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Analysis: Brian Rolston-Trent Hunter Trade, Mutual Back Scratch Fever

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Rolston has more fans than I realized.
Rolston has more fans than I realized.

The Devils needed salary cap space, the Islanders needed to inch toward the payroll floor while improving the club without committing term. That's the Trent Hunter - Brian Rolston trade in 25 words or less. (It was discussed in 300 comments or less in this earlier LHH thread.)

It is not a huge trade, but a trade of convenience for both parties. The Islanders get an upgrade; the Devils get breathing room. Both players are "overpaid" checking line wingers at this point in their careers, but Rolston -- even while seven years older -- has more offensive upside and is less of a health question mark going into the 2011-12 season. Like the rest of the Devils, Rolston looked lost and awful during the first part of last season, which is why I wouldn't have touched his contract when placed on waivers back in December.

But a strong second half (28 points in 40 GP), a willingness to take Hunter, and another salary cap increase later, suddenly adding Rolston makes a little more sense. Again: Not brilliant, but convenient.

While defending Hunter's overlooked two-way qualities much of this summer, I'd always add my reservations about whether he will recover those attributes after a knee injury cut his 2010-11 to just 17 games. That's New Jersey's problem now. Rolston, once a two-way speedster with a booming shot, is slowing down and getting quite Weighty in years. How much further he declines in 2011-12 is the Islanders' problem now.

The Second Half

Here's Newsday reporter Katie Strang, @KatieStrangNYI:

Snow also said Rolston's effectiveness in the Devils' second half of the season convinced him he had plenty of good hockey left in the tank.

This is true, actually -- which may be a hint that the Islanders carefully scouted what they acquired. (For example, before that second half I'd have sworn Rolston was on fumes and not even worth a one-year fill-in.)

That said, banking on Rolston continuing that form is a risk for any player his age. (Is it as risky as banking on Hunter returning to form? Perhaps not as much, but the difference in odds is marginal in my eyes. It's the other difference -- that an in-form Rolston is better and more versatile than an in-form Hunter -- that matters.)

Rolston, for his part, tells Strang he "proved [he] could produce" during that second half and even hopes to be used on both special teams with the Islanders. I honestly don't care about his production last year (12 goals and 16 assists in the 40 games played after January 9) -- I just want him to maintain astute two-way play as an Islander. Can he do that again? Can he do it even if he's not "feeling the love" of a featured offensive role?

And that is the important part: Rolston was used against the toughest opposition for the Devils last season (minimum 40 games played). Despite those tough assignments, his Corsi Rel was second among Devils forwards to Patrik Elias.

What that means is, while just over $5 million per year is too much to pay a defensive forward (egad, what a contract that was), that doesn't mean Rolston wasn't a useful player for the Devils last season. And of course, in the Islanders situation they can fit in a one-year overpayment for such a player, especially when it takes away two seasons of remaining commitment to Hunter.

Meanwhile, his power play performance -- about 2.74 points per 60 minutes -- was on par with his fellow Devils forward (except Elias), but it was a bad powerplay and they were all out there together so it's hard to divine whether he was a help or a detriment there.

That's what this move comes down to: Two declining forwards, but the older one is actually the more historically durable one with greater upside. Some are upset the Islanders "helped" their division rival, but of course it's a two-way street here: The Devils helped the Islanders by accepting this downgrade. Frankly, the options for taking on another team's "anchor" were getting limited and scary. And I'd much prefer Rolston's remaining year and performance level to the shell of Sheldon Souray or the shrapnel of Wade Redden. (Speaking of which, if Brad Boyes had become available...that's an interesting debate.)

If Rolston effectively helps the powerplay on the point, great. But if he is a reliable two-way forward who frees up offensive opportunities for the John Tavares and even Frans Nielsen lines, that will be the biggest benefit. Those lines aren't set in stone, and Rolston obviously hopes to be a top six forward again, but to my eyes a better outcome would be him forming an effective defensive combo with new center Marty Reasoner while the kids run up their stats by taking the majority of the offensive snaps.

Just as Reasoner was a clear upgrade over Konopka, Rolston is an upgrade over Hunter. Put the two together, and you see the Islanders making smaller moves at the unheralded margins that should help improve the team, particularly if their young players take another step forward. If.