Jay Pandolfo's reputation and role in the NHL has been essentially as a single-dimensional player: checking left winger. Thing is, he was really, really good as a defensive forward. His chemistry with John Madden was unmatched, as the duo were elite checkers and penalty killers in the NHL for most of this past decade. Offense? No, Jay Pandolfo was not and never will be a Goal Scoring Machine™. But it was OK as long as he continually made sure opposition right wingers had a long night on the ice. And he worked hard to defend and do the dirty work that entails as cleanly as possible (note: Pandolfo has never had more than 23 penalty minutes in a season).
However, the problem with such players is that if they struggle in what they are supposed to excel at, then it questionable why they are on the roster at all. Pandolfo had a very disappointing 2008-09 season. Adding insult to injury is that it was the first season under a sweet 3 year deal worth $2.5 million/year; a contract earned after a superb 2007-08. Pandolfo was definitely not one of the best checkers on the Devils - much less the league - last season. Yet, he will remain as a Devil. He has a no trade clause as Chere reminded the Devils faithful this past February. Therefore, I think it's fair to assume that he'll at least start in New Jersey; so what should we expect from him?
|2008 - Jay Pandolfo||61||5||5||10||-12||10||0||1||1||0||63||7.9|
Before jumping into what to expect from Pandolfo, I want to show how Pandolfo's last two seasons were different, based on the even strength statistics from Behind the Net:
|Season||GP||Time on Ice/Game (all situations)||Quality of Competition||On-Ice GF
||On-Ice GA/60||Off-Ice GA/60||On Ice SA/60||Off Ice SA/60|
(Aside: Apparently, quality of competition was calculated differently for this season. So I've added rank among Devils forwards to highlight my point. Time on Ice comes from NHL.com.)
In 2007-08, Pandolfo saw solid minutes everynight, and since he faced the highest quality of competition among all Devils forwards, these were difficult minutes. We can forgive the increase in shots against per 60 minutes - he's not facing scrub forwards on the ice. But the big proof of his effectiveness is in goals against. The shots against may have gone up, but the goals dropped dramatically when Pandolfo hit the ice. In terms of raw goals for and against, Pandolfo comes out with a +9 in even strength situations. Only a groin injury slowed him down - keeping him out of 28 games, to be precise. Regardless, Pandolfo scored 12 goals and 12 assists, only 3 points shy of his career high of 27. That's right, he was on pace for a career year offensively while being the reliable checker we're all so used to.
Contrast that with last season. Pandolfo struggled early on. The difference in shots against per 60 decreased; yet the goals against per 60 increased when Pandolfo was on the ice. Given that his role is for defense, that really hurts. This had a snowball effect, where Pandolfo saw significantly less ice time. And moved off the third line and onto the fourth line. And as seen by the total goals for and against when he was on the ice, it's worse than his past season, a difference of -13! Offense? 5 goals and 5 assists. A downturn, but that's not really as concerning as the defense. Oh, about those 61 games he played, you may wonder if he was injured last season? No, he was scratched for 21 games. Disappointing is really the nicest way I can put Pandolfo's 2008-09 season.
At age 34, there's two ways you can look at Pandolfo for 2009-10. The pessimistic one is that his career is on the decline and last season was a rude wake-up to that reality. Therefore, one would think that the Devils should look to minimize his role as much as possible. This view assumes that he'll continue to flounder on defense and as mentioned, if Pandolfo isn't effective on the defense, then he's not much use to the team. In that case, Pandolfo should be utilized to mentor whoever his eventual third line replacement will be and rotate in and out of the fourth line. Yes, this means his contract is a waste; but given a negative view, you probably feel that way just from that last season.
The optimistic one is that Pandolfo will bounce back from last season. While he looked slower than usual last season, I'm sure that Pandolfo himself realizes how poor he did last season - if only from being scratched 21 games. That could give him the incentive to get in the best shape possible for training camp and really work hard to impress Jacques Lemaire and the Devils coaching staff to earn his old spot back on the third line. And he'll have to continue that all season to keep getting shifts and minutes. I cannot empahasize enough how much I would welcome a "comeback" season from Pandolfo. OK, he may not return as an elite checker. But considering the very real likelihood that his center could be a relatively inexperienced Rod Pelley, Pandolfo's work on the defense could become quite crucial.
Personally, I am choosing to be optimistic about Pandolfo - and not just because it's the only way he can come close to justifying his $2.5 million/year deal. Let's be frank here, Pandolfo is not and will not be an offensive force. He's not going to be significant producer of points, he never has been, and it's foolish to expect him to do so now. If he can contribute 10 goals and 10 assists, great. If not, fine. In any case, his defensive work is his "bread and butter" and he has to do better in that department.
I expect him to finish with a better goals for/against difference on the ice; contribute to a penalty kill that didn't do all that well last season (79.9% success rate, 20th best in the league); and earn his way back to 15-17 minutes on average on the third line. Basically, he needs to be a solid, competant checking forward once again. I think it's achievable and the opportunity is there, but Pandolfo has to work really hard to do it - just as he had done in past seasons with John Madden earlier this decade. Otherwise, I fear he's going to see more of the press box than he'd like.
Now it's time to have your say. Do you think we can expect Pandolfo to earn his way back to that third line? Are you optimistic or pessimistic for Pandolfo in 2009-10? Or perhaps you have some other views about the player. Let's discuss what you expect from Pandolfo next season in the comments below.