In the past, I have talked about how I hold certain players to higher standards than others because of the situations they are used in or how much they are being paid. For the Hurricanes, the player that is held to the highest standard is their team captain, Eric Staal and there are plenty of reasons to expect a lot out of him. Staal has been the Canes best player for the last seven years, he is being paid top-level money and he has been at least a 70-point player since the lockout. As fans, we have become accustomed to seeing Staal be a dominant force, which is probably why most people see this year as a disappointment for him. He had 70 points in 82 games, was one of the few forwards with a positive even strength scoring chance differential and led the team in shots on goal.
For most players, this would be a great season, but a lot of fans thought that Staal lost a step this year. Why is this? For one, his scoring rate was down from what it was in previous seasons (dropped from .94 to .85 points per game this year) and he got off to possibly the worst start of his career. Staal had only 12 points through the first 26 games of the season, which is bad for most players but even worse for player of Staal's caliber. It's tough to figure out what was wrong with Staal during that time but a lot of it was related to bad luck. His shooting percentage this season was lower than it has ever been (9.2%) and the Hurricanes, as a team, were shooting at an extremely low rate in the first half of the season. The Hurricanes goaltenders were also stopping only .897 of the even strength shots they faced when Staal was on the ice, which directly affected his horrible plus/minus that was harped upon for most of the season.
The point here is that some of the things that contributed to Staal's "down year" were out of his control because it certainly isn't his fault that the team's goalies couldn't stop a beach ball whenever he was on ice at even strength. That's something that was overlooked during his rough first half of the seaso. Another thing that was somewhat overlooked is how good Staal was after the rough start. He had 58 points in his 56 games since December and still finished with 70 points despite having only 12 in two months. Staal's overall year might have been a disappointment but it's hard to look at how he played over the last four months and say that he underachieved.
Players who produce as much offense as Staal aren't going to shoot at less than 9% forever, so it was only a matter of time before Staal had a scoring outburst, but a look at his underlying numbers show that Staal had some legitimate stretches of bad play this year and guessing which part of the season they came in shouldn't be too difficult.
We will look at those numbers after the jump.A
Eric Staal 2011-12 Scoring Chances
Average TOI: 21:32
Even Strength Chance% Fwd Rank: 6/18
Even Strength Chance Diff/60 Fwd Rank: 6/18
QualComp Fwd Rank: 4/12
OZ Start%: 50.1%
Scoring Chances by Season Segment
|Game #||TCF||TCA||SCF||SCA||Segment%||Team %|
TCF = Total Scoring Chances for at even strength, TCA = Total Scoring Chances against at even strength, SCF = Even strength chances for during segment, SCA = Even strength scoring chances against at even strength, Segment% = Scoring chance percentage during segment, Team% = Hurricanes even strength scoring chance percentage during segment
Scoring Chance Segment Line Graph
While bad luck did play a role in Staal's cold start, he was also playing very poor for the first 10 games of the season, much like the rest of the team. He was definitely off during that time but it didn't take long for him to regain his form, as he outperformed his teammates for about 80% of the season. November is when he had the bad luck stretch because the team was controlling about 52% of the even strength chances when he was on the ice but he had only 2 goals on 52 shots in 15 games. As I mentioned earlier, players who produce that much offense aren't going to come away empty-handed in the long run and that was true with Staal.
After the first two segments, Staal was good to dominant for the rest of the year with the one excpetion being in the second to last segment. I'm not quire sure what happened there but he was controlling scoring chances at the same rate that he was at the beginning of the season, which isn't good. Want to know something funny about his bad segment towards the end of the season? It likely came during March, where he had 15 points in 16 games. Imagine if his shooting luck was as poor as it was in October or November during that time. We'd be signing a whole different tune about Staal. It also came directly after a ten-game segment where he played his best hockey of the season, likely during February where he looked like the highly effective offensive player who we are used to seeing.
Was Staal inconsistent this season? Absolutely, but I maintain the idea that his struggles were a tad overblown. He was bad during the first 10 games of the season, but you can see that he got back on track in no time but fell victim to a poor shooting percentage (3.8% during November). There were so many different narratives trying to explain Staal's poor start (my favorite was the idea that he couldn't score because he felt bad for concussing his brother last year) but in the end, it's long season and all players go through hot and cold stretches. Staal is not immune to that or shooting regression and it will be interesting to see how things go for him next season. If he can play like he did for most of this season, then I think we can expect more points from him.
However, something that might help him is acquiring a legit first line winger to help him out. Staal isn't a bad finisher (despite this season), so a goal-scoring winger isn't a neccessity, but the Hurricanes need players better than Jiri Tlusty and Chad LaRose to play on his wing to make their first line more dangerous. Who Jim Rutherford acquires to fill that void is still a mystery but Staal's WOWY shows that a line featuring him and Jeff Skinner could have some potential.
People can talk all they want about how Staal and Skinner never "developed any chemistry together" but the numbers here do not lie. Scoring chances were going in the Hurricanes favor when those two were playing together. Skinner had greater success on the second line with Jokinen & Ruutu, so it's hard to break that up but I wouldn't write off the idea of Skinner being one of the wingers for Staal's line in the future. Another winger might be needed for scoring depth purposes, though because the options at that position were very thin this season.
Jiri Tlusty on the second line was another idea that was thrown around but the chart here shows that he was a wreck whenever he wasn't playing with Staal. That has to make you wonder if Tlusty can repeat the season he had if he's on another line. He appeared to be very dependent on Staal while the captain did just fine with other linemates. LaRose also seemed to get his numbers boosted a little bit when he was on Staal's line and those two controlled scoring chances at a very high rate. If LaRose was a better finisher, he would be a possible candidate for Staal's line but that isn't the case, sadly.
If Staal had troubling "finding chemistry" with someone, it was Tuomo Ruutu. Those two were playing together for a little under half of the season and both players were much more successful on other lines. You'll also notice that Staal managed to work well with Skinner, LaRose and Tlusty, who were his linemates when Ruutu was playing the other wing so I'm not sure what the problem is. The good news with all of this is that Staal was the one who was carrying (or attempting to carry) every single line he was on, so he doesn't need to be dependent on winger to be successful. That shouldn't come as much of a surprise, either given Staal's talent.