's sad since they aren't bad numbers at all.


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
 05-06 Dainius Zubrus 71
23
34 57
3
84
13 0 5 0 181 12.7
 06-07 Dainius Zubrus 79
24
36
60
-19
50
10 0 4 0 158 15.7

In my mind, knowing this tells me that we shouldn't expect Zubrus to breakout for 60-65 points. It would be wonderful, but not sensible to expect.  Yet, I don't think that alone is what makes coming up with a fair expectation of the player difficult.  The big wild card will be new head coach Jacques Lemaire. 

In my post in May, I stated that I wanted to see Zubrus shoot more.  Yes, he was with Ovechkin in Washington in those two seasons; those were the two seasons where he shot the most.  He hasn't touched 150 shots on goal since 2006-07, and I think his production can only really improve if he just takes more shots.  I still do.  Yet, Zubrus will be on a line with Elias, a featured winger on the team, and Rolston, who has a massive shot.  It's plausible that Lemaire could instruct that those two should be given every chance to shoot.  Which is fair, it could very well be the smart decision.  But that would hurt Zubrus from taking shots on his own - unless he's set up real well for rebounds and loose pucks.

More importantly, we don't even know how Lemaire will use Zubrus at all.  Remember that Zubrus' biggest contribution to the team last season was in winning battles for the puck and drawing defenders with his size. Should Lemaire put in a completely different offensive system, one that doesn't play to his strengths, Zubrus' could suffer big time.   Likewise, Lemaire has seen tapes of how the Devils operated last season and it's possible that he'll retain Sutter's system, which I think would be to Zubrus' benefit.   It's not just that Zubrus has to work on his own game to contribute more to the team, how he will be used will be just as a significant factor.

So what to expect?  If Zubrus does stay on at center on the second line, then I would like to see him win at least 51% of his faceoffs to start.  In terms of points, this is tricky as those two seasons right after the lockout are the only times Zubrus has had more than 20 goals and 55 points in a season.  All the same, I would like to see him improve over his production from last season.  So I'm expecting about 17 goals and about 30 assists.  Truth be told, I'd want him to break 50 points, I want him to score 20 goals, but I'm not really seeing any reason to believe that he will next season.    I will add this positive caveat; I won't mind him not getting 50 points if he makes sure Elias and Rolston are free enough to put up significant numbers.  He may look real good between Elias and Rolston in 2010; but don't expect that contract to look like a bargain anytime soon!

Now it's time to have your say.  Perhaps you have reason to believe Zubrus can come closer to his career highs next season.  Perhaps that reason is his contract.  Perhaps your expectations are lower, thinking that he'll be shifted around.  Perhaps we can't say for sure because we don't know how he'll be used.  Either way, tell me what you think.  Please leave your comments below about what you expect from Zubrus in 2009-10.  (And please don't shift the comments to who should be signed/traded for that spot.  For all intents and purposes, he's a Devil next season.  Let's focus on Zubrus first.)

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