Of all of the players on the Devils, no one else can alternate between "Wow, what an awesome play!" and "Holy [expletive], get that [expletive] off the ice!" quite like veteran Czech defenseman Marek Zidlicky. He is a special kind of frustrating. Once you are ready to board him onto the proverbial rocket into the Sun, he will go ahead and hammer home a huge goal. But then the moment you start to feel good about his presence, he'll follow it up with a brutal turnover and/or a lazy hooking penalty to get your blood boiling all over again. Hockey fans (and sports fans in general) can be a very fickle bunch, but few play into those emotions quite like Zidlicky.
So is Zidlicky worth the headaches that he causes? He's undeniably a talented hockey player, particularly in the offensive end, but the risks he takes and the mistakes he can be prone to commit definitely temper that. When he was brought in during the 2011-12 season he was a welcome addition to a defense that was very limited in terms of offense. He added a dimension the team lacked and helped them during their stretch run and in the playoffs. The longer he has been around in New Jersey though, the more you understand how he eventually wore out his welcome in Minnesota. He can just be maddening to watch sometimes.
Let's start with what Zidlicky has done right since being here. Above all else, the thing that gives him the most value is his ability to produce offense from the blue line. Just looking at this year, Zidlicky is third on the Devils in points right now with 22. On a team that so sorely needs offense, those points have certainly been a big help. With the Devils only having a total of 101 goals right now, Zidlicky has had a hand in over 20% of them. He is a player who is able to carry the puck into the zone on the attack, something that not a lot of the other players seem willing to do (it would be interesting to see how this team looks in terms of zone entries).
He facilitates offense through both passing and shooting and he is rarely inactive when he is on the ice, for better of worse. Based on the passing counts done by Ryan, he handles the puck more than most other defensemen on the team by a pretty wide margin. Only Andy Greene is really in his neighborhood in terms of passes attempted. Though his constant activity with the puck, he has helped generate more shooting attempts than any other defenseman on the team. As most of us should be aware of by now, the Devils are a team that struggles to get the puck on net, so its hard to discount any player who is helping create offense.
From a possession standpoint, Zidlicky has also been a generally positive player through the past 7 years (since these stats started getting tracked). A look at his stats at Behind the Net shows that in most seasons, he has been a positive influence in possession with a positive Relative Corsi. It makes sense when you think about it, because even if a guy is not the most sound in terms of defense, he is valuable if he is constantly powering the attack forward. It's too bad we don't have more stats from his earlier in his prime, because if his 2007-2009 stats are any indication, he was a possession monster back in the day (or at least he made it count when he was deployed favorably).
For all the good he does on the ice though, there is certainly a fair bit to counterbalance that. He handles the puck a lot for sure, but he also is prone to give it away a lot. Now, it's certainly true that any player who has the puck so much will turn the puck over more often, but in terms of percentages, there is definitely evidence that Zidlicky is more sloppy with the puck on his stick than others. Going back to Ryan's passing stats for the first half, you can see that Zidlicky has the lowest accuracy in his passing out of any player on the team, including by far the worst in the defensive zone. There is certainly an argument that being more aggressive and involved on the puck could lead to more of your opportunities going awry, but Andy Greene has nearly as many passes as Zidlicky does, and he is running about 8% better in terms of his accuracy. More than one out of every four Zidlicky passes in his own zone are not finding their mark. The only other Devil in the neighborhood of that rate in his own zone is Peter Harrold, which is not great company to be in.
Going back to his possession stats again, while he has generally moved play forward over the years, including the last, his Corsi% has slipped this season. He has a negative Relative Corsi, despite having a pretty favorable offensive to defensive zone start ratio. To put it in perspective, Mark Fayne and Andy Greene get over 10% less offensive zone starts but still have a higher Corsi rate than Zidlicky. Now, he has been saddled with a constantly changing D partner, which never helps, but each of his top 3 partners (Gelinas, Volchenkov, Greene) in terms of time have seen their Corsi dip when they're on the ice with him. There's a lot of evidence that Zidlicky's possession game is not that strong this year.
But perhaps the worst thing of all about Zidlicky is the penalties. The way that he has taken penalties over the past two seasons is crazy. He leads the NHL in negative penalty differential right now with -16. This is coming after a season in which he was third in the NHL in negative penalty differential with -17. His play is just far too undisciplined with the way he takes stick fouls all over the ice. Hooks, trips, slashes, you name it and Marek has mastered it. Before even considering his play while ON the ice, Zidlicky has already cost the team around 5 goals with all of the penalties taken.
It may not exactly be breaking new ground to say that Marek Zidlicky is a strong offensive presence but a bit of a liability otherwise, but it is always good to step back and see if what we’re objectively observing on the ice actually backs up our preconceived notions. He is definitely an offensive talent, and his production over the years backs that up. Just watching him, you see that he can carry the puck into the zone as well as any other defenseman the Devils have had in a while. But the holes elsewhere in his game are plentiful. While he is gifted with the puck, he is a guy who will take risks and sometimes will get burned. In his own end, his play is much less fluid and he seems to have trouble maintaining his assignments at times. His passing stats certainly tell a story of a guy who has the puck on his stick a lot, but can often fail to hit the mark. The issues in his own end will often lead to him chasing the play and he will commit penalties with abandon while trying to defend.
Marek Zidlicky still has value due to his offense, but with the emergence of some of the younger offensive defensemen in the organization, I think we are reaching the point where the Devils might be okay should he depart over the summer. Yes, he is producing a lot of points, which can’t be ignored, but his struggles in his own end continue to be frustrating. With the general trend of his possession numbers heading in the wrong direction and the headaches that he causes with his breakdowns being as pronounced as ever, I’m not sure if he’ll be worth the salary he will likely command next summer. The Devils have a major logjam again at D when everyone is healthy and might be better off saving their money to continue trying to improve their situation at forward. Money freed up by moves like buying out Volchenkov and letting Zidlicky walk could create the room needed to address this team’s issues up front (especially since Jagr’s return is far from guaranteed).
How do you feel about Marek Zidlicky’s play for the Devils these days? Is his offense still worth the other shortcomings in his game? Is he just too important to an offensively challenged team to even think of letting him go at this point? Sound off with your thoughts below and thanks for reading.