2012 NHL Trade Deadline: A Closer Look at Marek Zidlicky, the Newest New Jersey Devil

Marek Zidlicky is now a New Jersey Devil. He'll only have one more chance to defend Jonathan Towes like this later this month. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

As you may or may not be aware, the New Jersey Devils recently made a trade with the Minnesota Wild. The news broke in the middle of last night's game against Vancouver, a 2-1 loss. It was even put on the big screen during the second intermission at the Rock. The Devils acquired defenseman Marek Zidlicky from the Wild in exchange for defenseman Kurtis Foster, forward Nick Palmieri, forward Stephane Veilleux, Washington's second round pick in 2012, and a conditional third round pick in 2013. The NHL confirmed it and so it was official.

My initial reaction of this trade isn't positive. I didn't really think much of Zidlicky when the rumors began that he was coming to New Jersey. An offensive defenseman with no goals and averaging a bit over 1.2 shots on net per game who's older than Kurtis Foster? No thanks. The sticker shock of five assets being dealt for one definitely fueled my shock. Sure, the five assets may not turn out to be much going forward, but that's still not nothing for just one player. I especially don't like the fact that Marek Zidlicky, a 35-year old defenseman, has a contract where he'll get paid $4 million next season. To put that in perspective, Zidlicky will be the second-highest paid defenseman on the team for 2012-13 at this point. He'll also be 36 and should he not fit in New Jersey, it's going to be a little difficult to move that contract.

Moreover, with Palmieri dealt, the Devils are now thinner at right wing. Cam Janssen may have his spot on the fourth line for quite awhile unless Peter DeBoer plans on rolling seven defensemen (possible and preferable to Janssen, especially in the playoffs) or there's another right winger coming (a call-up or a trade). While Palmieri wasn't a difference maker, we better hope David Clarkson, Dainius Zubrus (he's at center now, but when Travis Zajac returns, I assume he'll move back to the right side), and Steve Bernier doesn't get hurt. Then the Devils will be in real trouble on the right side. There's quite a bit to not like about this trade.

After a bit of thought, some sleep, and reading through Kevin's excellent post about the trade last night, I'm not so unhappy with the deal. The three players traded to Minnesota are depth players. Nick Palmieri played his way out of the lineup and couldn't replace Cam Janssen in his other call-ups this season. Kurtis Foster is a third pairing defenseman who has been prone to errors and it's questionable how much he really helped out on the power play. Stephane Veilleux didn't even play 5 minutes in New Jersey this season. That's three roster spots opened up for guys I don't think Devils fans will really miss. At least, I won't miss them.

Washington's second round pick may turn out to be the star of the return for Minnesota, but that precludes they draft someone who will be somebody someday - which is always a shot in the dark. I would have preferred it was New Jersey's second round pick as it will likely be lower than Washington's, but at least the Devils still have one second round pick. The conditional pick for 2013 only kicks in if the Devils make it to the Eastern Conference Finals and Zidlicky plays in 75% of the first two rounds. If either happens, then I'm not really concerned about the pick because, hey, the Devils went deep in the playoffs. I'll gladly give up a third in 2013 for that result (or better). All told, it's not as ugly of a deal as it first looked in my opinion.

Regardless of how I feel about the trade, Marek Zidlicky is now a New Jersey Devil. I think it's best to take a closer look at what he has done in the last five seasons. From there, we can understand what we can reasonably expect from Zidlicky and how he should be used. He's not getting any younger, but if he's used appropriately, I believe he can be an asset to the team.

Among the many post-game quotes about the trade reported by Tom Gulitti last night, a common statement was in praise of Zidlicky's offensive skill. There is some truth to that up until the last two seasons. Here's a chart with stats pulled from NHL.com outlining his total production, his power play production, and his ice time per game.

2-25-12_zidlicky_basic_stats

From 2007-08 through 2009-10, Zidlicky has been a very productive defenseman. He's averaged at least 1.48 shots per game, 30 assists in each season, and most of all, at least 24 points on the power play. As you can see by the ice time per game, Zidlicky has been utilized quite a bit in both Nashville and Minnesota. Zidlicky has been a constant presence on the point for both teams on the power play.

