Before the Anaheim game on Wednesday, there was a significant move within the New Jersey Devils organization. Rostislav Olesz was placed on unconditional waivers for his contract to be terminated, as reported by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice. As expected, he passed through entirely on Thursday as confirmed here by Gulitti. This means he's no longer on the team's cap, their reserve list, or with the team - New Jersey or Albany - in any capacity. This was done so he could sign with SC Bern of the Swiss National League A.
In Gulitti's post on Wednesday, Olesz had an opportunity to play in Europe prior to the season but stayed as the Devils were interested. An opportunity to stay in the NHL is better than abroad. When he was signed on July 5, the first day of unrestricted free agency in this past summer, I called it a low-risk signing and I liked the decision to pick him up. It was a cheap, one-year deal with the expectation that he could shore up the bottom six among the forwards. He got that opportunity and, well, it didn't work out as the Devils put him on waivers on November 4. He cleared them and so he was sent down to Albany earlier this month. He didn't stick around in North America to play most of a season in the minors again, so he understandably pursued options in Europe.
Both Karen and Nate noted the departure in their recent posts. It got me thinking about the five unrestricted free agent forwards the Devils signed in the recent offseason. Any decision involves some kind of risk and UFAs are no different. When signed, we tend to be positive with hopes that they can contribute in the same way that led a team sign them in the first place. That changes when reality sets in. So far only one of the signings turned out to be fantastic and it's the 41-year old living legend among them all. I decided to look at the basic production numbers at NHL.com of all five of them.
And then, for flavor, some of the deeper numbers at Extra Skater (Note: all ranks are among the 16 forwards to have suited up for the Devils; Corsi stats and PDO are from 5-on-5 play only)
Jaromir Jagr clearly stands out both with good fortune (that PDO!), strong possession (that CF% and CF% Rel!), and leading the team much less the 2013 UFAs in points (those, er, points!). But it gets murkier between both charts for the others. Michael Ryder hasn't been entirely invisible from the scoresheet, but he's not helping the play go forward much. Given his observing approach to defense, being one of the few Devils with a sub-50% offensive zone start ratio doesn't help either. Damien Brunner has been given better situations and started off with loads of attempts along with points. But he's been held pointless in his last ten games, he's been shooting less, and combined with some terrible, terrible fortune (that PDO...), he got scratched recently for Mattias Tedenby. The same Tedenby that Olesz has still out-shot in this season, 9 to 5. That's concerning no matter how you look at it. Ryane Clowe has had a real rough time in his few appearances with the team. No thanks to an elbow to the head by Jacob Trouba, he's been out injured with concussion symptoms and hasn't even practiced. It remains a big question mark as to how he can contribute and it's not even his fault. In total, that's one signing that's turned out to be great and four that aren't all impressive in retrospect.
Actually, Olesz looks pretty good by the numbers from Extra Skater. He's been used primarily as a depth player given his average ice time of just over eleven minutes. He did get some spot duty on penalty kills, about 47 seconds per game, but that's not much. He's come out ahead against relatively weak competition. His somewhat low PDO comes from a lack of goals scored, not goals against. Yet, there are signs that lead to why he was dumped. Olesz didn't take many shooting attempts (12), much less shots on net (9). While opposing teams didn't score when he was on the ice, neither did the Devils. He was on the ice for three goals scored, two against in all situation. While he had very good percentage of attempts for compared to against, it was very much lower-event hockey. The main point is that very little of consequence happened when he was on the ice.
One could argue that should mean he should be a mainstay on a fourth line given that Ryan Carter and Stephen Gionta have been getting beat over this season. On the other hand, one could argue that because so little happened while he was taking shifts, Devils have other players that could play his role without significantly hurting the team. I think this was the team's thinking. After all, the Devils have carried fourteen forwards throughout this season so anyone who isn't standing out can be replaced. It's not hard to fill in a bottom-six spot for 10-12 minutes per game with a decent player. Olesz wasn't particularly fast (his past knee issues definitely didn't help); while he was good in his own end, the Devils have plenty of players who are also good in their own end; and he didn't do a whole lot of note on offense that others can't do. As some players were coming back from injured reserve, someone had to be moved off the 23-man roster at the time. Olesz, who didn't wow anyone or make anyone palm their faces, was the target.
It just so happens that 29 other teams agreed with the Devils' assessment as he cleared waivers. Despite his experience, it's not enough to just be decent in a depth role where others could fill in. Teams use those sorts of spots for players who could be used in special situations, younger players trying to break into the league, "energy" players, and such. There's nothing at all wrong about being decent but, again, it's not hard to fill in that spot with someone else that may some potential or bring some other trait to the proverbial table and not have it hurt your team. If I'm Tedenby, Jacob Josefson, or any other player on the fringe of the roster, then I should learn from what happened as a precaution. That is, a player that deep in the roster has to do something and something positive with whatever opportunity you get regardless of how limited it may be. If not, the opportunities to play at all will become fewer and fewer.
The hope back in July 5 was that Olesz could be used as depth forward in New Jersey and strengthen it by making it better in someway. He didn't make any sort of an noticeable impact. That's why I think it didn't work out in New Jersey. That's why I think no other team picked him up either, though I would think there would be a few teams that could use someone like him. Personally, I would have liked it if he stuck around in Albany and be brought back up in the future. I do think he can be put on the fourth line right now and make it better. At the same time, I can't say I miss him. I don't think anyone really does even though he could do more now than, say, Alexander Urbom. When not much happens - good or bad - on the ice, it's easy to forget. The Devils didn't spend a whole lot to get him so it's not at all a big loss. While it wasn't much of a risk but it was realized.
As for the rest of the UFA class, well, there's a lot of hockey left in this season. Olesz doesn't have to be the only signing to not have worked. If Ryder can learn to actually fight for a puck or do something at all without it, then he'd be far better off. If Brunner can temper his aggression going forward (it seems to be all or nothing, which has led to some calls), and attempt to play defense, then he could get back to getting minutes and perhaps points. When Clowe gets healthy, then he needs to make the most of whatever position he gets in the lineup. (His situation has been the least fair, it's not like he wanted to get hurt.) They may not turn out to the level Jagr has attained so far, but they'll make those decisions back in the summer look better. More importantly, the Devils will then be better off as a team.
I wish Olesz could be a part of that, but I can't blame him at all for looking elsewhere than playing a lot in the AHL while waiting for an opportunity yet again. Again, I wish him nothing but the best with Bern. Who knows, maybe some strong play there will lead to some other NHL team giving him a look in the future? He's 28, he presumably has a lot of hockey left in him. Still, I hope the Devils' risks next summer turn out better than the ones they've taken last summer so far.