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What Should Devils Fans Expect: Johnny Oduya

Back in May, I stated that Johnny Oduya was a "must-sign" players among the Devils' UFAs.  Later that month, I explained why Oduya would be popular this summer and suggested how much the Devils should sign him.  Thankfully, the Devils did retain Oduya, signing him to a 3 year, $10.5 million contract before July 1.

The soon to be 28 year old defenseman should line up once again with Paul Martin as his usual partner. And there's plenty of reason to be excited over what he can do next season.  While he's the same age as Martin, this will be Oduya's fourth season of pro hockey in North America.  And he's improved every season, both in terms of average ice time per game: 18:30 to 19:01 to 20:52; and in points: 11 to 26 to 29.  His responsibilities and his results have improved in each of his first three seasons.  I don't think there is a reason to believe he can't improve in his fourth season as a New Jersey Devil.

2008 - Johnny Oduya 82 7 22 29 21 30 1 1 4 0 108 6.5

Let's go more in depth about Oduya's 2008-09 season.  In terms of even strength play, Oduya was pretty good defensively according to the numbers at Behind the Net.  While facing the second highest quality of competition among the Devils' defensemen (0.029), the shots against per 60 fell slightly from 26.9 to 26.2 when Oduya stepped onto the ice.  The goals against per 60 did go up, however, from 1.92 to 2.28.    Not bad numbers by themselves and they do come against relatively good competition, but they show that Oduya has room for improvement on defense.  

As far as on-ice/off-ice stats for penalty killing situations at Behind the Net, Oduya fared (relatively) better.  Facing the second highest quality of competition on the Devils' PK defensemen (1.24), Oduya's presence on the ice resulted in the shots against per 60 falling from 45.3 to 39.6; as well as the goals against per 60 falling from 7.05 to 6.68.  While the goals against per 60 drop isn't a big drop (Paul Martin's was bigger), Oduya was the only Devil who had a lower shots against per 60 minute value when he was on the ice compared to when he was not.  And that's with a relatively high level of competition.  Oduya averaged 2:51 of penalty killing time per game last season. Perhaps he should be getting more over, say, Bryce Salvador.  Still, his PK work shows that Oduya has been a solid defensive contributor on defense

Incidentally, you can make a case for Oduya being the top offensive defenseman on the team.  His CORSI is the highest among Devils defenseman at 10.3; the shots for per 60 went up from 27.2 to 31.8 when Oduya was on the ice; and the goals for per 60 shot up from 2.24 to 2.96 with Oduya on the ice.   Of course, you can also argue that this is the result of Oduya mainly being out there with the ZZ Pops line, the Devils' top line from last season.  Either way, Oduya does show flashes of offensive skill and he took a big step towards getting more involved, by getting 45 more shots on net this season compared to 2007-08.  That all said, Oduya did only put up 7 goals and 29 assists. Calling him the best offensive defenseman on the Devils is a bit of a backhanded compliment.

Like Martin, he could stand to be more aggressive with the puck at the point - especially if he continues playing with the Devils' top forwards on even strength.   What would really help his numbers is if Jacques Lemaire will put him on a power play unit.  Brent Sutter didn't use Oduya much on the man advantage last season, and so Oduya only averaged 54 seconds of power play time per game.  He did manage a goal and 4 assists on that; whereas Andy Greene got more time on average (1:43/game) and no points.  Even if Lemaire runs four forwards and a defenseman on both units, he really should consider Oduya to be the lone defenseman on the second unit.

Nevertheless, I'm pretty excited at how much more Oduya can grow.  He's been given more responsibilities and has contributed more - offensively and defensively - with every season in his young NHL career.  Now that Oduya has worked his way up to the top pairing, there's a good chance he may not get significantly more ice time than he had last season - unless Lemaire wants to lean heavily on his top defensive pairing.  But he'll definitely gain even more experience with Martin on defense; which is crucial because chemistry is necessary for a good defense.  That the goals against went up last season with Oduya on the ice despite a slight drop in shots against suggests that the opposition has better shots and/or Oduya still makes a few mistakes.   With more time with Martin and playing in general, Oduya will cut down on those mistakes and set himself up better positionally with respect to his partner.

I really do think the best is yet to come from Oduya. Given that he was the only UFA to be retained before July 1 (and to be the second-highest paid defenseman on the team), I would like to think that the Devils would agree.   Therefore, I expect Oduya to do quite a bit in 2009-10.  I want him to be the a definitive #2 defenseman: score 6-8 goals, put up about 35 points, regularly play 20 minutes or more per night, and get better on-ice/off-ice numbers on even strength.  How Lemaire will use him on special teams, I think, will be a big factor as to hitting these offensive goals. If Oduya is a regular on a power play unit as well as being out there for Parise's and Elias' lines, I think he should hit those marks.  Overall, I want Oduya to improve - and I really do think he has not hit his ceiling after 3 years of NHL hockey.  Even cutting down his mistakes would represent such an improvement.

Now it's time to have your say.  Do you expect as much (or more?) out of Oduya next season?  Would you be happy if it was more of the same?  Or do you expect a drop-off of sorts?   Share your expectations for Johnny Oduya in 2009-10.