To try to bolster a depleted group of forward last summer, the Devils made a number of signings to fill the scoring voids left by various free agency and "retirement" departures over the previous two seasons. Among the signings, there were certainly varying degrees of success. Two players brought in specifically for their offensive contributions were Michael Ryder and Damien Brunner. While both had flashes of strong play at points, it is hard to call either of their seasons really anything but a disappointment.
The two wingers are in similar situations, so logically, it makes sense for fans to compare them. Both were brought in to help out a team that struggles to score on offense, both were not renowned for their defensive responsibility, and both were signed to seemingly inexpensive 2-year deals. As far as differences, Brunner was (and to an extent, still is) a relative unknown as he only started in the NHL at the start of the 2013 season, but he was a speedy guy who got a lot of pucks to the net. Ryder was a veteran who was coming off a strong season and figured to add some of the scoring punch the Devils needed. Reaction to both deals was generally positive from fans, but after a decidedly mediocre season from both players, no one is quite so excited any longer.
The response for a lot of people has been that maybe it is time to unload one or both players over the summer. The two wingers do feel a bit redundant at this point, so If the choice is one or the other who should stay and who should go? By digging into some of the numbers, perhaps we can figure out the better choice to keep around, though as you'll see, the two produced at extremely similar levels.
So from a raw production standpoint, we can see that the output for Ryder and Brunner was very similar. Ryder put up more points overall, but that is due to Brunner missing time for an injury along with a handful of healthy scratches. Their points per game numbers were nearly identical and neither was especially lucky or unlucky compared to their career shooting percentages, though Ryder was a bit on the low side. What does jump out is the fact that both players managed to put up less points in their 2013-14 campaigns than they did in the lockout-shortened 2013 season. Ryder put up 35 points in 48 games splitting time between the Stars and Canadiens, and Brunner potted 26 points in 44 games for the Red Wings. Boiled down to a points-per-game output, Ryder saw a 43% drop in production, while Brunner's fell about 29%.
The reasons for their drops are very different for the two players. For Ryder, much of last season's success is owed to the fact that he shot around 16%. With this season's 10.8% shooting and a stretch of ice-coldness that led to 2 goals in the final three months, his production suffered. Going through his career, basically when he shoots well he can post good numbers and when he falls down closer to the average forward, his numbers can get pretty underwhelming. Since he isn't much of an assist guy, how well he shoots is a huge driver of how much he can contribute.
In Brunner's case, it wasn't the percentages that did him in, instead is was his shot output that suffered. He was chipping in almost three shots a game when he was in Detroit and that fell to below two per contest with New Jersey. Part of this can be attributed to reduced minutes, but his overall shot rate per 60 dipped as well for the Devils. Some choose to attribute that to not playing with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk anymore, but Brunner didn't spend much time with Datsyuk and his 5v5 shot rate was actually higher away from Zetterberg than with him, so it has to be something else. It may just be a case of Brunner having trouble adjusting to the Devils' system. We know he wasn't a Pete DeBoer favorite, and perhaps some of that came from Brunner's struggles to adapt to a new style.
Digging a little deeper into things, we can determine how efficient each of them was by looking at some of their rate stats. Right off the bat, we can see that Ryder got about two minutes more ice time per game than Brunner, along with a shade more power play time. The goals shots rates were pretty close for the two players, with assists being separated by a decent margin, giving Brunner a decent edge in points per 60 (he was actually 5th on the team in this category). You can see that the even strength points are pretty close, so Brunner's points margin over Ryder can be largely attributed to his ability to generate points on the power play.
One thing that did jump out at me was the primary assist totals for the two players. You'll notice I included a column called "P1/60" in that table, which groups only primary assists + goals together. Secondary assists are a little on the fluky side and a player having either a high or low proportion of his assists in the secondary column can sometimes indicate how lucky a player is getting in the assist category. Brunner has a much higher rate of primary points for this season than does Ryder. Of Brunner's 14 assists, only 2 of them were secondary, whereas Ryder had 10 out of 16 via the secondary helper. It's only one factor, but it does reflect a little better on Brunner for his involvement in the offense outside of shooting the puck (Brunner was actually 5th on the team at evens and 4th in all situations in this category).
In terms of possession stats, neither of these two players are expected to be big play-drivers and the numbers pretty much bear that out. Both finished at a 53.3% 5v5 Corsi share for the season. A fine number, but certainly inflated by virtue of being on the Devils, as you can deduce from their negative relative Corsi numbers. Still, play moved forward fine with them on the ice, and they weren't too much of a drag on their teammates from a possession standpoint. You can also see by their quality of competition and quality of teammates numbers that they received very similar minutes in terms of linemates and opponents for the year. The one difference you'll notice is the zone starts for each player. Brunner was deployed as you might expect in that category, but Ryder actually got a significant amount of D-zone starts (relatively speaking -- he was 5th among Devils regular forwards) for a player with his reputation. He was by no means buried (still over 50%) but it's still a bit curious, based on Ryder's general approach to playing defense. Still, he was able to maintain the same Corsi share as Brunner, so that's a small point in his favor.
Taking into consideration the two wingers' passing stats from Ryan, the duo is pretty close in that category as well. Basically, both Ryder and and Brunner came out looking mostly "meh" in Ryan's passing analysis. Ryder checked in around average in most of the passing categories, though he was surprisingly involved with exiting the zone for the Devils (which goes along with his surprising amount of D-zone starts), though he was roughly average in % of exits with possession. Brunner generated less shot attempts through passing than Ryder, but had a similar Corsi contribution based on his individual shooting. Brunner also was one of the more successful forwards at exiting the defensive zone, but he also had less attempts in general than other forwards. Neither forward jumps off the page in the passing stats, which pretty much matches their contributions in most other areas.
So if the choice is to keep only one of the Ryder/Brunner duo, who do you choose? Honestly, it's very much a toss up. For me, I think I'd lean toward Damien Brunner as my preference. Though we only saw flashes of it, I think he brings a bit of a different element in terms of his speed through the neutral zone. Ryder has a plus shot (most of the time) but that's about all he has. Neither is going to give you much in the way of a two-way game, but I think Brunner has the ability to get involved in a little bit more of the action in the neutral and offensive zones. Even if we accept that the production figures to be about identical from the two players, you probably have to lean toward keeping Brunner, as he is the younger and cheaper option.