Prior to this season, Jordin Tootoo was invited to the New Jersey Devils' training camp on a tryout basis, to see if perhaps he could make the team and find a role on it. Obviously Lou Lamoriello and Peter DeBoer liked what they saw, and they awarded Tootoo with a roster spot and a one year contract worth $550,000. With a contract like that, and knowing Tootoo's history (he has only topped 18 points once in his career), it was fairly obvious that he was brought on to play a fourth line role, and perhaps throw some fists once and a while.
And for the first half of the season, that is essentially what happened. While Tootoo's unsustainable 16.7% shooting percentage before the all-star break gave him a nice and unexpected four goals, he also was only getting fourth line minutes (just under 7 minutes a night before the break). He also racked up a rather large 55 PIMs during that same time frame, with 35 of those minutes coming from 7 fights. To his benefit, hockey fights has him going 5-1-1 in those seven contests, so he was performing admirably in his duties.
After the all-star break, however, things began to change. With the new coaching trio looking to mix things up in hopes of finding some success, Jordin was moved up from the fourth line and given much more talented linemates. Now, he would be playing alongside Travis Zajac and Mike Cammalleri. He has been with them so much, in fact, that over the last 10 games, they have been out there together for almost 19% of New Jersey's ice time. That is the most of any Devils' line over the same time frame, and it is not even close. The next most common line has been Patrik Elias, Adam Henrique, and Steve Bernier at just under 12%. Clearly the new coaches really like having that trio together.
While many have rightly questioned this move, it has not been without success. With his ice time up to 13:05 per game since the all-star break, Tootoo has put together 2 goals and 4 assists in only 17 games, while also removing the fighting element of his game completely. He only has 6 PIMs since the break. While those are not stellar numbers, 6 points in 17 games would equate to over 28 points for the entire season, which is as good as you could expect from him in terms of offensive output. And while his shooting percentage is now down to a more reasonable 9.5% since the break, this can be seen as a positive, because he is not scoring a lot of goals simply out of luck. 9.5% is fairly luck neutral, although his career average shooting percentage is only 6.2%, so maybe it still is a little bit lucky.
The question amongst many, of course, has been why the change? Why move up a career fourth liner to a top 6 role and give him an extended period of time in that role? What did the coaches and the organization see that most fans did not see, because anyone that I have talked to was frankly surprised that he would get this boost in playing time and responsibility. I have been as well. While Jagr was still with the team, Tootoo was regularly getting more minutes than the ageless veteran, perhaps one of the reasons as to why Jagr clearly wanted to go somewhere else.
To help perhaps answer those questions, I want to come at the argument from both sides. So I will try to answer both why it is a good thing to have Tootoo playing in a top 6 role for this organization the rest of the way, and why coach Cerberus should consider dropping him back down to fourth line duties.
Keep Him in the Top 6
The main argument to keep him in the top 6 is that he has been fairly successful there. As I mentioned above, he is performing at a career-high pace with 6 points in 17 games. Yes he did have more goals down on the fourth line, but that was over a longer stretch of games, and it was also because he had an extremely high shooting percentage which was frankly unsustainable. The production that we have seen with Tootoo on a line with Zajac and Cammalleri is certainly sustainable.
To showcase this a little further, Tootoo clearly benefits being on the ice with Cammalleri. When the two are out there together, Tootoo's goals for percentage is at an incredibly high 71.4%. The two work together to put pucks in the net. When apart, Tootoo only has a 52.4 GF%, which is much lower. And specifically looking at Cammalleri, he had 15 goals before the all-star break, over the course of 35 games. Since then, when he has been playing more with Tootoo, he has 9 goals in 17 games. That is a much better ratio. Also as a final note, Jordin's Corsi For percentage is higher when he is out there with Cammalleri, to the tune of 46.5% as opposed to 45.5%. While that is not a major difference, it is worth noting.
To keep on the theme of possession, Jordin has done well with possession since being moved up to a more prominent role. Since February 1st, Tootoo has had at least a 50% Corsi For percentage in 8 out of 14 games. For someone who has not had a positive Fenwick in a season since 2009-2010, this is something worth mentioning.
Give Him Less Responsibility
While those arguments and numbers are all true, let's look at the opposite side, and say that Tootoo should be relegated back to fourth line duty. The first reason, and perhaps the most potent, is that Tootoo is not the future of this organization. The Devils will most likely not be signing him to a long term contract. There is a decent chance that he gets another one year deal, but that would be about it. Instead, coach Cerberus really needs to evaluate the younger talent that is on this roster, and in the AHL, to see what they really have moving forward. Perhaps instead of Tootoo playing up there, call up a younger player, or maybe move someone like Jacob Josefson to the top 6, to see if he can ever become the first round talent that the team was hoping for when they drafted him. This would make better use of the remaining games this season, as it would help to prepare the Devils for the future.
Also, while Tootoo and Cammalleri have really benefitted by playing together, the same cannot be said with Tootoo and Zajac. When together, Tootoo's GF% is at 44.4, but when apart, it is at 63.2. Jordin scores a lot more when he is not out there with Travis. Also, both of their possession stats drop when together. Tootoo has a 46% CF without Zajac, Travis has a 49.1% CF without Jordin, but together they both have a 45.2% CF. That is not great, and indicates that they do not play particularly well together.
And just as we looked at Cammalleri's numbers and saw how they have improved since the all-star break and playing with Tootoo, let's look at Zajac's. The numbers are not good. Zajac had 16 points in 38 games played before the break, but has only had 4 points in 17 games since then. His offensive production, while minimal as it is, has gotten even worse while playing with Jordin. He clearly would do better if Tootoo were sent back to the fourth line.
After looking over both sides of the argument, I believe that I personally fall on the ‘give him less responsibility' side of things. I am not a gung ho advocate for that side of the argument, but I feel that I land more on that side than I do for keeping him in the top 6. While he has not performed poorly in his current position, I just feel like he is better served in a bottom 6 role, and specifically on more of a grinder, energy line. He has shown an ability to score a goal here and there, but then again fourth liners should be able to net some goals here and there. That is not out of the ordinary. I want him to be on the ice to set a tone for the Devils. Lay a hit here and there, drop the gloves if you feel it will get the team motivated, and use your skill to play above your station. He does work well with Cammalleri, but Mike should be able to score goals with many others on this team, whether it be Josefson or whoever else would take Tootoo's spot. So if it were on me to make roster moves, and thankfully it is not on me, I would move Jordin back to the fourth line, while moving younger talent up to the top 6 to see what this team has in terms of forward talent for the future.
That is my opinion. What is yours? What do you think about Jordin Tootoo playing in the top 6 for New Jersey, and if it were up to you, where would you slot him on this team? What other analysis can you add to this discussion that would perhaps change my mind or the mind of other readers? Please leave your comments in the section below, and thanks for reading.