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The Case to Play Brunner (and Maybe Josefson too)

For what is most likely a very big relief to most people reading this, the New Jersey Devils are actually off to a good start! They head home with 6 out of a potential 8 points, which is nothing to be ashamed of. Yet are they playing the best guys? Let's see if a change in the fourth line is necessary.

Hey, I can play too!
Hey, I can play too!
Bruce Bennett

Since the start of the regular season, there have been many calls by different people to change around the lineup of the New Jersey Devils.  The most controversial lineup decision by Peter DeBoer was to start Damon Severson over Adam Larsson, which angered many fans looking to see the 4th overall pick a few years ago finally reach his potential.  CJ discussed this roster move in detail in his article last week.  While everyone still wishes to see Larsson play and succeed, myself included, it is hard to be upset with what Severson has done so far, and I really hope that he continues to improve and become a great defenseman for this organization.  Scoring two goals on Thursday night was certainly nice to see, to say the least.

The other major lineup decision has been with the fourth line.  With the top three forward lines pretty well solidified for the time being (minus the Havlat injury), the fourth line is where any potential lineup switches would most likely occur.  And there are five forwards currently on the NHL roster to fill those spots.  Through the first four games, the line has seen Stephen Gionta centering Jordin Tootoo and Tuomo Ruutu, for the already infamous "Ruutu-Tootoo line."  The two skaters who have been spectators thus far have been former first round pick Jacob Josefson and second-year Devil Damien Brunner.  While it may seem a little ridiculous to call for a change in personnel when the team is off to a great start to the season for what seems like the first time in forever (even with Thursday night...3-1 is still a good start), I want to make the case for Damien Brunner to see more playing time on the fourth line.  Also, while Josefson did not do anything to impress in the preseason (or really ever do too much), I will bring him up as well.

Note: Of course, with the potential that Havlat does not play tonight, Brunner would play anyway. Once Havlat returns healthy, however, this topic becomes an issue again.  At that time, whenever it is (hopefully soon, as Havlat was doing well on the second line), my hope is that Brunner remains in the lineup.

The Current Lineup

Before making the case for Brunner to be inserted into the fourth line on a nightly basis, I first need to showcase who is playing over him.  Brunner is a natural right winger, and the current right wing on the fourth line is occupied by Jordin Tootoo.  Therefore, the easiest switch would be between those two.  However, the line could be shifted somewhat as Tuomo Ruutu, the current left winger, can also play center.  While not ideal, there is no reason to see why either Tootoo or Brunner could not shift to left wing if need be.  Therefore, we need to look at all three players on the current line to see if Brunner should be playing over any one of them.

Since Tootoo is the obvious one to sit for Brunner, given his position, let's start with him.  His contract is far from burdensome, as he is on a one year deal making $550,000, which is great value for a fourth liner.  Tootoo has been in the NHL since the 2003-2004 season, when he played 70 games for the Nashville Predators and posted 8 points.  His best season was his last in Nashville, when in 2011-2012 he posted 6 goals and 24 assists for 30 points in 77 games played. He is still considered by many to be an enforcer, although as compared to some (CamJam), he can at least control the puck.  In terms of possession, his 5v5 Fenwick percentage over the past seven years has been 48.6%, which is not very good.  Nashville's average Fenwick over the same time frame was 49.1% (and Detroit's is tops at 54.4%), so his relative Fenwick is still negative.

Next we will look at Tuomo Ruutu. His contract is much higher than Tootoo's, as he is making $3.8 million per season through next year.  Like Tootoo, he has been in the NHL since the 2003-2004 season, but has been much more productive, thus earning a higher pay.  In 2010-2011 with Carolina, he posted 57 points in 82 games.  Last season, he scored 10 points in 19 games with New Jersey.  His possession stats have also been much better than Tootoo's.  His 5v5 Fenwick percentage over the past seven seasons is at 51.1%, making him a positive possession player.  He was a beast in possession for two years, the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 seasons, posting a 54.3% and 54.2% 5v5 Fenwick, respectively.

Finally we have Stephen Gionta.  Since he has been a Devil for a few seasons now, and there were articles written over the summer about why he should or should not be kept, I won't say too much.  He has produced fourth line stats over the past two seasons for New Jersey, but also provides excellent energy and hustle whenever he is on the ice.  He is well liked by fans for that reason.  His Achilles heel, apart from faceoffs, relate to his ability to possess the puck.  Last season, his relative Corsi as compared to the rest of the Devils was a paltry -9.3.  So while his percentages may not look terrible, they are undoubtedly boosted by the possession giant that is New Jersey.

How Do Brunner and Josefson Stack Up?

