Today, the New Jersey Devils made news as they re-signed another impending unrestricted free agent over the age of 35. As Tom Gulitti reported earlier this afternoon at Fire & Ice, the team has retained the services of defenseman Marek Zidlicky for another year. This contract has a base salary of $3 million with another $1 million Zidlicky can earn as a bonus for games played. That's the exact same deal he had last season as per CapGeek. Earlier in May, I asked whether you would want to keep Marek Zidlicky on the Devils. Most of you said yes; the team has made it come true today.
It's easily arguable that Zidlicky earned his money last season almost from the production alone. Zidlicky led the Devils' defense in points last season and tied for twentieth among all NHL defensemen in the regular season. Based on his career numbers, Zidlicky went beyond the 40-point plateau for the first time since 2009-10 with 42 points, and he surpassed the 10-goal plateau for the first time since 2008-09 with 12. However, his main asset wasn't always on the boxscore. Zidlicky moved the puck a lot for the Devils. Ryan has been tracking passes all season long and Zidlicky was the most prolific passer in all three zones of the ice by far among all defensemen. While Zidlicky would make a bunch of bad passes from time to time, he would also make some absolutely brilliant ones and a lot of successful but non-memorable ones in between. The puck was on his stick a lot and it wasn't by accident. Ryan then concluded that Zidlicky should be retained largely for this reason; the Devils weren't nearly as offensive as one would hope and removing Zidlicky would only exacerbate that problem.
That said, Zidlicky comes with plenty of baggage. For starters, he's not likely going to shoot at 9.4% again. Picking up 30 assists or so isn't totally impossible; that will depend on his teammates in part. But given his career shooting percentage is 7%, I'd bank on fewer goals. Second, His defensive coverage ranges from decent to outright unaware. His positioning has never been a strong suit. Partially because of this, he has taken a lot of penalties. Last season, he took a team-leading thirty minor penalties of varying types. Some were simply because he got beat and felt he had to foul his opponent. Lastly, it's questionable whether the puck-moving defender has been good in possession. While Zidlicky has a favorable 53.3% Corsi in 5-on-5 situations according to Extra Skater, that ranked only seventh on the Devils and he has a negative relative Corsi percentage of -1.8%. In other words, when Zidlicky went onto the ice, the team was worse in possession and others were better overall. That suggests when the play starts to go against New Jersey, it tends to really go against them. It hasn't burned the team too much given the goalies' save percentage when Zidlicky was on the ice was a healthy 92.5%. However, one cannot rely such good goaltending again. Zidlicky may end up positive overall; but the relative percentage justifies the notion that he's not so good in his spot. On top of all of that, Zidlicky will be another year older. While some players age gracefully (Jaromir Jagr), others just fall apart - and that's a real risk for the defender who turns 38 in February.
In short, Zidlicky has been critical at passing the puck around and up the ice for the Devils. No other defenseman has been as prolific and the team's offense - little as it may be - would suffer without it. No other defenseman is really suited for offensive situations except for Eric Gelinas - and he only has the shot called The Truth, not really a distributor. However, he's not going to get better on defense, he'll likely take an annoyingly large amount of penalties, he's not necessarily going to be good for possession, he's not likely to be as productive in 2014-15, and he'll be older.
What can the team do about it? I think Peter DeBoer and the other coaches should make a point of it to shelter Zidlicky. They were right to give him a high offensive zone start percentage (58.3% per Extra Skater; another reason why his Corsi% isn't really so good) but they also need to limit his minutes against tougher competition. I don't see why he should average 18:29 of even strength ice time per game, or nearly as much as Andy Greene, for another season They would be smart to get him away from Bryce Salvador based on Zidlicky's WOWY at Hockey Analysis.To be fair, the team did do quite a bit of that last season.
As far as the larger issue of the blueline, well, this is one less spot available. It was going to be crowded even if Zidlicky and Mark Fayne were not retained. Now that Zidlicky will definitely be around again, the situation on defense remains largely unchanged. I think someone is getting bought out but we have to wait until later this month to see what actually happens - if anything. I really doubt four or five defenders will compete for one spot in training camp and/or during the season.
Ultimately, I can be fine with this deal provided Zidlicky doesn't get that much worse. I don't mean from a production standpoint, that's likely going to drop; but I mean his overall play. If he can still go and be the team's main distributor effective on a regular basis, then I can put up with #2 being the gambler that he is. Again, he makes too many passes for a offensively-poor team to just let go. I do want to have the team have others in a similar role to eventually pick up after him in the future so he's not leaving a void from the blueline behind. He's a short-term fix; the team should try to address replacing his contributions in the long-term. In that sense, I don't have a real issue with the cost of keeping his services for 2014-15.
What do you think about the deal? Are you glad that Zidlicky was retained by the Devils? Do you think he can justify another $4 million? Do you think he will serve an important role again or will it be limited? What are your expectations? Please vote in the poll and leave your answers and other thoughts about this signing in the comments. Thank you for reading.