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The Zubrus Conundrum

Dainius Zubrus is a New Jersey Devil that back in November looked to be on the rise. 6 goals and 8 assists in 20 games, coming off a massive 4 goal performance.  He was centering Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta, his CORSI was 11.9, and he was looking good.  As I said back in November, he was what Viktor Kozlov should have been. 

Unfortunately, the rise stemmed off somewhere.  It is now the end of the 2008-09 season and here is Zubrus' totals:

08-09 - Dainius Zubrus 82 15 25 40 6 69 1 0 3 0 130 11.5

For comparison, here are the totals of his first season in New Jersey, wherein he (and almost every other forward) were jumped around from line to line:

07-08 - Dainius Zubrus 82 13 25 38 2 38 4 0 2 0 128 10.2

The first season, OK, that's explained away.  But after a season where he had consistent linemates, he was on a scoring line, and he was a regular on the second power play unit, the result is...2 more shots on net and more goals? Since I wrote that post praising Zubrus (with concurring comments!), he has put in exactly 9 goals and 17 assists in 62 games mostly playing on a scoring line with Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta.  Seriously.

If you think Brian Gionta didn't provide full value for that $4 million/year deal at 20 goals and 60 points; I don't see how Zubrus is providing full value for $3.4 million/year so far on his deal (which runs into 2012-13 by the way).

But, like with all things in life, it's not that simple.  It's more of a conundrum than anything else.

Zubrus isn't productive in terms of points, this is true.  This is not to say he provided little value to the team.  For his first full season as a center in New Jersey, he took 923 faceoffs and won 473 of them, a winning percentage of 51.2%.  OK, he's no Yanic Perreault, but it's still a favorable percentage - and just below John Madden's 51.6% with respect to the team. He's not defensively inept from what I saw this season. According to Behind the Net, his CORSI is still a solid 11.9, fifth highest among regulars (he's between Elias' 12.3 and Gionta's 10.9).  When Zubrus is on the ice, offense happens.  His presence does not result in the other team firing away at will; rather, he and his teammates press the issue themselves. However, based on the low shot totals of Zubrus himself, it's clear he isn't leading the offense.

This leads me to my theory about Zubrus.  Basically, he's a key reason for Sutter's system for offensive puck possession that we saw this season.  Going forward, the Devils tend to dump the puck into the end-boards or  the corners, fight to win the puck back, and either cycle it down low or move the puck around the zone. The 6'5", 225 lbs. Lithuianian Freight Train (nickname courtesy of Chico) has taken to this system like a duck turns to water . 

While Zubrus isn't a total banger, he does lead the Devils' top 6 forwards in hits (98, 5th on team).  He uses his size to protect the puck or force possession back.   He commands attention from defenders and helps create literal space for Elias and Gionta to do their thing.  Because Zubrus isn't slow or has (complete) hands of stone, he can switch from physical play to more flowing play on offense once the Devils do get the puck back.   I happen to think that's why he fits in well with an energetic Gionta and Elias.  I think his skills at getting and winning puck possession is his biggest asset to the team.  I think he makes the Sutter's system work for that line. It's why I believe he's what Viktor Kozlov should have been.

But is all this worth $3.4 million/year?  Elias had a great year but based on Zubrus' and Gionta's low goal totals, it's arguable that Elias carried the line offensively.  Yet, you lose part of what he brings to the table if you put him on a third or fourth line that's likely out there for "energy" or to spell the top two lines. This is where the conundrum sets in: he's proven he's of some value on a scoring line; but he's not producing enough to justify the salary and his position on the roster.   It's that simple.  And because the contract is entering year 3, it's about likely as attractive as trade value as a pile of mud.

I do have one suggestion that I hope Zubrus will work on this summer.  Shooting.  He had 130 shots on net this season.  That's an average of 1.1 shots per game.  Elias, he of 31 goals scored, had an average of 3.2 shots per game this season. Gionta, he of 20 goals scored, had an average of 3.1 shots per game this season.  The one clear way I can see Zubrus improve his numbers is simply by taking more shots himself.    He's good at fighting for and winning possession, he's not bad at passing the puck, but he's really got to unload the shot more often.  It'd be one thing if he had, say, 181 shots; at least we could say the effort to score is there. But he doesn't have that right now.   That's something, I think, he can look to improve.  No, he won't become a lethal sniper; but I think he can get more than 15 goals that way.

And if he does get on the scoresheet more often, it'll definitely improve the fortunes of the Devils - not just in justifying his own long contract with the team.  Until then, he remains more of a question of what to do with him than being an answer to the team's issues.