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Replacing Brian Gionta: Can Brian Rolston Do it in 2009-10?

Yesterday, I brought up a potential issue for the summer of 2010. Let's scale back the focus of today's speculation to the upcoming season proper. A few days ago, Puck Daddy had a story about Zajac re-signing with the Devils, avoiding arbitration. Greg Wyshynski did link to an earlier post I written about recent Devils arbitration results - thanks for that, Greg - but, he mentioned something odd at the end of his post:

So with this out of the way, the Devils can start addressing their other pressing needs this offseason. Like clutch and grab drills for Lemaire. Like finding a winger to replace the points that skated away with Brian Gionta.

My first thought was, "Um, Greg, a ton of discussion on the blogs and message boards has been about how the Devils need a center. And it's warranted. As it is, the Devils only have 3 centers - Zajac, Zubrus, and Pelley. Why would the Devils need a winger?" But then I realized that he has a point - even though I don't think the Devils need a winger. Brian Gionta's shooting accuracy may have frustrated Devils fans in recent years, but his post-48-goal-season numbers aren't something to completely ignore:

2006-07 - Brian Gionta 62 25 20 45 -3
36 11 0 4 0 194 12.9
2007-08 - Brian Gionta 82 22 31 53 1 46 8 1 4 0 257 8.6
2008-09 - Brian Gionta 81 20 40 60 12 32 3 3 1 0 248 8.1

The initial player to take Gionta's old spot at right wing would be Brian Rolston, and he's a big reason why I and many other Devils fans don't see the Devils needing to get a scoring winger. Rolston has had some of his best seasons as a winger, he played there in Minnesota under Jacques Lemaire, and he's enjoyed great success there. In 2006-07 and 2007-08, Rolston in Minnesota even outscored Gionta: 31 goals and 64 points and then 31 goals and 58 points. Yes, Rolston did struggle last season, hampered by an injury to start the 2008-09 season and then stuck on the third line since there was no room for him on the top two scoring lines.

2008 - Brian Rolston 64 15 17 32 2 30 8 0 3 0 174 8.6

But on paper things look to be different. First, there's a spot on a scoring line with Patrik Elias wide open for him at right wing. (I personally will not suggest using him as a center - see this post for why.) Second, Rolston will re-unite with Lemaire. Under his coaching, Rolston enjoyed his most productive seasons in his career and who's to say that won't happen again. Third, there won't be any "settling" period for Rolston with the organization as he's been here for a season already. Fourth, based on the strength of this quote, Rolston's got something to prove this season.

So Rolston on the second line and Gionta's numbers will be replaced, no problem, right? Well, not so fast. Here's some reasons to doubt that Rolston will automatically cover Gionta's numbers.

The first potential issue is age. Brian Rolston is a skilled player, but he's not Martin Brodeur or Chris Chelios where he plays like age is truly just a number. Rolston is 36 years old and it's entirely possible that his career is truly on the decline. It's not that Rolston would be useless, but perhaps he may not be able to provide the production he could have, say, 3 or 4 years earlier with Minnesota. Not that I can say whether that was true last season, but that possibility does exist.

The second potential issue is chemistry. Yes, the two were on the same line to start 2008-09. But it's not like he lit it up early with only one goal and assist in his first four games. The early injury to Rolston snuffed that line; and after Rolston and Langenbrunner returned from injury, the top two lines were pretty much set last season. So Rolston didn't get a lot of playing time with Elias last season in even strength. The two wingers weren't on the same power play unit most of the time, either. Basically, if Rolston and Elias work well with each other, then Rolston can definitely match and surpass Gionta's numbers last season. If they don't, well, not only will the offense suffer, but Lemaire's going to have some interesting line juggling. This is a pretty big issue.

The third and a bit of a long shot of an issue is whether or not Rolston will get that spot. If the Devils are serious about this youth movement, they may want to give a few other players a run out at a scoring line right wing. Such as prospect Nicklas Bergfors, or even someone already on the roster, like David Clarkson. I believe the spot is Rolston's to lose, but weirder things have happened before.

Truth be told, for the reasons stated earlier, I'm pretty confident in Rolston fitting in on a scoring line, continuing to drop bombs from the point on a power play. Despite these potential issues, I think his production will certainly improve. I think he can replace Gionta's 20 goals and probably add 5-10 more. Whether or not he'll make up those 40 assists is a tall order. Yet, I can't help but think that if Rolston is scoring and he's working well with his linemates (a big "if," admittedly), the points will come from someone on that line. And so Rolston will better "earn" his money while the Devils remain a successful hockey team in 2009-10.

Vote in the poll, and leave your comments on whether Brian Rolston can or cannot replace what Brian Gionta did for the Devils.