Eric Staal is having a very odd season to say the least. In November, he had only four goals and 12 points and looked to be on pace for his worst season since 2003-04. However, ever since the calendar turned 2012, Staal has been producing at over a point per game and is a good bet to put up at least 70 once the season is over. What's the reason for such a drastic turn-around? Some have said that the health of his brother Marc Staal, who missed time with a concussion after taking a hit from Eric, was the reason for his slow start. Other have said that firing Paul Maurice & hiring Kirk Muller as head coach is the reason for his turnaround, but the truth is that Staal's play has been relatively consistent throughout the year and a lot of what went wrong earlier in the year was beyond his control.
After the jump, we'll explore how Staal's shooting percentage, shot rates and possession numbers have changed over the year and explain why his low +/- really isn't that big of a problem.
Most people use goals and points to judge a player's performance, which is understandable because those are what wins games for teams, but what a lot of people realize is how much luck and variance is involved in hockey. A player could have a series of games where he's produces 30 shots on goal in the span of 5 games but doesn't score on any of them while another could have four goals on 10 shots in the same span of games. There's a good chance that most fans will talk about the hot streak the second player is going through while wondering what is wrong with the first player. The first player will likely produce more in the long-run because he is creating more offense despite not having any goals to show for it. This is essentially what happened with Staal for the first part of the season.
While Staal's shot rate isn't as high as it's been in previous seasons, he's still averaging at least three shots on goal per game and his shot rate ranks second on the team behind Jeff Skinner. He's been consistent in at least creating offense but his shooting percentage is another story, that has taken many twists and turns throughout the year. To help visualize this, here's a line graph showing Staal's rolling shooting percentage throughout the year.
The red line shows the point where Kirk Muller took over and that was around the same time that Staal's shooting percentage was at its lowest point of the season. Staal got into a bit of a scoring rut ever since game 11 and couldn't seem to get out of it for a couple months as he was shooting around 6% for a good 30-some games after that. Staal's shooting percentage started to take a huge upswing around game 53, which was the 4-0 shutout over the Boston Bruins back in early February. In the 24 games since then, Staal has found the back of the net 12 times which equals roughly half of his current goal total which explains why his shooting percentage is starting to get closer to the 10% mark now.
Remember, Staal's been getting a relatively high rate of shots on net and when keeping that in mind, it's hard to say that luck hasn't played a role in Staal's struggles this season. Over 50% of the even strength scoring chances are going in favor of the Hurricanes when he's on the ice and he's also one of the better possession drivers on the team, the pucks just weren't going in for him for most of the season. To make things worse, whenever Staal was on the ice, the opposing team would be scoring on most of their shots and scoring chances as the Carolina goalies had an even strength save percentage of .897 with Staal on the ice during 2011. That's what caused his plus-minus to take such a huge plunge at the beginning of the year and it's more of an indication of the team's play than Staal's. In 2012, Carolina's even strength on-ice save percentage with Staal on the ice has rocketed up to .926 and there's been less talk about his plus/minus rating since then.
Over his career, Staal's shooting percentage is about 11.2% and he's been clicking at a far worse rate than that for most of the season. If we were to adjust his current shooting percentage to his career average, then Staal would have roughly four goals more than he does right now which would make the Hurricanes about one point better in the standings. It doesn't sound like much (because it really isn't) but one point can go a long way if you're a bubble playoff team.
One thing that I can agree on is that Staal has been a tad inconsistent when it comes to scoring and getting shots on goal. Here's a breakdown of Staal's shooting percentage & shot rates by 10-game segments to illustrate this point.
The last few games are not included because 10 games haven't been played yet.
Staal's shot rate has bounced around quite a bit this year as there are some games where he'll be a force in the offensive zone and will do anything to create chances while there are other stretches where he isn't creating as much offense. The strangest thing is that he s scoring more often during stretches when he's getting fewer shots on goal and vice versa. Staal is a terrific two-way player and would be a first line center on most teams but it is safe to say that he isn't the offensive powerhouse that he used to be.
That said, he would likely have his usual 30-goal, 70+ point season had it not been for that rough stretch during the first half of the season where seemingly nothing went right for him. People can dig all they want for the reasons behind it but the truth is that Staal was just horribly unlucky during that time. He was doing a great job of getting shots on net, driving possession and creating chances. The problem was that he just wasn't converting on any of them and most of the time that comes down to luck. This might sound like a blunt explanation but it's very plausible.
The first thing I notice here is that the two segments with the highest shot % have two of the three lowest shot rates. On the other hand, the segment with the lowest shot % has far and away the highest shot rate. Is there anything to be read into this regarding shot quality? Basically, does it mean he was forcing bad shots in segment two?
@WillyMcGilly It's something that I'm looking into with the scoring chance data that I've been tracking. I do know that for most of October, Staal's scoring chance rating was very low but it picked up around November, where some of segment two is. I'll have an answer soon.