Now that we have baseline stats for the three that have started so far, let's take a look at Brunner.  In Detroit, he posted 26 points in 44 games.  This eventually got him to New Jersey, where he signed a 2 year, $5 million deal.  Last year he was very streaky, but when he was hot, it worked well.  He ended up with 25 points in 60 games played.  His possession was not great, posting a -3.0 relative Corsi as compared to the rest of the team last season.  Considering that he is supposed to be a real sniper, however, that could be handled if he scored more.

Josefson has not done much to impress since being drafted.  During the 2010-2011 season, he scored 10 points in 28 games, and considering his age at the time it was thought that he could build on that and improve to become a competent NHLer.  It never happened.  Last season, he posted a miserable 3 points in 27 games for New Jersey.  Despite that, the team still inked him to a two year deal worth $1.6 million.  His possession stats last season were actually worse than Gionta's, with a -9.8 relative Corsi.  Generally he has been a defensively sound forward who has had some trouble staying healthy and real trouble getting onto the score sheet.

So...Who to Play?

I just threw out some basic points and possession numbers...what does that prove?  Well, before digging any deeper, first let's clarify that Ruutu is clearly a quality NHL player, and by all means should continue to play on a nightly basis for this team.  He was the one who took over Marty Havlat's spot when he left bloodied on Thursday night, and it was well deserved.  He is a positive possession player who brings a level of skill and grit that has worked in the past to produce quality numbers.

The question is with the other two, and it really comes down to Tootoo vs. Brunner and Gionta vs. Josefson.  I think the change that needs to occur is at right wing.  Firstly, the numbers show that a change is necessary.  Brunner may not post amazing numbers, but for a fourth liner, I would gladly take 25 points over 60 games.  That is better than anyone on the CBGB line did the past two seasons, and it is certainly better than what Tootoo has generally produced in his career.

At War on Ice, you can compare any players you wish across many different stats.  I decided to do that with Brunner and Tootoo.  Since I am having trouble embedding anything, I suggest you check it out and see the difference.  For a quick summary of some relevant statistics:

Stats (since the 2012-2013 season)

Damien Brunner

Jordin Tootoo




Corsi Relative






Offensive Zone Start %



Average Time on Ice

11.5 minutes

8.5 minutes

These are not even all of the major stats to show why Brunner is a better player and should be playing over Tootoo.  This is just a taste, and I think a very telling one.  Brunner dominates in possession, scores more, is less sheltered, and plays more.  The end.

But more so than the numbers, it comes down to a question of philosophy.  With Tootoo in the lineup, the Devils are still confirming that they believe in using enforcers.  In this year's version of Hockey Abstract, Iain Fyfe wrote a quality piece on how enforcers are not actually helping a team that uses one.  He concluded that "putting an enforcer out on the ice hurts your hockey team's chance of winning."  While that is a very harsh sentiment, it is one that has a lot of statistical backing.  A couple days ago, Rob Vollman wrote a piece for ESPN arguing against the use of enforcers that I would love to read if they would post the article for free.  But since it is for ESPN insiders only, I cannot tell you much about it.

However, I agree with the philosophy argued by Vollman and Fyfe.  It makes way more sense to use four legitimate scoring lines instead of three scoring lines and a checking "energy" line.  If your team has the personnel to run out four dangerous scoring lines--and the Devils indeed have that personnel with Brunner--then why not take advantage of that?  In that scenario, the team would always have a scoring threat on the ice, regardless of what line is out there.  Instead, they run out a fourth line that gets very few minutes per night and consequently does very little.  Simply for this alone, I feel strongly about playing Brunner over Tootoo.

The case for playing Josefson over Gionta is much harder, and one that I am not sure I want to make.  Gionta actually plays more than just on the fourth line, as he gets quality penalty killing minutes and does well with them.  This gives him value above and beyond what Tootoo brings.  He may be well below average in the faceoff circle, and may be a possession black hole, but he works incredibly hard out on the ice and does provide a sort of positive energy that is palpable.  Josefson, on the other hand, has not shown to bring much at all.  Yes he is defensively sound, and therefore could probably do what Gionta does on the penalty kill, but that is about it.  I have always generally been a Josefson supporter and hoped that the team would give him more of a shot than they had, but after watching him in the preseason, I am no longer sure I want to keep backing him.  In the end, I guess what I am saying is that I really do not care too much who centers the fourth line, as both guys bring similar qualities.

What Do You Think?

So that is my conclusion.  I feel that the Devils should really consider using Brunner on the fourth line with Ruutu as it gives the team four legitimate scoring lines, which would only make this team scarier to play against.  Instead, with Tootoo out there, the fourth line becomes much more inconsequential.  Whether or not the team goes with Gionta or Josefson really does not matter to me too much as I do not see a major difference either way.

What do you think?  Do you think the team is better with Jordin Tootoo out there, or would you also prefer to see Damien Brunner?  What would be your ideal fourth line given the personnel this team has?  What stats did I mess up or what did I leave out that would help to make the argument in either direction? Please leave your comments in the section below, and thanks for reading.