The New Jersey Devils do not have many unrestricted free agents on their current roster heading into this July. They have a goalie, two defensemen, and four forwards who are fourth liners at best. The two defensemen are of particular interest. Last season, injuries led to the call up and successful stays of Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas. While both had their issues during the season, it's cleaer that they proven themselves to be NHL players. However, when defenders got healthy, two had to be sat and the then-waiver-ineligible Adam Larsson was forced to go down to Albany. The Devils still have four veteran defenders on the books, so it's an open question whether the Devils should keep them. It could mean leaving someone in Albany that otherwise could be in New Jersey. It could force a later trade. But before we get into that, we should ask whether the Devils would want to keep them anyway. Today, let's explore that question about defenseman Marek Zidlicky.
Zidlicky was acquired by the Devils back in the spring of 2012. Due to that plus the Incredibly Stupid Lockout of Fall 2012, 2013-14 was the first full regular season Zidlicky has played with the team. Zidlicky did manage to play 81 games and he played a lot. Zidlicky finished second only to Andy Greene in total ice time and average ice time per game, with over 21 minutes per game. Zidlicky was not only regularly seen at evens, but he was also featured of the Devils' power play.
He was also featured on the boxscore quite a bit. Not only did Zidlicky lead the Devils' blueline in points, but he finished tied for twentieth among all defensemen in the league. His twelve goals and thirty assists placed him right in behind Andrei Markov and Ryan Suter as well as in front of Zdeno Chara. If nothing else, one cannot really complaint about Zidlicky's production. Zidlicky managed to get 128 shots on net for a shooting percentage of 9.4%. That's not a percentage that's out of the ordinary but it is definitely higher than what he has shot at over his career. The 42 points is actually right in line with his production when he was a bit younger.
Unfortunately, Zidlicky was also featured in the penalty part of the boxscore. Zidlicky took sixty penalty minutes last season. That doesn't seem like an outlandish amount. However, those were all from minor penalties. Zidlicky led the Devils in both minors and total penalty minutes. While he's not a part of the penalty kill, it's not good to have a defenseman sit in a box all that much. According to his split stats, you can see the kinds of minors he's taken: it's a mix of restraining fouls (e.g. his seven hooking calls) and physical fouls (e.g. his four roughing calls). Going back to his career, Zidlicky has taken about this many penalties in the past. Only in seasons cut short by injuries or work stoppages did he not manage at least sixty penalty minutes in a season. Since Zidlicky isn't a fighter nor does he go over the line so much he gets misconducts, those are mostly minor penalties. That means he's been giving up power plays to the opposition because he gets beat or he goes too far in trying to make a physical play.
As far as his defensive play goes, his analytics aren't so bad at first glance. By eye, Zidlicky's coverage in his own end can be lackluster at times. He can lose his man or just make the wrong decision in who to cover - assuming he decides to do so. In terms of Corsi%, the percentage of all shooting attempts for the Devils over all shooting attempts when he's on the ice, he's got a favorable 53.3% per Extra Skater. Combined with a team save percentage of 92.5% when he's out there in 5-on-5 play, it wasn't a disaster when Zidlicky was out there.
However, if you go back to that Extra Skater link, notice that his 53.3% actually rates seventh out of all nine defensemen who suited up for the Devils. On top of that, his offensive zone start percentage (offensive zone starts over offensive plus defensive zone starts) was 58.9%, second only to Gelinas. This has at least two meanings. First, Zildicky is an offensive player and so should be given those situations. Second, in a defensive situation, Peter DeBoer didn't go to #2 for a reason. The high number of offensive zone starts does boost his Corsi% too. Speaking of, look at his relative Corsi%, which is the Corsi% when he's on the ice minus the Corsi% when he's not on the ice. It is negative. That means that while the play overall has been positive, the team has taken a step back when he comes out. Zidlicky usually followed the boss pairing of Andy Greene and Mark Fayne (he's the other UFA defenseman in question, let's discuss him at another time), which could explain a drop off since Greene-Fayne was so, so good. While this isn't necessarily a defensive stat, it does suggest that Zidlicky maybe wasn't as strong in possession as other defenders on the team, which in turn goes along with his questionable approach to defending.
