Going into the offseason, the Rangers needed to fix one glaring hole in order to re-establish themselves as a contender in the Eastern Conference. After getting laughed out of the first round of the playoffs by the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins, the defense needed to be overhauled drastically. Despite calls for a buyout or two to remedy those issues, Jeff Gorton stood pat and opted against making major changes. After seeing offensive dynamo Keith Yandle and the perpetually under-appreciated Dan Boyle leave in the offseason, the Rangers had two gaping holes to fill on an already questionable defense corps. Those holes were filled by a combination of Brady Skjei, Nick Holden, and Adam Clendening, and the results have ranged from abhorrent to excellent depending on the game.
Instead of making a big splash for someone like Brian Campbell, Kevin Shattenkirk, or Cam Fowler, Jeff Gorton seemed to heed the advice of talking heads around the hockey world. With the idea that Dan Girardi and Marc Staal would rebound from their nightmare seasons seeming like a rational one, Gorton elected to give the two defenseman a chance to take advantage of the long offseason and be ready to go in the fall. While Girardi’s play hasn’t been much better this season, and has been criticized by most sects of the fan base, the same can’t be said of Marc Staal.
The one-time franchise blueliner has appeared to have a legitimate bounce back from his disastrous season last year, and has even drawn comparisons to his days as a legitimate shutdown defender under John Tortorella. But for all the talk about his renaissance season, there doesn’t seem to be much difference in is game. Although he’s cut down on making bantam level gaffes, Staal doesn’t seem to be doing anything else noteworthy. He hasn’t been any more active in the offensive zone, his skating and gap control haven’t improved, and he seemingly hasn’t gotten better at any individual aspect of his game over the summer. For that reason, let’s dive into the numbers and see if our eyes have lied to us, or if Marc Staal has legitimately returned to form as being a reliable Top 4 defenseman.
Last season, Staal posted a -1.39 Relative Corsi For%, a -2.37 Relative Expected Goals For%, and a -12.22% Relative Goals For%(All Data Adjusted for Score, Zone, and Venue by Corsica). For the hefty sum of $5.7 Million, numbers like that are never going to justify that type of salary. For all the talk of Staal returning to form, perhaps you’d expect his numbers to be great compared to last season. However, when we dive into the metrics, that turns out not to be the case. Through 35 games this season, Staal has put up a 0.66 Relative Corsi For%, a -1.18 Relative Expected Goals For%, and a -0.89 Relative Goals For%. Although his shot attempt numbers have seen slight improvements across the board, in no way have they been good. Staal has performed slightly better in terms of driving play, but he still finds himself hurting his team every team he hops over the boards for a shift.
So how has he managed to earn so much praise from portions of the hockey world based on a “bounce back” season despite remaining a detriment to the team? There are two obvious answers. The first can be seen in some of his stats, namely the markedly improved on-ice goals for %. An improvement of nearly eleven and a half percentage points is surely nothing to scoff at, but the means behind the improvement might be. Some will argue that goal-based data shouldn’t be used to prove or disprove player performance due to the inherent randomness of goals. Others will argue that since goals are what win hockey games, they should be used as the focal point of player analysis, and that the things players excel at result in improved on-ice results. That’s a debate for another day, so what Staal’s improvement in driving goal differential means is up for interpretation.
Marc Staal has had a bounce back season in only the most literal of ways. Since he has not been worse than he was last season, Staal has indeed experienced a bounce back season. However, the fact remains that he is still a liability every time he takes the ice, and that the Rangers should jump at the first opportunity to move on from the team’s former blueline pillar. With the expansion draft looming, and Staal primed to take up one of three available protection slots for defenseman, Jeff Gorton would be wise to reconcile the mistakes of his predecessor, and find a way to ship Staal off.
With all the talk about his rebound season, maybe Gorton won’t need to move mountains to make that happen.