What has hurt his production in the last two seasons is two-fold. The first issue has been injuries. Based on his profile page here at SBN, Zidlicky suffered quite a bit in 2010-11. He missed games for a groin problem for 2 games, an undisclosed lower body injury for 3 games, an undisclosed injury for a game, a significant shoulder injury for 21 games, and a hamstring problem that took him out of 4 games in March and later in the final 5 games of the season. Zidlicky hasn't been as banged up this season, but he did miss 13 games due to a concussion. No one can produce when they're out injured, so Zidlicky's numbers took a big hit due to that alone.

The second issue is Minnesota's offense. The team as a whole just didn't score a lot of goals, and so it stands to reason that Zidlicky's production (among many other players) would drop as a result. As you can tell from the chart, Zidlicky isn't exactly a goal scorer, he picks up assists from other players banging in rebounds from his shots or getting goals off his passes like a lot of defensemen. Minnesota's goals per game average dropped from 2.48 in 2010-11 to 2.12 in this season; and their power play success rate dropped from 18.2% to 15.8%. With a decrease in goals, the Throw in the fact that Zidlicky has missed a significant amount of time with injury and it shouldn't be a surprise his recent numbers aren't as good looking at they were from 2007 through 2009.

Even with the production falling, the coaches on each of his teams thought enough of Zidlicky's skillset to keep giving him a significant amount of minutes in each season. This is a big reason why we can say Zidlicky is a huge upgrade over Kurtis Foster. Zidlicky can handle a significant workload on the ice. Foster struggles with 12-14 minutes at evens, and relying on him for more would be a huge risk. Zidlicky has been a feature on power plays, whereas Foster has just been the defenseman on the first group. I don't think Zidlicky wouldn't get this much of ice time if he struggled in his own end like Foster or any other third pairing defenseman did at times. The Devils' depth on defense just got deeper if only because Zidlicky has experience playing around 20 minutes over the last five seasons - shortened by injury or otherwise.

That fact begs this important question: should Zidlicky play that much? The answer depends on how he's utilized. While he can be given a ton of PP minutes, the vast majority of his ice time will be at even strength. If he's going to be a 20-minute defender, then he's going to have to play 16-17 minutes of it at evens. The advanced stats at Behind the Net for Zidlicky's last five seasons will tell us how he has been utilized. For posterity's sake, I've included those numbers in the next two starts.

(Note: Behind the Net only outputted 39 games for Zidlicky this season, even though he really played 41. I'm aware of the discrepancy. I don't think 2 games will affect the advanced numbers too much.)

2-25-12_zidlicky_adv_stats_1

Corsi Rel QoC gives us an understanding of the level of competition Zidlicky faced in 5-on-5 situations in each season. On-ice Corsi will tell us if he pushed the play forward (higher values are better) or he was forced to defend more (negative values, lower is worse). In order to more fairly compare each stat across each season, I listed his rank on the team among other defensemen who played at least 20 games in that season.

While Zidlicky has received a lot of minutes, he normally doesn't play the toughest competition. His 2009-10 season was an anomaly in that he faced tough competition, but he's faced weaker competition in the other four seasons. Zidlicky didn't completely drown against the toughs in 2009-10; however, he was pushed back more than pushing ahead and so he had a low on-ice Corsi rate relative to his own team. A rate of -14 by itself is horrid, but in 2010-11, it was around the middle of the blueline on Minnesota which says a lot about how the Wild did in possession in that season.

The good news to take out of this is that against weaker competition, Zidlicky does come out ahead. He was positive in the first two seasons and while he's negative this season, he's the best of a bad, bad bunch on a bad, bad team when it comes to Corsi. Kevin pointed out the latter in his post, which I think is a very good point. It's not great that he's achieved this while facing the weakest competition on the team. Still, he's the man with the one eye in the valley of the blind. He hasn't been a relative black hole of possession. It's also much better than Foster has done in 5-on-5 situations. According to Behind the Net, he has faced the weakest competition on New Jersey (Corsi Rel QoC of -0.682) and he also has the worst on-ice Corsi rate on New Jersey (-7.94).

The main conclusion to take out of this is that Zidlicky can play a lot but he's not going to be successful in getting the play forward against tough competition. He should go up against weaker players where he can succeed. Given that Foster couldn't even do that, Zidlicky would be a big upgrade on the third pairing.

