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Analyzing Brian Rolston's Performance as a New Jersey Devil - Part 1

If we want to see Brian Rolston raise his hands in celebration of more goals next season, then he's got to shoot more and from better spots at least.  Still, we shouldn't expect too much. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
If we want to see Brian Rolston raise his hands in celebration of more goals next season, then he's got to shoot more and from better spots at least. Still, we shouldn't expect too much. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Over the past month, I've focused a lot of my posts on looking at players with advanced statistics.  Namely to get a better, more objective understanding of how a player has performed in recent years.  I've focused mostly on Paul Martin and Ilya Kovalchuk because they will be pending unrestricted free agents (UFA) and it's important to realize what it is the New Jersey Devils would gain by re-signing either of them.   Of course, posts in the next few weeks will be focused on available UFAs, this way we can know what the Devils may be getting should they go that route in this offseason.

However, let's take a step back, and look at Brian Rolston.  Back in the summer of 2008, Brian Rolston was a popular man for free agency. He just came off his third straight 30+ goal season in Minnesota and has performed well as a two-way player.   After fielding 17 or so offers, per this report from Tom Gulitti, the New Jersey Devils won the Rolston Sweepstakes with a $20.25 million contract for 4 years and a no trade clause (NTC).  The number of offers alone are evidence that Lou wasn't just going for nostalgia, a lot of teams thought he would help their respective causes.

Two seasons and 35 total goals later, the contract looks terrible. Even if he didn't have a NTC, who would take that kind of money off the Devils hands?  For all intents and purposes, he's going to be here.  We might as well face the facts on what he can possibly do for the team going forward.  It's clear that it most likely won't be worth $5 million/year; but we might as well set expectations appropriately rather than continue to grouse about it. To do that, an analysis of Brian Rolston's performance as a New Jersey Devil is needed.

This post is Part 1 of that analysis, which focuses on shooting percentage and a With or Without You analysis. Please set your viewing to "Wide" so you can view all the charts before continuing after the jump.

Shooting Percentage

Truth be told, I hadn't planned on looking closely at Brian Rolston.  However, I've received a request or two about it from user drhgzang and  Maciek1o13.   Incidentally, I'd also like to call attention to user elesias' own quick analysis. Namely because it covers a lot of the reality of Rolston as it is.

He ranked 8th among Devils’ forwards with 13:35 ES TOI/G.

Kovalchuk led the forwards on the team with 16:31 ES TOI/G, which is only ~3 minutes more. The next forward was Parise with 16:06 (~2 1/2 minutes more).

Not quite five minutes, but a definite difference.

He was brought in to help in general, but was specifically supposed to help the PP, and his 2:23 PP TOI/G was sixth highest among forwards.

The reason everyone rails against his play (and why he probably didn’t get more TOI) is precisely why you mention:

I realize his shot percentage was weak but really his only shot is a relatively low height slapshot.

He was second behind only Parise in SOG for the season with 232, but his abysmal 8.6 S% is 14th on the team. Granted, the entire team struggled with S%, as illustrated by the fact that the guy just above him on the list at 9% is Kovalchuk. Difference being, Kovalchuk will "regress to the mean" and get his back up… Rolston is a career 9.1%, so expecting much better is foolish.

And none of this even accounts for his 47 missed shots. His SPCT (shooting percentage including missed shots) is 6%. To put that in perspective, that puts him between Bryce Salvador (6.2) and Dean McAmmond (5.8). Even more specifically (and damning) is the fact that he had a 3.8 SPCT with his bread and butter slap shot.

In the end, his play doesn’t warrant putting him up with the top lines. Sure, you could argue that it might improve his numbers a little bit (and he did spend some time on the 2nd line), but the flip side is that he might drag the other two guys down (which I believe to be the case, though I don’t have the data to prove it – though I imagine some of John’s earlier WOWY posts might touch upon it).

Really, I think the big issue everyone has isn’t necessarily his performance (though everyone, even Brian, I’m sure) would like it to be better, but the fact that he’s earning as much as he is for what he gives. If he were making half of what he is, or if his contract weren’t as long and/or if he didn’t have the NTC, I don’t think people would be so hard on him.

