Don't give me that look, Mr. Pelley. Your spot in the Devils' lineup is not guaranteed as of this moment. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
While there's at least a month away until training camp begins, it's already apparent to me that the left and right wing spots for the fourth line are going to a source of competition. Going into the New Jersey Devils' offseason, David Steckel and Rod Pelley were already under contract for the 2011-12 season. Steckel is one of the top faceoff men in the league, so I would think he's got the center position locked up.
As the offseason went on, the Devils re-signed Vladimir Zharkov and then dipped into the UFA market to sign Eric Boulton, Cam Janssen, and Stephane Veilleux. Zharkov was utilized as a left winger on the fourth line to success; Boulton and Janssen are "energy guys" at best and "designated fists" at worst - and both can only really play on a fourth line; and Veilleux is a defensive winger who's suited for a bottom six forward role. Suddenly, there's 5 wingers for 2 open spots. Throw in the possibility of Tim Sestito (I sure hope he's not an option, but he'll be involved), Stephen Gionta (ditto), Adam Henrique (has potential), and others from Albany and the fight becomes that much more crowded.
If I'm Rod Pelley, then I have to make a very good case in training camp. What he did last season will not be enough to hand him a spot in the lineup even on the fourth line.
Last season, he wasn't very good on the Devils. His basic stats in 2010-11 were nondescript. Pelley played 74 games, put in 3 goals on 88 shots, added 7 assists, and averaged 11:38 per game - 10:17 at even strength, 1:23 on the penalty kill. Those shouldn't be so surprising, given that Pelley's a checking forward on the fourth line. He's not going to contribute much; but at the same time, only the PK time stands out as a positive in Pelley's favor. I'd also consider Pelley winning 52.8% of his draws as another plus; except with Steckel on the roster, I think Pelley's only going to take draws if someone gets thrown out of a draw or if a center is hurt.
The advanced stats better show Pelley's struggles at even strength last season. According to Behind the Net's numbers for Devils forwards who have played at least 20 games in 10-11, Pelley had the worst on-ice Corsi on the team at -7.92 and with the fourth lowest Corsi Rel QoC at -0.240. By the latter metric, only Vladimir Zharkov, Jacob Josefson, and Adam Mair faced weaker competition. Though, Zharkov and Josefson were positive when it came to Corsi on top of having actual NHL potential; and Mair is (hopefully) not re-signed. While Pelley suffered some bad combinations, it's clear good things didn't happen when he was on the ice even with limited minutes. Factor in the lack of production, and I'm not seeing that Pelley brought much to the table even in a fourth line role.
So what are Pelley's chances at being one of the wingers for the fourth line in 10-11? Let's consider his non-Albany competitors. Well, in my view, he's not better than Zharkov. Zharkov actually has had a positive effect on possession on the ice in his two half-seasons of NHL hockey. Should the Devils give him a full season, he'll likely shoot as much as Pelley does and for all we know, he'll be just as productive on the scoresheet while helping drive the play a little. That's a big improvement over what Pelley can do.
I don't think Pelley's behind everyone. Pelley could have an edge over the recent signings of Boulton and Janssen. What is in Pelley's favor is that while he faced weak competition, it was stronger than the competition Boulton and Janssen faced. Pelley's terrible on-ice Corsi rate smokes Janssen's atrocious rate; though, Boulton has a slighly better on-ice Corsi than Pelley, but it's not much for it to be a huge factor in my mind. Yet, this won't be the reason either could get minutes over Pelley. Should the team feel they need an "enforcer" or a "hitter" for a game, then one of Boulton or Janssen will get into the lineup - simple as that.
The wild card is Stephann Veilleux. He didn't play at all last season; but in 2009-10, he was in a similar fourth line role on Tampa Bay. He got limited minutes like Pelley has been, though Veilleux actually faced a decent level of competition according to Behind the Net. Veilleux put up a negative on-ice Corsi rate, but it's not nearly as bad as Pelley's while facing tougher opponents than Pelley ever had in the last two seasons. Should Veilleux be healthy and effective in camp, then he would be a better defensive winger than Pelley; which should be followed by Veilleux taking a roster spot in Pelley's place.
Given that rather big "if" regarding Veilleux, I would prefer a fourth line of Veilleux-Steckel-Zharkov as it stands. Pelley's on the outside looking in here; but I don't think Pelley will end up in the minors, though. For one, he's got a one-way contract. Sending him down will be a bit difficult, the Devils may prefer to send down someone with a two-way deal before looking to send down Pelley. For another, he'll be able to step in easily as a spare forward when injuries take place. In fact, if Veilleux doesn't make his case in camp, then I could see Pelley taking his spot instead if only because playing Eric Boulton as a regular forward is a pretty poor idea. Right now, he's a basically on the bubble. Should Pelley prove himself as a winger in camp, of course, then he should make the 12-man forward lineup regularly.
Even if he succeeds in that regard, it's in Pelley's best interest to keep pushing himself. His past body of work isn't all that impressive, so should he want a NHL contract beyond 2012, Pelley's going to have to do what he can to have a good season. What do you think Pelley needs to do in 2011-12 to get there? Do you agree that Pelley is on the bubble in New Jersey? Who do you see making New Jersey's fourth line out of training camp? Please leave your thoughts and other Pelley-related thoughts in the comments. Thank you for reading.