The New Jersey Devils' lineup is going to look significantly different next year in comparison to the 2012-2013 season. Up front, there were the big additions of Michael Ryder, Ryan Clowe and Jaromir Jagr along with the major subtractions of Ilya Kovalchuk and David Clarkson. This is going to change the role of many current Devil forwards, including Dainius Zubrus. While he has always had an important role on the team, it is going to be altered this year. So where in the lineup will Zubrus fit next season? He's been a player that has jumped from third line to first line in one game, then from wing to center in another. This post is going to look at how the aging winger should be used next season in all aspects of the game.
While he was injured last season and played just 22 games, in the 2011-2012 season, Zubrus played all 82 games and put up 44 points in the regular season and 10 more in the playoffs, helping the team reach the Stanley Cup Finals. He has is a tough player on the ice and before his injury last season, he had not missed more than three games from 2009-2012. He is a big body and is one of the stronger Devils in the faceoff circle. So where does a big winger belong on a team full of other wingers?
The Devils have plenty of forwards listed for each spot up front, but many of them are comfortable playing more than one position. While Zubrus is listed as a right wing on the Devils website, he is one of the many guys willing to move around the lineup. Ryder and Jagr will most likely take the first and second line roles on the right side, which leaves Zubrus, Tedenby, and Bernier to fight for the third and fourth line roles during five-on-five play. While Tedenby still has to prove he is worth a spot on the NHL roster full time, both Bernier and Zubrus are full-time NHL players. Zubrus is the best fit for the third line - he is strong along the boards, responsible defensively, but isn't going to wow you with his scoring ability. While he doesn't rack up the points, he is a good set up guy and knows how to get the pucks out of the dirty areas for his linemates to score.
In 2012-2013, Zubrus played just under 14 minutes per game. His average time on ice has steadily decreased over the last three seasons, and I would expect it to go down a bit this season, as well. Since he is getting older and his role on the team is changing, I still expect to see him used on special teams, but his 5-on-5 time will most likely decrease. On average, he will probably be playing between eleven and thirteen minutes per game.
One area in which Zubrus should be used significantly is the penalty kill. In 2012-2013, Zubrus lead all forwards with an average of 1:46 of penalty kill time per game. Seeing as he only played in 22 of the 48 games last season, let's take a look back at 2011-2012. In that season, Zubrus played all 82 games and again lead all New Jersey forwards in shorthanded time on ice playing an average of 2:00 per game. He has always been reliable defensively during the penalty kill, and has shown bits of offense scoring three goals and four assists while shorthanded in the last two seasons.
Speaking of special teams, Zubrus may be used more on the powerplay next season, as well. With both Kovalchuk and Clarkson leaving, there are holes to fill with the man advantage. As John pointed out yesterday, both Ryder and Jagr should be able to fill some of the gaps left behind, and Clowe may be of some help, too. With that said, Kovalchuk usually played the entire two minutes on the powerplay while Clarkson was good for the first unit - there is a lot of time and space to fill. In the past, Zubrus has played about one minute per game on the powerplay. While the Devils do have other options for the powerplay, Zubrus wouldn't be a liability. He could probably fill in the hole that Clarkson has left behind in front of the net.
Another positive to having Zubrus on the team is his ability to jump in almost anywhere in the lineup. He can play any forward position on any line without becoming a liability. He has been seen playing with Kovalchuk, Zajac, Elias, Parise, Henrique, Bernier, Carter, Sykora etc during the last two seasons with DeBoer and has found some sort of chemistry with many different linemates. While I believe he is best suited for a spot on the third line, he can be used elsewhere if necessary when injuries occur or when DeBoer feels the need to shake things up a bit.
Part of the reason Zubrus is so versatile all over the ice is his style of play. It fits into DeBoer's system quite well due to his aggressive play on the boards. With the additions of both Ryder and Jagr, Zubrus may have a stronger season than last year in DeBoer's system. He will be able to play on the third line more consistently and still work on the penalty kill. In recent seasons, Zubrus has been relied on to play in first and second line situations when he should be used as a depth player. With the recent signings, he should get the opportunity to play on a line that is more suited to his skill set.
If used correctly this coming season, the 35 year old Zubrus should be an effective and reliable member of the Devils. In this case, I think "correctly" means playing on the third line and special teams - especially the penalty kill. What do you think? How does Zubrus fit into the Devils roster in 2012-2013? Do you expect him to be playing on the wing or as a center and on what line? Sound off in the comments section below! Thanks for reading.