He basically hits one of the major points about Rolston.  He's not a great shooter at all.  Take a look at just his overall stats from the last five seasons - his three from Minnesota, and the last two in NJ.  Numbers from

05-06 - Brian Rolston 82 34 45 79 14 50 15 5 7 0 293 11.6
06-07 - Brian Rolston 78 31 33 64 6 46 13 1 6 0 305 10.2
07-08 - Brian Rolston 81 31 28 59 -1 53 11 1 8 0 289 10.7
08-09 - Brian Rolston 64 15 17 32 2 30 8 0 3 0 174 8.6
09-10 - Brian Rolston 80 20 17 37 2 22 7 0 3 0 232 8.6

I'm sure you'll be, well, disappointed to see that among other stats, his assists, shooting percentage, and PPG all fell down.   What I would like to highlight is his total shots on goal.  

Look at the SOG column.  His own shooting percentage wasn't terribly high in Minnesota; while his season high was 11.6 in 2006-07, he was a 10% shooter in Minnesota.  If he "regresses to his mean," it may go up a bit at about 9%.   But the big deal here is that Rolston shot the puck far less in NJ than in Minnesota.     That's a huge reason why his goals dropped.   Even if he shot 10% last season, we're only talking about an increase of 3 or 4 goals.  Not bad, but imagine if he shot closer to 300 pucks on net and maintained that shooting percentage of 8.6% - then he'd get 5 to 6 more goals.

Basically, if you're not going to be a super high percentage shooter like an Ilya Kovalchuk, you got to work hard to create and take shots.   In Rolston's defense, 232 shots from mostly playing on the third line isn't too bad.   He did increase his SOG/game rate from 2.72 to 2.9.   However, if he wants to improve on something, he should consider where he's taking his shots. While it's only a part of what makes a shooter successful, per this post at Behind the Net, Rolston was one of the worst shooters based on average shooting locations last season.  If he improves there, getting into primer spots to shoot from, then he may get a few more goals there.

Should we expect the shooting percentage to improve?  Perhaps.  On the other hand, in the last three seasons, Rolston's PDO went from 1002.8 to 1015 to 1002.  Maybe it'll go back up a little in 09-10; but again, elesias is right. Rolston's not a high percentage shooter and expecting him to become one now isn't reasonable.   The only way he may get more goals is if he either ramps up his shots on goal count and shoots from better locations on the ice more often.

He also wondered what a With or Without You (WOWY) analysis may look like.  Fortunately, I have one ready.

With or Without You Analysis: Brian Rolston

If you'd like a primer on what a WOWY is, please check out the Zach Parise WOWY for an explanation.  I've done the same for Ilya Kovalchuk's time in New Jersey; Paul Martin (when healthy), and Travis Zajac in the past.   As with the others, I'm interested in those that Rolston had a significant number of 5-on-5 Corsi events (both good and bad) in the past season.   Using the scripts at Vic Ferrari's fantastic Time on Ice and following the method explained to me by Tyler Dellow of mc79hockey, here's Brian Rolston's WOWY with the Devils forwards.


Rolston was used among so many different forwards. If you thought Zajac hanging with 7 forwards was a lot, well, Rolston's got him beat with 10.  The results are definitely varied.    Rolston had the most with Rob Niedermayer and a majority of them are against the Devils, definitely not something you'd want to see. Granted, Niedermayer was and will be a checking forward so perhaps it's not so surprising to see that  Rolston was far better off away from Niedermayer.    The same could be said for David Clarkson, which is a bit more surprising.  While Clarkson's usually on the bottom six, he's not terrible on offense.  Either way, in terms of Corsi% (positive Corsi events over total), the two were both significantly better off apart.  Lastly, the next guy that probably shouldn't line up with Rolston is Langenbrunner.   Together, they're suffering more often than attacking; apart, their respective Corsi% goes back up 50%.

While Rolston didn't have too many Corsi events with Dainius Zubrus, Niclas Bergfors, Vladimir Zharkov, and Ilya Kovlachuk, what little time they had together was really beneficial for both parties.  Even if someone was on the off-wing, except for Ilya Kovalchuk (he's on the LW, Rolston on the RW) and Zubrus (possibly a center at the time?). 

