Why Damien Brunner Got Benched & How He Can Stay in the Devils Lineup

Pictured: Damien Brunner contributing to the Devils' cause by scoring a goal.

Damien Brunner was benched for two games last week, but returned to the lineup in the game against Toronto and did quite well. This post takes a closer look at why he got benched and how he can stay in the lineup based on his recent performances.

Last week, Damien Brunner was unceremoniously scratched for two games. He was benched for the game against Minnesota. He also benched for the game against the New York Rangers. The twist for the latter was that Brunner thought he would play on Saturday night against Our Hated Rivals. According to this story by Rich Chere at NJ.com from this past Saturday, Brunner admitted that he was surprised to be scratched. This quote jumped out at me:

"After the Boston game it was tough to take," Brunner said. "As a team we played a really bad game, especially the first 15 minutes. We were outshot by a lot. But personally, I had a pretty good game. I was skating the right way, I won almost every battle in the corner. But they had to change something (after the 4-2 loss). We didn't score that game, so I guess they tried to find some other line combinations and I was the odd man out."

While I normally don't put a lot of stock into player quotes, I have to wonder how Brunner really thinks of his performances. He wasn't good at all in the Boston game. As with his last significant benching in November, it wasn't one game or one moment that made him put on a suit jacket than his #12 game jersey. It was several games of not doing a whole lot. Thanks to the game log at Extra Skater, here's a list of Brunner's performances game-by-game after the Olympics up until he was benched for two games.

Brunner_postolympic_pre_3-23

The numbers with the light green shade are all-situation numbers from Extra Skater and they alone tell a tale. Brunner may have chipped in some points. He broke an 11-game goalless streak with a goal in the March 8 game against Carolina. He got a few assists. He didn't take a penalty (in fact, he hasn't since January 28). The real concern has been his shooting. That first game aside - the one he got injured in - Brunner just has not been shooting the puck. Five shots in seven games is rather poor for an offensive-minded player. Especially one who has played alongside Patrik Elias more than anyone else at even strength and getting significant power play time on top of it. He doesn't need to go Clarkson and just fire away every time he has the puck, but in order to show he makes some effort, there has to be, well, some effort.

For a point of comparison, look at Michael Ryder's game log from Extra Skater. In that two-month-plus stretch without a goal, Ryder at least has managed multiple shots on net per game. Even though his defensive efforts have been next to non-existent and he was mostly useless during this stretch, it must be said that Ryder at least made an attempt to contribute. Not necessarily good shots but at least there were shots. Brunner simply wasn't doing that. What good is an offensive-minded forward if he's not providing a basic function for offense?

The numbers with the light blue shade are 5-on-5 stats from Extra Skater's game log. I added the on-ice SF (shots for) and SA (shots against) to go with the CF (Corsi or shooting attempts for) and CA (Corsi against) from each of these eight games. Brunner's possession numbers weren't too bad until the last two games he appeared in. Those would be the games against Tampa Bay and Boston. Brunner, along with his line, got wrecked. They generated little offense. They were forced to play more in their own end. Neither is good for Brunner. And that's with mostly favorable zone starts; the Boston game was an exception. Even so, he and his linemates were constantly pinned back by the B's. I really don't know how he didn't recognize he wasn't attacking at even strength when he was out there in that game nor why he doesn't see that as a bad thing. If he won battles, then they didn't lead to many other victories elsewhere.

Over this whole season, Brunner appears to have a good Corsi% of 53.5 per Extra Skater's player dashboard. However, his relative Corsi% is negative, which means the Devils are better off in possession when he's off the ice as opposed to on it. He's also received favorable zone starts over the season with just over 60% of them coming in the offensive zone compared to the defensive zone. It makes sense to feed more offensive zone starts to an offensive-minded player. But it means he's not as good at driving the play as his Corsi% may suggest. I suspect that he's more or less a passenger with Elias and another winger. That's fine if he's shooting and scoring. Brunner hasn't been doing much of either since returning from his injury after the Olympic break. So with so few shots on net, only a handful of points, and being worse than usual in possession in the previous two games at the time, is it any wonder why he was benched for two games?

Now, that's how he got out of the lineup. On Sunday night, he was dressed for warm-ups (this was planned, as per this post by Tom Gulitti on Sunday at Fire & Ice) and got inserted back into the lineup. Whether it was to give him a chance after sitting for a bit or to give someone else a night off, who can say. The more important point is that Brunner made the most of this opportunity. He didn't just take one shot on net, he took three. He even scored a goal, which is always a big positive. He wasn't amazing in possession with only a differential of 7-6, but when he was on the ice, the shot count was 5-1. So his line wasn't picked on too much, when they were, the puck didn't get on (or in) the net. If Brunner was a drain on Elias and Adam Henrique, then it wasn't too bad as far as I can tell from the numbers. Overall, he played very well.

Compare and contrast the prior description with what happened in the seven games after the Olympics before being scratched for the Wild game. He took shots. He produced something. He wasn't "not too bad of a negative" at best. That third point is crucial. It would be just fantastic if Brunner was able to score or get points every night. That's not likely going to happen, even if he was going up against slumping goalies like James Reimer. If Brunner is able to take his shifts, skate with a purpose, put some rubber on frame, don't create a defensive disaster, and make some good plays, then his spot in the lineup should be secure. The Devils have been lacking shots on net relative to the rest of the league. That's due in part of players like Brunner comprising part of the team's top three lines lacking in this regard. So finding a way to get open and taken initiative to put up a bunch of decent shots on net alone could keep him in the lineup for the remainder of this season.

Basically, don't be invisible or bad, make an effort to contribute, and that goes a long way to avoid being benched for the likes of Steve Bernier or Jacob Josefson. It reads simple, sounds simple, and simple to say. For Brunner this season, it hasn't been for one reason or another. The coaches can guide him along and would be wise to still keep him away from the point on the power play. It's still up to Brunner to do what he needs to do to justify his case for staying in the Devils lineup. Nights like the one he had against Toronto definitely helped. Continued nights of very little will put him back in the press box. Perhaps, as it should be. I'm hopeful he knows and understands this; I'd be surprised if someone didn't spell it out to him by now.

Anyway, do you think Brunner will be able to do more positive things on the ice in future games? Does his good game against Toronto buy him time or does he really need to keep at it to stay in the lineup from game-to-game? Why do you think he did so little in the seven games before he was benched? What else can Brunner do to stay in the lineup? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Brunner in the comments. Thank you for reading.

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