Marc Staal’s been a mainstay on the New York Rangers’ blue line throughout his career, but the 2017-18 season was the first time that place in the lineup has come into question.
Coming into the season, sophomore Brady Skjei moved ahead of Staal on the depth chart and was set to be on the second pair, behind captain Ryan McDonagh on the left. Kevin Shattenkirk would play the right in the top four and Brendan Smith would slot up there as well. Anthony DeAngelo would likely play on the third pair, leaving just one place for Nick Holden or Staal.
At first, Holden was the odd man out; soon after it became DeAngelo. Staal really was never on the outside looking in, despite that being the offseason plan – in fact, the only games Staal missed this season were due to injury rather than as a healthy scratch. However, he was actually behind McDonagh and Skjei on the left… until the second game of the season when he was moved up to the first pair with McDonagh. But a few games later, he moved back to the third pair.
For the rest of the season, Staal was deployed on the second and third pairs; usually alongside Shattenkirk, Smith, Skjei, Steven Kampfer, and Neal Pionk.
After 82 games, Staal finished the season with an average ice time of 18:32 in all situations, which trailed Holden (18:59), Shattenkirk (20:16), Skjei (21:02), Pionk (22:23), and McDonagh (23:55). At 5-on-5, his average 15.39 minutes were sixth on defense behind Shattenkirk (16.11), Holden (16.15), Skjei (17.30), McDonagh (17.52), and Pionk (18.15).
That usage in terms of ice time is more reflective of his abilities at this point in his career, but his usage in terms of where and when he was deployed was more questionable. At 5-on-5, he led the team with 38.84 percent of his starts coming in the defensive zone. On the other side of the ice, his percentage of offensive zone starts (24.41) was the third lowest on the team.
Staal has declined over the last few seasons, and last season his flaws were glaringly obvious and at times, incredibly costly to the Rangers’ season; so the decision to play him in that role – with the lowest zone start ratio of his career (38.59) – was questionable. Once the Rangers announced their intentions to rebuild and made drastic changes at the deadline, infusing youth into their lineup with Pionk, John Gilmour, Rob O’Gara, and before his injury, DeAngelo, that role made sense. Sending any of those young players into such a challenging role without experience could have been detrimental to their development. Pionk was the only rookie tasked with that, and he handled it quite well with Staal at his side. Before the Rangers stripped their defense though, it wasn’t exactly the best decision.
Through 72 games, Staal only tallied 8 points. It was technically the second lowest total of his career, to his five points in 2011-12 – although, those were scored in just 46 games which doesn’t make for a fair comparison.
He was also the most consistent member of the penalty kill, with a team leading 202.17 short-handed minutes. And in terms of shot share, expected goals, and goals for, he was above average relative to his teammates in that time.
At 5-on-5, his -0.04 game score per 60 was the lowest of his career (as was his raw -0.65 game score), as was his 43.66 percent Corsi for; his 46.17 percent expected goals for was the second lowest of his career. His only bright spot was his 51.25 goals for percentage that was above average relative to his teammates (plus-6.32), but that isn’t as indicative of a statistic of his abilities.
All of those underlying numbers are brutal, but his role and zone starts have to be taken into consideration, as does how disastrous the Rangers’ defense was as a whole this year. Head coach Alain Vigneault’s system deteriorated the Rangers’ defense over the years, until chaos ensued this season. The players struggled to execute this system. And neither Vigneault, nor assistant coach Lindy Ruff, made the appropriate adjustments to remedy their defensive woes. Because of that, it’s a challenge to even adequately analyze any underlying numbers of the defensemen – they’re mostly awful.
Could Staal have been better? Yes, there’s no question. “Bounce back” may be a stretch, but did he show that he’s still capable enough at the NHL level this season after declining over the years? Yes.
It wasn’t an easy season for anyone on defense in New York, and especially not for Staal. While his minutes were managed in a more favorable way, he was still trusted in some of the most crucial moments of games in a role that he just wasn’t meant for – especially not after his last few seasons.
A challenging year became even more difficult when the Rangers’ defense went from featuring NHLers to four members of the Hartford Wolfpack. But Staal took it in stride with a player with no NHL experience in Pionk on his right, as they became the team’s shutdown pair.
Staal deserves the benefit of the doubt this season, but if he can’t refine his game more next season in a (hopefully) better system, it’ll become problematic. This year though, his veteran presence was actually appreciated as the season went on, and he showed some glimpses (although, they were often few and far between) of the Staal the Rangers hope he can be.
Final Grade: B-
*5v5 data via Corsica.hockey