2-25-12_zidlicky_adv_stats_2

Also contributing to his weaker on-ice Corsi rate seasons in 2009-10 and 2010-11 are his zone starts. He was used in his own end more often than not and that's challenge to overcome. In the three seasons where his Corsi rate was positive, he wasn't just facing weaker competition but he was receiving far more favorable zone starts. Zidlicky started in the offensive zone much more and he benefited from it. This makes sense to me considering his offensive nature. Zidlicky's not a defenseman who does well when starting in his own end more than in the other team's end, and that's fine.

When it comes to luck, I don't think Zidlicky has been unlucky at evens. His PDO this season hasn't been too bad, even though it's a dip from last season. He's been fortunate to have pretty good goaltending behind him and his teammates have been decent at getting pucks in the net when he's out there. The on-ice shooting percentage had dropped a quite a bit this season, but it's not nearly as dire as it was in 2008-09. Basically, I wouldn't expect him to get hot or get cold in the remainder of this season.

Kevin rightfully pointed out that his on-ice SF/60 rate of 26.3 has been quite good relative to the Devils defensemen. I didn't highlight that point in my recent bigger picture look at how the Devils defensemen have been playing, but Kevin's right. Moreover, his on-ice SA/60 rate of 26.1 is a bit of an improvement over Foster. What's curious is that his current SF/60 rate is his best since 2008-09. While Zidlicky may not be taking the shots himself, the offense hasn't died when he steps on the ice in 5-on-5 play. It's also comforting that for the first time since 2008-09, Zidlicky's SF/60 rate is higher than his SA/60 rate. We know from 2009-10 that he faced tougher competition; and it's really not so bad that his SA/60 rate was only slightly higher than his SF/60 with that in mind. He also produced quite a lot of points, too. His rates suffered in both departments pretty badly in 2010-11 which makes believe Zidlicky just had a bad season on top of the injuries keeping him out at points during the season. Overall, I don't believe Zidlicky will become a sieve of shots against based on what he's done.

Let's put it all together. Zidlicky has played a lot of minutes and has been a feature on the power play in each of his last five seasons. He was very productive up until 2009-10, when he missed significant amount of time from injuries. Since then, he's been struggling to get points for one reason or another. Based on his last five seasons, Zidlicky can push the play forward or at least be the best regular defenseman on his team in that category but only if he's playing weak-to-average competition. When he facing that level of play, he does pretty well. Zidlicky has had one season where he faced tough competition regularly, and while he didn't get wrecked regularly, I wouldn't recommend that he start facing the toughs here in New Jersey. Lastly, the 2009-10 season was just a bad one for Zidlicky in retrospect.

Based on all of this information, I'm confident in saying that Marek Zidlicky is a clear upgrade over Kurtis Foster (and most other third pairing defensemen) and he provides more depth on defense. I don't believe he'll be a big scorer on the team either this season or next season when he's another year older. I don't think he's worth $4 million. I do think he can help if he is used within his capabilities. I would recommend that Peter DeBoer keeps him on the third pairing and give him significant time on the power play. This way he has a contribute in offensive situations and he can be protected at even strength. With that protection, Zidlicky can prosper and help get the play forward. That alone will make the blueline stronger from top to bottom. Zidlicky may not be a 30-40 point defenseman anymore. Yet, given that the most power play points a defenseman not named Foster has on this team is 4, he won't have to chip in a whole lot to be useful.

While he's played around 20 minutes in his recent seasons with the Wild, he won't need to do that on a blueline filled with guys who can and have played about the same amount of minutes. I think that's even more of a reason to use him on a third pairing. Zidlicky doesn't have to be a top defender on this team, he can be effective in a more limited role where he can match up and succeed against weaker competition. The Devils' defensemen in 2011-12 have been playing by committee and I think that committee got better at least right now. How Zidlicky himself does and if he stays healthy will determine how much better it will be going forward. That alone may be worth Foster, Palmieri, Veilleux, Washington's second round pick in 2012, and a conditional third round pick in 2013. If so, then I and probably many other fans will be happier about the deal, even if it was a lot of quantity for quality. We shall see.

That's my take on Marek Zidlicky. Based on how he has performed in the last five seasons, how do you think the Devils should use him? How do you think he'll contribute to the Devils? What are your expectations for Zidlicky for the rest of this season? What are your expectations for Zidlicky next season? Will Zidlicky at least get a goal for New Jersey before the end of this season (I think he's due)? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Zidlicky and the trade that brought him to New Jersey in the comments. Thank you for reading.

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