Many Devils fans this offseason -- myself included -- looked at Damien Brunner as one of the players that they most wanted to see the Devils pick up. He would be an offensive player on a team that sorely needed people who could actually put pucks on net. He would a younger guy on a largely geriatric team. He would have speed on a team largely stuck in molasses. His relative lack of experience would also keep his price down, allowing more cap flexibility for the team. He seemed like a guy who made a lot of sense and filled some needs for this particular Devils team. So when he went through the summer unsigned, a lot of people were left scratching their heads.
Then came training camp, where the Devils offered a still-unsigned Brunner a professional try-out contract to prove his worth. Devils fans were happy with the move, and it appeared early that it would pay off. Brunner looked very good in his few preseason games, leading the Devils to go ahead and offer him a 2-year $2.5M AAV contract. Not bad for a guy who you're expecting to put up 45 points or so. Then when the season started, Brunner came flying out of the gate with three goals and five points in his first five games. He was bombing pucks on net non-stop (8 SOG in the opener and 20 over the first 5 games) and looked like he might actually be a steal for the price the Devils were paying.
He doesn't look like much of a steal anymore. Since that opening stretch, Brunner has dropped off the face of the Earth in terms of production. After putting up those five points in his first five games, he has exactly two (yes, two) points in the subsequent 17 games he's played. And both of those came in the power play-happy comeback win in Boston back in October. That means he has failed to register a point in 16 of his last 17 games and hasn't had an even-strength point since October 11. As a reminder, today is, in fact, November 26, just for reference.
Damien Brunner Stats at NHL.com | Damien Brunner Game Log
So what has happened? Has his play declined that much? Was he just running hot to start the year? Is he just cold now? To the first one, perhaps as the Devils system rounded into form over the first month, Brunner found more and more that he doesn't necessarily fit the style. To the latter three questions, basically yes on all counts. His play certainly seems to have declined, but he is also definitely ice cold to exacerbate those issues.
October: The Nose Knows
Yes, Brunner's points drought had more-or-less started happening by mid-October, but looking at the month as a whole, his numbers are still pretty decent. Pete DeBoer had already started to limit his minutes some nights by the end of the month, but he still seemed to be contributing, including the 2-point effort in what amounted to a pretty big game for the Devils against Boston (though his assist on Andy Greene's game-winner was admittedly just a lucky break on a shanked shot).
So taking a look at the month as a whole, Brunner had a respectable 0.63 points/game mark and a very healthy 3 SOG per game. He was productive and he wasn't really riding any kind of crazy shooting percentage to get there. His minutes aren't big, but that's to be expected for a guy who is being deployed in a mostly-offensive role. At the end of October, he was on pace for a 50-point campaign. A very nice season for a guy the Devils picked up on a tryout contract, initially. Yes, he seemed a little inconsistent, and prone to disappear for some games, but if that weren't the case, he'd be making a heck of a lot more than $2.5M per year.
November: Not Sniffing the Back of the Net
Simply put, the wheels have come off for Damien Brunner's season here in November. When a guy whose role on the team is strictly offensive has zero points for almost an entire month, that is a huge issue. DeBoer said as much when he scratched Brunner for last week's game against the Los Angeles Kings:
"Some guys have to get on the board offensively because the other parts of their game aren't as strong," Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. "He's an offensive player. He has to be producing offense."
Frank, but fair words from the coach on Brunner's play. Bottom line is that if you're going to be relied on to do one job for the team, people are going to notice when you're not doing it. And the more he has failed to produce on offense, the more people have noticed the shortcomings in other parts of his game. He's not going to win board battles, he won't really drive play forward, and he can be a liability in his own end (as was highlighted in the Sharks game on Saturday). He couldn't even register a point in the bludgeoning the Devils gave the Predators a few weeks back (not to mention he took two penalties in that game). So if he's not scoring, what is he doing?
I don't think any of you need much of an explanation from me to figure out that this is a terrible month for Damien Brunner. But in addition to the glaring lack of even a single point, his minutes are down a bit, and his shot rate has fallen by almost 50%. That is not a good sign. A shot and a half per game is not enough for a guy with his skill set. When Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique were slumping points-wise earlier in the year, at least you knew they were helping the team while they were on the ice by winning pucks, playing defense, and killing penalties. Brunner does basically none of those things, so he had better get his game figured out in a hurry or he might not be long for New Jersey.
What About His Possession Numbers? [Nose Pun]
Tracking possession through shot attempts is a helpful tool for evaluating players because it's impossible to see everything a player does on the ice. Spending time in an opponent's zone is objectively a good thing and Corsi (shots+misses+opponent blocks) has proven to be a very good proxy for zone time. It fills in the gaps in our vision where with an objective measure of what's happening on the ice. It is crucial to look at context with these numbers and Damien Brunner is a good example of that.
New Jersey Devils Possession Stats at Extra Skater | Damien Brunner Player Page
Brunner's Corsi % (NJ attempts vs. opponent attempts) for this season is actually a pretty decent 54.4%, good for 7th best on the team. At first glance, someone might say that he has actually been helping play move forward. Not so fast, though, because Brunner has been receiving among the easiest minutes on the team. In terms of zone starts, of Devils to play 10 or more games, only Cam Janssen and Andrei Loktionov have started a higher percentage of their shifts in the offensive zone. Brunner's quality of competition is also pretty shaky, with only Loktionov and the revolving door of 4th liners facing easier competition based on opponent time-on-ice. Brunner has been put in a position to succeed and has failed to really take advantage of it.
Brunner needs to be better, plain and simple. The Devils are a scoring-challenged team, and he is someone who needs to get himself in gear if they want it to get any better. It doesn't appear to just be a run of terrible luck, either. His play has sharply declined over the past month and he has to get himself figured out in a hurry, or his spot in the lineup will start to be in serious jeopardy (as we saw last week). I don't think it's impossible for him to pick it back up and start scoring again, but my confidence that it will happen is waning. Maybe he just needs a goal to snap him out of his funk and get him firing pucks at the net again. Maybe he's still trying to figure out his role in the Devils system. Either way, he needs to shape up soon, for both the Devils and his own sake.