The most important news with respect to the New Jersey Devils roster is about center Dainius Zubrus. Both Tom Gulitti and Colin Stephenson have reported that is Zubrus is expected to return to the ice for tomorrow's game. Zubrus has been out with a fractured right kneecap, a result of blocking a shot by Nashville Predators defenseman Kevin Klein on November 19. He's been out for a while, and with the recent losses, there were signs that the Devils were starting to miss Zubrus' presence on the ice.
Lemaire said Zubrus will play. Asked what the 6-5, 225-pound center will bring to the lineup, the coach said, "What Zubrus can give -- size, skating, can kill penalties, can play on different lines.''
I'd like to go into some detail as far as Zubrus' main strengths: size (and, by extension, strength) and versatility. Much of what makes him effective won't necessarily lead to production, and therefore, I wouldn't expect him to be the answer for scoring beyond Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, and Jamie Langenbrunner. That said, what he does makes the team better in the run of play.
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The Size of Zubrus
Prior to the injury, even going as far as last season, Zubrus was the largest player among the top 6 forwards. In fact, the only player on the entire 2009-10 New Jersey Devils roster - including injured players - that you could argue as being bigger than Zubrus is Andrew Peters, and that's only in terms of weight (Peters weighs in at 240, Zubrus is "only" 225 lbs.)
It's not that the Devils are a soft team, a team that can be worn down physically, or a team that will shy away from board play. Even Zach Parise at an official 5'11" and 190 pounds is not at all afraid to throw hits or take the physical abuse by opposing defenders when he goes in deep (it still hasn't really stopped him this season). That said, you can't teach size, and a 6'5", 225 lbs. forward who has decent hands is difficult to win pucks from in traffic or against the boards. One of the reasons I think why the Devils were so successful along the boards last season was because the first line featured the dogged determination of ZZ Pops, and the second line featured a big Zubrus fighting for puck control and clearing up space for Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta.
For a good example of his down low play leading to a result, check out this video clip from October 24, 2009 from NHL.com. Mark Fraser ultimately scores the goal, thanks to Marc-Andre Fleury's folly. However, you can see from the beginning of the clip of Zubrus' skills at puck control down low, his size blocking out Jordan Staal, his strength allowing him to keep control despite an attempted hit by Staal which made the space to dish the puck off to an open Niclas Bergfors, who set up Fraser.
Here's another video example from NHL.com. Against the Rangers on October 22, he shows off his skating ability chasing down a dumped puck. While he doesn't get to the puck, he fought through the defenders in front of him and forced Dan Girardi to clear it the long way around the boards. While Zach Parise attempted (and won) the battle to the puck, Zubrus had the instinct to wheel around in front of the net. This allowed him to get a piece of the shot, deflecting past Henrik Lundqvist. While he's not necessarily productive, this clip shows that he's got good wheels, it shows how his size forces a defender to make quick decision, and he understands where he needs to be - around and in front of the net. In this case, it led to an important goal (the game winner, in fact).
Lastly, here's a third video example of Zubrus' size being a positive factor from NHL.com. Zubrus keeps a cycle going on the left side of Boston's Tim Thomas. Notice that he not only wins the puck on the sideboards that set up the first shot from Jamie Langenbrunner, but he wins it behind the net to set up a second shot for Langenbrunner. He also shows some quickness in pouncing in a loose puck behind Thomas for a goal.
Here's two other points to consider
Take a look at the even strength on-ice/off-ice numbers at Behind the Net. Last season, Zubrus had a high relative CORSI value in even strength play, 9.1. That was with playing most of the season centering Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta. This season, while he hasn't had consistent linemates (Elias being out for much of the season, multiple different RWs), his relative CORSI is still fairly good at 7.3.
While the shots on goal per 60 minutes for NJ only rises from 25.6 to 25.8 when he's on the ice and the goals per 60 minute actually drop, this suggests that Zubrus' role benefits the offense and we can only rue the fact that it hasn't been productive offense.
Remember the power play against the Colorado Avalanche? Remember that Lemaire actually had Colin White and Andrew Peters out there just to screen the goaltender due to their size? With Zubrus back, he can use an offensive player as a screen. He's not only bigger than both White and Peters (well, taller than Peters), but should a puck come in traffic, Zubrus has the skills to make the right decisions. He can be used to bolster the second unit, like Zubrus screening the goalie and Brian Rolston bombing away; or to add an extra dimension on the first unit, Zubrus commanding attention in the slot and thereby taking some of the heat off Parise, Zajac, and anyone else roaming about down low.
While size isn't everything on the New Jersey Devils, it does matter to a point. With Zubrus back, he brings it and it's quite important when used properly.
The Versatility of Zubrus
Zubrus has been used in a number of different ways throughout his career. He's played center along aside Alexander Ovechkin, he's been a utility forward in Buffalo, and in New Jersey he's played both center and wing on the second or third lines while getting special teams time at both ends. Given that the Devils are still hurting with injuries to Elias and David Clarkson and there's been inconsistency below the first line, Zubrus' should be able to adapt from game to game - or within a game - to play the role Lemaire needs him to play.
The current centers on New Jersey are Zajac, Rob Niedermayer, Dean McAmmond, and Rod Pelley (who won't be ready for Tuesday, but possibly on Wednesday). No disrespect intended to the other three, but the only one of the bunch who has offensive skills of note is Zajac. Zubrus may not be productive, but in the three clips above along with that positive CORSI stat, it's clear that he has the skills to add pressure to an opposition defense and that when he's out on the ice, the focus turns to offense. It also helps that Zubrus is OK at faceoffs, his 49.2% winning percentage is superior than McAmmond's 45.7%.
His return means a defensive center like Niedermayer or a utility forward like McAmmond doesn't have to keep playing 14-16 minutes on a scoring line. However, if either is having a particularly good night at center or there's a matchup Lemaire wants to exploit out wide, Zubrus can be shifted to wing for a few shifts without needing to change his game. Zubrus can still go down low and work around the net as usual once the Devils get the puck in deep on offense.
If Lemaire wants to use him in a defensive role, then the stats show that Zubrus can do that. In even strength situations this season, both the shots against per 60 drop from 26.9 to 22.4 and the goals against per 60 fall from 1.99 to 1.61 when Zubrus jumps onto the ice per Behind the Net. I don't think that's coincidence, especially when you consider his relative quality of competition and teammates. Even on the penalty kill, usually on the second PK unit, the shots and goals against per 60 both fall significantly when Zubrus is out there - even with the highest quality of competition on the PK as well. This suggests that Zubrus has been pretty good on defense, which gives Lemaire more options for how to utilize him.
Zubrus has experience in all those positions, including power play and penalty killing situations, where he can be an asset as needed. While the depth of the team has been tested and has shown up well for the most part, Niedermayer or McAmmond or any of the called up players does not really bring the kind of versatility Zubrus has shown in his career.
No, Zubrus won't be coming back to play and start lighting up the boxscore. He hasn't been a very productive player and there's no reason to believe he necessarily will. While I expect him on the second line, it doesn't mean he'll be an offensive spark that will lead Rolston, Bergfors, etc. to score more goals. I'm not saying he's worth every penny of his salary. What should be expected is that he can bring a large presence with a good speed and a decent offensive skill set and he can do much on the ice. What I am saying is that I hope I've provided details that show that Lemaire's quote at the beginning wasn't just hype; his size and versatility are valuable attributes. Hopefully he regains his form quickly and he doesn't get hurt going forward.
Welcome back, Dainius Zubrus.