Has Marc Staal improved this season?

Has playing angry and hungry helped the veteran defenseman?

In the 2017 Rangers offseason Jeff Gorton bought out Dan Girardi’s contract. With Girardi’s contract off the books the spotlight shifted to Marc Staal and his $5.7 million cap hit. To many, it felt like the next scapegoat of the Rangers defense had been selected before the puck dropped on the new season.

It’s also important to point out that Staal received a lot of criticism for his play in the 2017 Playoffs, as a result there some speculation that his days in New York could be numbered. The rumors and criticism clearly reached the ears of the veteran defenseman.

“I got kind of sick of that kind of talk,” Staal told The Post back in October. “I’m not denying that there was a reason for it with the way the season ended for me, but I came into camp determined to let my play do my talking for me.

“It was tough. Of course there are going to be questions with the way we lost in the playoffs. Obviously I needed to be better than the way I played, especially in the Ottawa series. But I never thought I was done.”

Staal entered his 11th season with the Rangers with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He admitted that all of the negative attention made him angry. Through the first quarter of the 2017-18 season Staal has been playing like a man who has something to prove. But has he done enough to cement his future with the Rangers?

A Sea of Chaos

Following the Rangers defense thus far this season has been a pretty wild ride. But through all of the headaches, unforgivable giveaways and perplexing healthy scratches Staal hasn’t been a conspicuous problem. To many, he has exceeded expectations and may have passed the eye test for more than a few Rangers fans and writers.

That’s what our eyes tell us. But what do the numbers tell us?

Staal has the worst 5-on-5 goal differential among all Rangers defenders. He also has the worst possession numbers on the defense besides Steven Kampfer who has played in half of the games. But unlike Kampfer Staal has been in the lineup each and every night. He also carries the burden of a massive contract and the letter on the front of his jersey. Needless to say, Staal is expected to be better than Kampfer; he needs to be better.

Perhaps the most important number attached to Staal and his performance this season is his 14:35 average even strength ice time per game. That’s sixth on the team, just an average of 15 seconds more than Kampfer. It’s also down from the 17:10 minutes of even strength ice time he played last season. In his Rangers career Staal has never played this little hockey at even strength.

There’s no doubt about it: Staal’s role is changing.

Has playing less hockey at even strength done anthing to help Staal’s game? Perhaps the better question is: what has Staal’s impact been on his teammates in this new role?

That’s a lot of red on the wrong side of the chart. But is that really a surprise given Staal’s track record to date? Staal’s Rel CF% last season was -1.57 and in 2015-16 it was -2.53. This year Staal’s Rel CF% is -4.71. If you’ve been looking at the Rangers through the lens of analytics before this year, none of these numbers should be surprising.

Staal’s role has changed at even strength, but he’s very much playing like the defenseman that he’s always been.

One could argue that Staal hasn’t stood out as a glaring problem on the Rangers blue line because of all the chaos around him. He is playing so little compared to previous seasons that it’s been easier to fault Ryan McDonagh for costly turnovers and Brendan Smith for unraveling. Staal’s shortcomings this season were very much expected. He entered the season with something to prove, but he also had a lower bar for acceptable performance than McDonagh or Smith. However, he makes more money than both of them.

Credit Where it’s Due

Through 24 games Staal has taken just one minor penalty despite spending a staggering amount of time in his own end. That, in and of itself, is pretty impressive. He’s playing the least amount of minutes per night among all of New York’s defense, but Staal is leading all Rangers skaters in average shorthanded ice time per game.

Staal has played some tough minutes even with a diminished role this year. In addition to playing a lot of shorthanded ice time, Staal also starts 37 percent of his 5-on-5 shifts in the defensive zone. That’s an increase from the 35 percent defensive zone starts he had last season during 5-on-5 hockey. It’s also worth mentioning that Staal is guilty of far fewer turnovers during 5-on-5 hockey this year than he was last season. On the other hand, Staal has also committed more shorthanded turnovers this season than he did all of last season. Yep. Not good.

Given Staal’s deployment it’s safe to say that he’s filling the role of a “shutdown” defenseman this season. It’s an unenviable role. But Staal has found a way to pick up three primary points in the first 24 games of the season, which is significant because he had just seven primary points all of last season and seven points the season before that. Call it luck, call it being on the ice at the right time, but Staal has found a way to pick up more points despite playing a diminished role this season.

He’s playing hungry and, at least in the offensive zone, it appears to be paying off. So, credit where it’s due.

The Bottom Line

In many ways Staal’s performance this year has been somewhat obscured by the general chaos of the Rangers blue line. To some it might even appear that Staal has been something of a bulwark; a consistent cog in an otherwise mercurial and often malfunctioning group. But the underlying numbers tell us a different story.

So is he playing better than last season? Outside of chipping in a bit more offense it appears that he hasn’t. However, if we keep in mind how chaotic the Rangers season has been to date, Staal’s play thus far definitely deserves some praise. At the very least he hasn’t regressed. It’s also worth noting that he’s playing an inglorious role; a role that few players manage to stand out playing; a role that many believe is poorly understood and inadequately measured by analytics.

If you try to justify Staal’s contract with his performance this season you will quickly find yourself fighting a losing battle. Staal may be a man on a mission this season, but there is really only so much he can do. At the end of the day a third pair defenseman playing a ton of shorthanded minutes is not worth $5.7 million a year. But all knew that before this season.

Data courtesy: naturalstattrick.com, hockeyviz.com, NHL.com, Corsica.hockey, capfriendly.com