However, it appears that the best forward to have been with Rolston was Patrik Elias, and I think Jacques Lemaire realized it for more than just a few games.  A relatively high number of Corsi events, a good Corsi% together, and both suffered apart.  Elias didn't suffer so much, but Rolston definitely would have preferred to be with #26 based on Corsi.   Would I lock the two up together? Not necessarily; a combined .534 Corsi% is good but not great.   I'd have to do a WOWY on Elias before suggesting whether Rolston would be a good candidate as his right winger.

Overall, what really strikes me is that of all of the bottom-six regular forwards from last season, Rolston experienced a beneficial Corsi% - more time possessing the puck and attacking than being attacked - with only two: Dean McAmmond and Vladimir Zharkov.   He was often having to defend more often than not when put out there with Jay Pandolfo, Rob Niedermayer, David Clarkson, and so forth. 

Yet, as we see from the production and the wide variety of forwards who had 100 or more Corsi events with Rolston, he wasn't performing consistently enough to justify a permanent spot on the top two scoring lines.   It's almost a chicken-and-the-egg scenario: Rolston isn't likely to generate the shots he needs to get the goals we all want when playing on the third line.  But he can't move ahead because he doesn't score consistently enough when he is up on the second line.

This WOWY analysis, I think, not only shows the results of the lineup changes with respect to Rolston, but also helps explain why there were changes at all. Rolston was better off away from most of the third liners at 5-on-5 hockey; but  he didn't especially stick out with a scoring forward except for Elias to a point.  Now I see that Lemaire was searching the "right" combination to get Rolston going.  It wasn't just to try and get him productive (though that's the ideal that never happened), but to achieve more shooting attempts when he's out there.  After all, you can't score without attempting shots, and even if you don't score, you'd own the puck more often in the process - which is beneficial for a team's performance.  To that end, I see the overall reasoning behind some of the line changes Lemaire had during the season.

Figuring out that Parise and Zajac generate plenty of positive Corsi events is easy, but achieving good depth comes from getting the Rolstons, Clarksons, etc. in the positive as well.  That takes experimentation and with all of the injuries, it ramped up the amount of flux within the forward lines.   Ultimately, it may have done more harm than good in some fan's eyes, but that's a completely different discussion.

Now, that's a lot about the forwards.  What about the defense? Was there a defender that Rolston meshed well with last season?


The answer is not really.   The only "With" Corsi% that sticks out was with Paul Martin (very good together) and Martin Skoula (very bad together). But they've had limited time playing with Rolston, much less achieving Corsi events; so I'm not so confident to say it would continue with more events.   Among the regulars from last season, Rolston and Greene were notably better in terms of Corsi apart than together; while Rolston and Salvador were OK together and both suffered apart.   The Mottau-White were close to a wash with Rolston, slight improvements apart than together.   Other than keeping Greene and Rolston apart, I don't think it'll make a huge difference to match a defenseman with Rolston in 2010-11.

What Do You Think?

Overall, I'm led to believe that Rolston's not going to become a big scorer short of a massive stroke of luck and/or revitalization to his game.   He was basically a tweener at forward last season: the third line holds him back from attacking, but he doesn't do enough often or managed to show good chemistry on a scoring line.    It's good that he shot the puck more often last season, however, he needs to improve upon where he shoots from and continue to ramp up the number of shots on net.  Even then, I can't help but feel that maybe just 25 goals should be seen as a reason to celebrate Rolston next season.  And that's still not really worth $5 million.

I still can't come to a complete conclusion - maybe in Part 2, but for now, I'll leave the opinions to you.  Given how Rolston stacked up in terms of shooting percentage and in the WOWY, what do you think of Rolston now?  Do you agree that the sheer number of players he's had 100 or more Corsi events highlights how Lemaire attempted over and over to find the right fit for Rolston?  What do you think Rolston's shooting percentage would look like next season?  Leave your Rolston-related thoughts in the comments.

Part 2 will go live sometime tomorrow - it will focus on his Goals Versus Threshold and his on-ice and on-ice impact stats.  Thanks for reading.