Stephen Gionta's spot on the 2013-14 New Jersey Devils roster may not be guaranteed after the last few weeks. While he signed through this season, the Devils did pick up Rostislav Olesz on July 5, someone who could be well-suited for the Devils' bottom six. The Devils made a number of minor-league signings for players who have played on the fourth line in the past. In addition, Adam Henrique and Jacob Josefson will be signed, bringing the Devils up to fourteen forwards on the books. That will become fifteen if the Devils actually do sign Damien Brunner. With only twelve spots in a lineup for each game, Gionta could be the odd man out. He needs to do what he can in this fall's training camp to convince the coaches to keep playing him.
The 2013 season doesn't have a whole lot in Gionta's favor. He managed to finish with the second lowest on-ice Corsi rate among all forwards, just ahead of Krystofer Barch. While one doesn't expect much out of a fourth-line forward, he did average just over a shot per game and scored four goals and ten assists last season. That may be reasonable for someone in his spot. That amount of production may also be easily done by someone else. However, there's one thing he did manage to do better than every other Devil last season. It could even be a reason why he sticks around Newark for another full season. He was a pest. Check out this chart of penalties drawn and taken by the Devils forwards from Behind the Net, which are all at 5-on-5 play and does not include coincidental penalties.
Note: Players with * did not play whole season with New Jersey; numbers aren't team-specific.
Gionta led the 2013 New Jersey Devils forwards and the team in penalties drawn with 14 in 5-on-5 play. To be fair, he was tied for the lead with David Clarkson, who was the team's leader in 2011-12. But Clarkson took 12 non-coincidental calls. Gionta only took five. The small forward managed to get under the skin of several players - Evgeni Malkin immediately comes to mind - without fouling them. Or, more accurately, getting caught fouling him. It can be difficult to justify this as a good thing since it sometimes (or most of the time) means the fouled had to have embellished on the play to get the ref to blow his whistle. Embellishment is one of those things I can't say I support in an ideal world; it simply isn't sporting, to put it briefly. But we don't live in an ideal world and so I have to respect a Devil trying to get his team into a favorable situation. I don't think Gionta does it as much as Clarkson; Gionta tends to annoys opponents into doing something unwise.
Gionta's not alone either. Steve Bernier finished behind both with ten drawn calls and only took two. Bernier may have embellished more - he did get tagged for diving once last season - but it was effective. Ryan Carter finished with a negative differential between taken and drawn (11 is second in taken calls, clearly Carter can stand to be cooler), but his seven drawn calls shouldn't be discounted. The entire CBGB line finished with a +13 between taken and drawn penalties with a total of 31 calls. It's evidence that the unit did something collectively positive over a whole season. Yes, this means they helped get the Devils' power play out there, warts and all, but that's still a contribution. This doesn't mean they should absolutely stay together for next season; just that they weren't a waste in this regard. (Related Aside: By the by, this chart also puts Patrik Elias in yet another positive light. What a player.)
The Devils as a whole finished with the third most power play opportunities in the league last season with 176. Based on Behind the Net's count, which again doesn't include coincidental penalties and only 5-on-5 play, the Devils drew 135 calls. (For what it's worth, the defensemen collectively drew 31, taken 59, Andy Greene led with 9 drawn non-coincidental penalties.) They weren't hurting in this department. They'll probably dip in 2013-14 with the departure of Clarkson, Matt D`Agostini (I think most were with St. Louis, though), and to a lesser degree Ilya Kovalchuk as they each drew a good share of penalties. Clarkson is an especially big loss given how much he's drawn over the past two seasons. He'd take quite a few, but he'd get the other guy to do more. The incoming Michael Ryder (8 taken, 6 drawn) and Ryane Clowe (9 taken, 5 drawn) weren't so good in 2013 but should they get to a more even differential, they may help out. Damien Brunner (4 taken, 7 drawn) did well, for what it's worth. It may be a wash in total depending on how the other forwards do, or more accurately, what happens to the other forwards.
I think the Devils will be OK when it comes to generating power plays. Their problem is going to be what to do with them. That said, with the team's departures in this summer, Gionta can define himself to the coaching staff as an agitating player. While he is a small forward, he's never had any issue with going into physical battles or areas where the game gets rough. He certainly can forecheck and chase guys down. He's got no problem with irritating a player in games and he takes being wailed upon in response fairly well. It's rare that he'll fight so he won't be sitting for five minutes in games. He's disciplined and/or sneaky enough to not take penalties regularly while getting opposition players to do so. I'd say that's pretty much what one would want out of a pest. Gionta was just that in 2013. We will see whether he will get to do that again at the NHL level in 2013-14. After all, plenty of the previous can be applied to Bernier and he's got more of a NHL pedigree in terms of chipping in production.
Will Stephen Gionta manage to stay on the New Jersey roster throughout all of 2013-14, or do you think he'll be an extra? Does the fact that he was a pest help or perhaps hurt his cause? Who do you think will lead the Devils in drawn penalties next season? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Gionta in the comments. Thank you for reading.