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Could This Be Brian Rolston's Best Season in His Second Tenure as a New Jersey Devil?

I assure you, I'm not being silly.

The initial answer to the title question for many of you will be "no, no, a thousand times, no!"  After all, Brian Rolston has been a part of a horrid first half of the season in New Jersey.  He missed 14 games with a hernia injury from mid-October to mid-November.  Rolston played so poorly since returning that he was eventually waived in December.  All in the third year of an albatross of a contract.   He's unmovable, he's now 38, and nobody bothered to put a claim in for him when he was on re-entry waivers.  Not even to screw the Devils into eating half of his $5,062,500/year cap hit.   A reader would be correct in asking how can anyone seriously ask whether this season has been his best with New Jersey since signing with the Devils in 2008?

I completely understand.  However, there is reason to truly think that Brian Rolston is performing better this season than in his last two seasons with New Jersey.  Follow along after the jump to find out why it's not as simple of a question.

The Production

Here are Rolston's stats right now.  Since Rolston missed several games due to injury and being scratched, he's definitely not going to play a full 82 game season.  To account for this, I calculated his per game rate for each stat. The "on-pace" line is what he'll end up with assuming he plays all 16 of the Devils' remaining games this season at his current rates.

2010-11 -Brian Rolston 49 12 14 26 127
2010-11 Per Game Rate -Brian Rolston - 0.245
0.286 0.531 2.592
2010-11 On Pace - Brian Rolston 65 15.918 18.571 34.489 168.469

Decimals aside, Rolston is currently on pace for 33-35 points with about 168 shots on net.  This would not match the highs of last season, where he put up 20 goals and 17 assists in 232 shots on net over 80 games.  It would come close to surpassing his 2008-09 season, where Rolston put up 15 goals and 17 assists in 172 shots on net over 65 games.  If Rolston gets hot, then he can definitely do it.  If he doesn't, then he'll fall short. Either way, he's not going to come close to matching what he did in Minnesota prior to signing with New Jersey.

There are two factors about this that is impressive. First are his per-game rates.  If he was able to maintain them for a full 82-game season, then he cracks 20 goals and 23 assists, which would make it his most productive season as a Devil so far.  Second is how it's broken down in splits by month at  Rolston put up a measly 2 goals and 3 assists in 21 games in 2010.  In 2011, he's got 10 goals and 11 assists in 28 games.  That's right, Rolston's points this season have come almost entirely when Jacques Lemaire went behind the bench.   His second half performance has been simply sensational.  More so considering how barren his first half was.

The Advanced Stats of the Last Four Seasons

Of course, how well a hockey player plays goes beyond how many points they can pick up.  Points are great, but a player does more than just score.  I believe the good ones must be able to perform well at even strength, the most common situation in a game.  Behind the Net stores and compiles these kind of underlying stats to help establish how a player does at evens.   One of the features of the new site is that multiple seasons by a player can be displayed at once.   Gabe showed this off with Henrik Zetterberg.   For the purposes of this story, I did it for Rolston (of course) and it clearly supports the notion that Rolston's enjoying one of his best seasons in recent seasons.

Read the link again if you haven't.  In this season, Rolston has faced positive values in quality of competition (highest in the last 4 seasons) and quality of teammates (second highest in the last 4), and he's positive in all manners of Corsi with respect to both values across the boards.  Rolston's not just coming out ahead at evens across all metrics, but he's got the highest on-ice Corsi rate in the last 4 seasons with 8.47.  Notice that he's not protected by zone starts this season like he was in 2009-10. He's just below 50% in offensive zone starts, so Rolston's not just benefiting from getting good situations more often than not.  His Corsi rate is indicative that he's helping getting the puck forward - better than in any of the last 4 seasons.

Put it this way: the only advanced stats where it looks bad this season compared to others is in on-ice shooting percentage, on-ice save percentage, and PDO (driven by the on-ice shooting percentage).  Rolston doesn't have that much control over either, and all that means is that he - like many of the Devils this season - suffered some rather bad luck at both ends.

Comparing Rolston to his teammates makes these numbers stand out.   His 8.47 on-ice Corsi rate is the second highest on the Devils, only behind Patrik Elias' superb 14.65.  Rolston has been doing it against tough competition, as his quality of competition is the highest on the team.  David Steckel has a higher value, but that's mostly from his time in Washington as he is still new to the Devils.  While Rolston enjoys good quality of teammates, the Corsi relative to that quality is the second highest on the team.

Basically, when Rolston has been on the ice this season, the puck has been going in the right direction. The magnitude of it leads me to believe that Rolston has a hand in this.  While his contract may feel like a millstone around the team's neck, he really hasn't been playing like one at evens.  He's appears to have done more this season than in the last two seasons.

Possible Explanations

Now, a big reason why Rolston has done so well this season compared to the last two has to do with his linemates.  According to Dobber Hockey's line combination tool, Rolston has played on a line with Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus more than any other this season.  It's this line that's helped Rolston get to new heights. 

In 2008-09, Rolston usually found himself on a third line, which wasn't much of a scoring line.  In 2009-10, there was a lot of movement, but Rolston usually played with defensive players like Jay Pandolfo and Rob Niedermayer more than most. This season, it took some time, but eventually Rolston got to be in the team's top two lines with Elias and Zubrus.  Rolston has had significant time in a role where offense is the main idea as opposed to defending or spelling other forwards or thrown into a spot in the hopes he'll fit real well.   From that standpoint, perhaps it's not a surprise his underlying numbers show he has been a superior possession player.

However, it likely isn't that much better if Zubrus and Elias weren't so good as well.  While a line of an old Rolston, a somewhat useful Zubrus, and Elias playing center instead of wing may not have looked good on paper, it has clicked real well.  Elias is one of the best players in terms of Corsi and leads the team, Rolston's second on the team with his rate of 8.74, and Zubrus has the team's fourth best value at 6.92.  Since Elias has an on-ice Corsi rate of over 14, I think it's fair to think he's driving that line forward.  It certainly helped Rolston quite a lot in terms of his underlying numbers. 

By no means are Rolston or Zubrus dead weight, though.  If anything, I think Lemaire really values this line. Here's some anecdotal evidence.  On the team's last road trip, Lemaire switched up the lines in the Tampa Bay game except for one: the Rolston-Elias-Zubrus line.  Granted, they didn't play well at all that night and possibly should have been broken up during the game.  But that Lemaire kept the three together says a lot of what he thinks of them.  Elias hasn't suffered at all, Zubrus has been a net-positive in possession, and it's a big reason why this may very well be Rolston's best season in his second tenure as a Devil.  

No, Rolston's not going to earn that contract, but at least he has not been a total waste of a roster space.

What do you think Brian Rolston's season so far? Are you impressed he's been this positive of  possession player? Are you impressed that nearly all of his points have come in one season?  Do you think this is Brian Rolston's best season in his second tenure as a Devil? thing  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Rolston in the comments. Thanks for reading.