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What Should Devils Fans Expect: Mike Mottau

Mike Mottau is one of the more confusing Devils to figure out based on last season.  Let me offer two views:

One, he's a great story.  Late round draft pick by the New York Rangers in 1997, toils for years in the minors, catches a break with the New Jersey Devils and makes the roster in 2007-08, and now earns his keep a regular defenseman in the NHL.  Proof that hard work and some talent is definitely viable and eventually rewarded.   He's not going to develop into a great defenseman, but he does his job fairly well and that's all he needs to do.  Can anyone really have a problem with that?

Two, Mottau is just hanging on.  Mottau had plenty of opportunity to make it onto the Devils in 2007-08 with a new head coach coming in and open spots available due to the departures of Brad Lukowich, David Hale, and Richard Matvichuk.  He had a strong camp, played more consistently than new signings that summer like Vitaly Vishnevski and Karel Rachunek, and yet he sticks around because he looks decent enough with Colin White.  He's 31, he's entering his third season of NHL hockey, and there's no reason to believe he'll get better so the Devils should upgrade his spot. Can anyone really say that Mottau is important to the team?

There are others, variations, etc.  Before hitting that "Click to continue reading this post," please ask yourself (and feel free to share in the comments) how you feel about Mike Mottau.  I'm not being silly, I want you to think about Mike Mottau.  OK? Good.  Let's continue.

2008 - Mike Mottau 80 1 14 15 24 35 0 0 0 0 71 1.4

At first glance, Mike Mottau is a bottom-pairing caliber defenseman playing above his rate as the Devils' #4 defenseman.  According to Dobber Hockey's line combinations tool, Mottau played the vast majority of his shifts along side with Colin White last season. No, Mottau isn't an offensive defenseman.  His stats make that quite clear. But he's faster than White and provides that contrast in styles that the Devils have historically favored in their top 2 defensive pairings (e.g. Stevens-Neidermayer, Stevens-Rafalski, Neidermayer-White, etc.).   The two have had good chemistry last season and so Sutter kept the pairing together for the most part.   

As an aside, when Mottau was moved away from White, it was almost always to the third pairing with either Bryce Salvador (whose style is similar to White) or Andy Greene (whose style is similar to Mottau).   In terms of total ice time, Mottau played an average of 17:43 per game, the fifth highest among regular Devils (excluding Niclas Havelid).  Considering that Mottau got an average of 20:34/game in 2007-08 and that Mottau didn't get significant special teams action last season, you could say that Sutter felt Mottau should be doing much less on the ice and his minutes show that.

Add to that that Mottau's not a big shooter, not an overly physical player, and just not seemingly exceptional in any one aspect to his game on the ice.  Therefore, while he's not horrible, Mottau's not all that good.  Right?

Well, not exactly.  Yet, the even strength on-ice/off-ice statistics for Mottau at Behind the Net throw this thinking for a loop.   For starters, Mottau had the best relative plus/minus rating of all the Devils defensemen last season. Before you say, "Well, of course, Mottau led the defense with a +24."  No one on the team cam close to Mottau's rating of 1.09; Oduya's second on the team with 0.36 despite finishing a +21.  

Second, the goals per 60 minutes values change dramatically when he steps on the ice.   In terms of goals against per 60 minutes, they dropped from 2.29 to 1.69 when Mottau entered the game.  More impressively, the Devils goals for per 60 minutes jumped from 2.29 to 2.70 when Mottau was on the ice.    What makes this even odder is that the shots per 60 minutes didn't change all that much with Mottau's presence.   The shots for per 60 did go up, but only from 28.4 to 28.8; and the shots against per 60 went down from 26.8 to 26.3.   So despite the shooting rates - both for and against - not drastically change, the rate of goals were seemingly impacted by Mottau's presence.

Third, and this is the most baffling part, Mottau has both very low quality of competition and teammates.  Remember that Mottau's main partner last season was Colin White. Despite White having a quality of competition of 0.029, second highest on the team, Mottau's quality of competition is the second lowest on the team at -0.034.  I know Andy Greene's was the worst (Salvador did at least crack zero), did it really drag Mottau's numbers down in the few times they played with each other?  Bizarrely, Mottau's quality of teammates is also the second lowest on the team at -0.077.  Odd considering that he and White (whose quality of teammates value was the highest at 0.163) were the second pairing on most nights, usually out there with Elias' line.   I know Gionta and Zubrus maybe disappointed some of you, but it wasn't an awful line at all! I really don't know where to begin with a possible explanation for these disparities.

Getting back to the confusion, does this mean that Mottau held it steady and was some kind of lucky force for goals?  Not all that impressive because of relatively weak competition?  Somewhat impressive because of relatively weak help?  All despite mainly playing with a defenseman who faced relatively tough opponents with great help?  And he got less ice time overall while this was going on?   I end up seeing that these numbers can be interpreted to saying that Mottau has been at the least reliable when he was on the ice or that he hasn't excelled despite weaker competition or some other third way..

Lastly, while you may still think that Mottau isn't good - and if you do, that's fine - his value is amazing.  One of Mottau's biggest somewhat-unintended contributions to the team is his salary.  According to Cap Geek, Mottau's making $762,500; just $265,500 above the minimum salary in the NHL.  Mottau is playing the Devils top 4 and not looking too out of place (for lack of a better phrase?) for a very low price.  Not that Mottau won't get more eventually, he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer.   But until then, his contract has allowed the Devils to spend their money elsewhere, and that value cannot be understated enough in today's era of the hard salary cap. 

Put it this way: if Mottau was making $2.5-3 million dollars, then I would understand and probably call for him to be moved ASAP.  But at just over $750,000/year, is it really fair to expect that much more?  Moreover, if he goes elsewhere (next summer, in a trade, etc.), his replacement is going to have to be good to make up for the extra cap space he may likely take up.  Of course, it may not be that big of a jump to be as good as Mottau or better.

Where does that leave us?  I'm still not quite sure. Well, I can see Mottau being jumbled among the bottom 3 defenseman on the team: Bryce Salvador, Andy Greene, and him.  Since he does mesh well with White, I could see him remaining as the team's default #4.  At the same time, because he isn't necessarily impressive, I can see others battling for his spot and/or see him slip down to the third pairing.   At age 31, I don't think Mottau will pick up any new skills that will turn him into a force; and I doubt he'll get much power play time to give him the opportunity to boost his numbers. 

Other than that, given his salary and his career, I don't know how much more one can really expect or Mike Mottau. It's great that the Devils gave him the opportunity and Mottau broke through to the NHL after all these years.  But he is replaceable/can be improved upon.  Yet, I don't think Devils will do that unless someone really impresses in training camp or until Mottau is free to leave next July.  Until then, I expect Mottau to still remain as a regular defenseman.  I think he'll start with White once again, but I fear that he may end up on the third pairing more often than not.  I doubt that Mottau can score 20 points or more or improve his defense enough to get on a penalty killing unit or really clamp down on shots from the oposition.  If he can provide small reductions in the shot against rate while on the ice in such a position, great. 

Are you as confused as I am over Mottau and whether he was or was not good last season?  Do we just say he was serviceable and leave it at that?  Are you expecting more, less, or about the same as last season from Mottau?  Are you still thinking about Mottau?  Please have your say in the comments about how you feel about Mottau going into next season.