Tuomo Ruutu: Injuries, luck, regression and everything in between

The main goal I had for the Hurricanes going into yesterday's trade deadline was for them to clear space for next season while adding a piece or two that could help the team in the future. They only made one trade, but they took a step in accomplishing both goals by trading winger Tuomo Ruutu to the New Jersey Devils for 23-year-old forward Andrei Loktionov and a 3rd round pick in 2017. They had to retain 20% of Ruutu's salary (about $1 mil. cap hit for the next two years), but they still cleared roughly $3.75 mil. off the books for the next two seasons, which should help. From that viewpoint, it looks like the Canes had an okay deadline but the whole situation regarding Ruutu is a little interesting. 

Two years ago, he was seen as a player critical to the Hurricanes success. Did the Hurricanes overpay to keep him? Yes, but they were also in a position where they had cap space and likely weren't going to get many better players through free agency. It was also around this time that Ruutu was pretty much exactly the type of player the Hurricanes needed. He was a sizable forward with enough skill to fit into any team's top-six and adds a lot to the physical game, as well. He was an ideal linemate for Jeff Skinner in his rookie season and a good fit on the Hurricanes power play, regularly being used in the net front presence role or on the half-wall. The Hurricanes had to overpay to keep him, but they were in a position where they were better off keeping what they had and four years seemed like not too long of a contract for him at 29 years old.

His absence was noticeable last year and most expected the Hurricanes get a jolt in the arm once he returned. He had a solid 17 games last season but this year, things haven't gone as smoothly. Ruutu has only 5 goals and 16 points in 57 games, is a negative possession player and has been struggling to get consistent ice time under Kirk Muller. He had a brief stint on the top line but Muller has mainly kept him to a third/fourth line role for most of this season. This probably relates to both Ruutu's performance and how much of a "fit" he is in Muller's system. 

Either way, a player that was seen as an important part of this team is now an overpaid, underperforming third-liner and was just dealt to basically clear salary. How much has Ruutu's performance really fallen off in the last year and what is the cause for it?

If you're looking for a reason why Ruutu has struggled so much this year, injuries are probably at the top of the list. He missed the start of last season after having hip surgery in the off-season and had surgery on his other hip last summer. To make things worse, he got hurt in the pre-season and missed more time to start this year. A player coming off two major surgeries is going to take time to recover and this is especially true for someone who plays a hard-hitting game like Ruutu. This is why I was a little reluctant to trade him because it's possible that Ruutu might return to form once he heals up (see Williams, Justin). 

This is what most Hurricanes fans are fearing, especially those still feeling the burn of the Jussi Jokinen trade last year. The situation here is a little different, though. Ruutu is 31 years old and plays a more physical game than Jokinen, so it's possible that age will take a toll on him earlier than those players. Although, his puck luck this year is similar to Jokinen's before he was traded given to Pittsburgh and some of it is out of his control. 

Season GP G/82 Pts/82 Sh% Shots/60
2003-04 82 23 44.28 13.2 7.76
2005-06 15 10.7 27.06 6.7 8.14
2006-07 71 19.7 44.28 14.8 5.60
2007-08 77 10.7 34.44 10 4.90
2008-09 79 27.1 55.76 13.7 7.88
2009-10 54 21.3 53.3 11.5 8.27
2010-11 82 18.9 57.4 12.8 6.43
2011-12 72 20.5 38.54 11.5 7.90
2012-13 17 19.7 43.46 13.3 6.95
2013-14 57 7.38 22.96 6.3 5.84

Talk about a fall from grace. A terrible shooting percentage will often make a player look a lot worse than he really is and this is the case with Ruutu at the moment. He isn't a 55-58 point player anymore, but I don't think he has declined so much that he's a 22-25 point player like he is on pace for right now. It just seems like too steep of a downturn for it to be real, especially compared to his numbers last year. He didn't see much ice last season but he played 17 games after having hip surgery and played pretty well, which makes this year that much more frustrating. Goals are just part of the equation with him, though. 

Another area where Ruutu has fallen off is his ability to drive the play forward and drive possession. For years, he was one of the Hurricanes better forwards at doing this and he did it for a couple seasons while playing the tougher matchups. One thing you might notice in the chart above is that Ruutu isn't shooting the puck as much as he used to and this is because he isn't spending as much time in the offensive zone. Well, actually that's not true because he is starting more shifts in the offensive zone, he just isn't keeping the puck there or making his shifts counts as much. Better illustrated by this usage chart.

The x-axis shows Ruutu's offensive zone/defensive zone start ratio, the y-axis is his Corsi Rel. quality of competition and the bubble indicates his Corsi relative. A blue bubble shows a positive Corsi Rel. while a white bubble shows a negative Corsi Rel. This basically shows how Ruutu has been used over the years and how good he was at driving the play compared to the rest of the Hurricanes forwards. You can see that he was a positive possession player in all but one season, this year, and he was getting some incredibly soft minutes on top of that. 

So, either Ruutu is on the beginning of a serious downturn and the Hurricanes got out of his contract at exactly the right time or the injuries are severely holding him back and this is just a bad season. It's probably a little of both. I don't think Ruutu is worth $5 mil. per year and I'm not sure if he's a top-six player anymore, but I still think he can be useful. A look at how his ability to drive play over time shows that this year might just be a rough patch. 

This should make Devils fans happy because Ruutu has been on the upswing as of late and his bad territorial numbers are due to him starting the season slow, likely because he was coming off an injury. This seems to be a constant problem with him, though because he was battling an injury in the latter part of 2012 and his ability to drive play suffered. It still doesn't explain how good he was for 17 games in 2012-13 where he was coming off hip surgery, but playing on a line with Jordan Staal will do a lot of good things to a player's underlying numbers. Still, it looks like he is on the upswing, but his deployment makes me a little skeptical of that. Muller has been using him in a sheltered third ilne role for most of the year and if you can't drive play while starting that many shifts in the offensive zone against other team's depth lines then something is seriously wrong.

If the fancystats don't show that Ruutu's role has gone down, then his ice time will and it's glaringly obvious.

Ruutu was never a first line player or anything, but he's become a third/fourth liner under Muller this year. There was a brief stint where he was on the first line but he couldn't play those minutes consistently and was quickly dropped down to the bottom-six again. With that in mind, the rationale behind trading him is pretty clear to see. Ruutu wasn't a top-six player with the Hurricanes anymore and was getting paid as one, so they ended up trading him to a team that might have better use for him. It's a little baffling that a team using Patrick Dwyer & Nathan Gerbe on their "second line" for most of the year doesn't have use for Ruutu in their top-six, but that's how things have gone this year.

I still think Ruutu is a useful player and he should see his counting stats improve in New Jersey, but I have my doubts about him returning to his usual form, though because injuries have taken a toll on his body. His performance at the Olympics and his improving territorial numbers should lead to him finishing the year strong, but beyond that who knows. There's some hope that Ruutu might return to form, but it's too expensive of a gamble for the Hurricanes to take right now.

Best of luck to Ruutu with the Devils.

Stats taken from Behind the Net, Extra Skater & Hockey-Reference