What isn't in question is his offensive skill set. While Zidlicky put up points, his biggest asset was his passing. I call him a gambler because Zidlicky will sometimes make some really risky decisions to make a play going forward. When it doesn't work, he looks foolish. When it does work, he looks great. But that moniker isn't fully accurate. The reality is that Zidlicky makes a lot of passes; he has the puck on his stick a lot. Ryan has been tracking passes in 5-on-5 play this season and I (and Marek Zidlicky) have him to thank for this point. In his overview of the defensemen, Ryan found that Zidlicky led the blueline in total passes attempted and completed as well as passes attempted and completed in the offensive zone. Only Greene has come close to his number of 1,920 attempted passes and 1,486 completed passes. Ryan makes a very good point that for that aspect alone, the Devils should consider retaining his services.
Essentially, Zidlicky is that "puck-moving defenseman" some fans have clamoring for years. It's just that he comes with additional baggage in terms of penalties and questionable defending. Plus, he's old. He turned 37 this past February; while Jagr may be , it's more questionable whether Zidlicky can keep doing what he's been doing next season. That's a big question as he was often distributing the puck to go forward as well as in the offensive zone. While it's doubtful Zidlicky - who has never been a big shooter - will score as many goals again, it's not unreasonable to think he'll be somewhat productive by making plays if he can do it. This is one of two central questions that has to be answered in order to answer the larger question.
The second has to do with what makes this decision difficult for the Devils. Again, the Devils have three young defensemen who belong in the NHL: Larsson, Merrill, and Gelinas. With Greene,Bryce Salvador, Anton Volchenkov, and Peter Harrold on the books per CapGeek, that's a total seven defensemen. Eight if the Devils keep Fayne (again, let's discuss him later). That's a full blueline and the Devils could feasibly go with it. Using a compliance buyout on a defender would also help too. Based on Ryan's tracking of passes, I have my doubts whether they can make up for Zidlicky's absence from a distribution standpoint. Larsson didn't make a lot of passes. Merrill hasn't done so, though has a larger volume. While Gelinas may have a great shot and signs of great production, he's not much of a passer either. We know Volchenkov and Salvador definitely aren't; and Peter Harrold really isn't more than a depth option anyhow. So who else moves the puck in place of Zidlicky? I don't know. This is a really big question considering the Devils weren't and probably won't be a very offensive team. Even if the Devils intend play nothing but low-scoring games and dominating possession, someone's got to keep the puck moving forward. It would be a lot - perhaps too much - to ask this potential Zidlicky-less group to make up all of those passes.
To repeat: can Zidicky keep doing what he has been doing as he turns 38 next season and can the Devils' defensemen - particularly those three younger defensemen - make up for the potential dearth of Zidlicky's passes? Personally, if retained, I'd expect Zidlicky's production to drop to some degree (I really doubt he'll score 12 goals or have 18 power play points, short of the Devils' PP not fading) while he'll still take penalties, play questionable defense, and make a lot of passes. Basically, I think he'll follow the common path of older players and not be as effective as he once was. Not immediately, but over time.
However, I'm not confident the Devils can withstand the loss another high-volume player from an offensive standpoint. Zidlicky isn't the shooter, he's the distributor. None of Larsson, Merrill, Gelinas, Volchenkov, Salvador, and Harrold can do it like him. Only Greene has come close to his volume of passes. I don't think he should shoulder a larger load and I'm not confident the other defensemen can do so right away. I'd stomach another year of #2 doing everything from good to bad in a single game knowing he'll at least keep feeding his teammates. In the meantime, the Devils would be wise to figure out who among the rest - namely those three young defensemen - can handle the puck on his stick more often and be trusted to make a lot of passes to start play going forward. Hopefully by next season, that picture is clearer and the team can lean on someone new or get someone else to replace a then 38-year old Zidlicky in the summer of 2015. In short, I would bring him back (assuming he wants to return) for that purpose and about the same amount of money (he made $3 million with a $1 million bonus in 2013-14 per CapGeek) on a year deal. It's up to the Devils to answer those two central questions before asking the title question, though. Sure would be a good one for a department of analytics.
In the meantime, I put the questions to you. Will Zidlicky fade as he is older by another year? Can anyone else on the Devils make up for Zidlicky's passes if Zidlicky is not kept? Would you want to keep Zidlicky on the Devils? If so, how much and for how long? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Zidlicky in the comments. Thank you for reading.