It's the middle of November and there has still yet to be an NHL game played this season. All fans have to be beyond frustrated right now but I think the Hurricanes fanbase might be among the most pissed off right now. This was looking like a season with a ton of promise for this team. They had one of their most eventful off-seasons in recent memory by acquiring Jordan Staal and Alex Semin and on top of that, their division is pretty much up for grabs right now. There was so much excitement and anticipation heading into this year regarding this team and now it is all put on hold until the owners and Player's Association come to terms with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Until that time, there isn't anything fans can do except wait and wonder about what could have been.
There are still a lot of things that are left up in the air with the Hurricanes this season, though. Most are wondering how the acquisition of Alexander Semin will turn out, but I think adding Jordan Staal to the mix is a little more intriguing, mostly because there is a lot about Staal that is uncertain. One thing we do know about him is that he was fantastic as a shutdown center for the Pittsburgh Penguins for the last six years and still has a lot of upside remaining. There are a lot who say that Staal can emerge as a huge scoring threat if he is given the right linemates and ice-time, which isn't too crazy to say if you look at his body of work in Pittsburgh and consider that he is only 24 years old, but one thing to remember is that Staal wasn't always confined to the third-line center role with the Penguins.
If you go back to the latter-half of the 2010-11 season, you may recall that both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin missed significant time with injuries, leaving Staal as the team's #1 center during that stretch. There was also a brief time period last year where Staal was placed into this role as the Pens normal top-two centers were out with injuries. How did he perform during these stretches? Well, he had 23 points in 31 games from February to the end of the 2010-12 season and 4 points in the 5 games in October where Malkin was hurt. His numbers are decent enough but once agian, points don't tell us the entire story, especially with a player like Staal.
To get a better idea of Staal's performance, along with just about every other player, you need to take a closer look at their contributions on the ice, which is why I am currently doing a very ambitious project where I am tracking scoring chances, zone entries, zone exits and many other on-ice events for as many games as I can. You may remember that I did scoring chances for the Hurricanes last year, and while those are helpful, they still only tell you part of the story, which is why I will be expanding my studies this season (whenever it starts) and am currently tracking the previous year in my down time.
I am currently at the part of last season where Staal assumed the top-line center role for the Penguins, so after the jump we are going to take a closer look at his performance during the Penguins game against the Montreal Canadiens on October 20, 2011. The analysis starts after the jump.
Jordan Staal played 21:30 overall in this game, which was three seconds behind Chris Kunitz for the most ice-time among forwards. He was also second in forwards in even strength ice-time with 13:39 minutes played. He also played 4:36 on the powerplay and 3:25 on the PK, ranking him fourth and third among forwards in those categories respectively. The high number of special teams ice time skews things a little bit, but Staal was the top-line center in this game and received those minutes as such.
Staal's linemates for this game were Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, who are regular top-sixers and very good possession players in Pittsburgh. I thought it was odd that Dan Bylsma decided to put James Neal and Steve Sullivan on Richard Park's line but it makes sense when you look at how he rolled his forwards. Staal's line, per usual, took none of their face-offs in the offensive zone while Neal & Sullivan played on a different line to have a territorial advantage. Staal was also matched up primarly against Tomas Plekanec's line, so while Staal was the first line center and had better linemates, his role did not change much from what it normally was with the Pens. This is likely because Pittsburgh's other remaining centers were depth players (Vitale, Park, Letestu) and Bylsma didn't trust them in a heavy-lifting type role that Staal normally plays in. As for the wing choices, Neal and Sullivan are usually given a huge territorial boost from Bylsma and while Kunitz isn't exactly an ace when it comes to defensive play, he along with Dupuis had experience playing against tough competition and killing penalties, making them more of a fit on Staal's line.
Going by Corsi, Staal finished this game along with Dupuis as an even during 5v5 play while Kunitz was a -3. That doesn't sound too promising when you consider that the Pens outshot Montreal 29-19 at even strength, but I'm willing to bet that the territorial disadvantage this line was at played a role here. Remember, they started zero of their shifts in the offensive zone and were facing Montreal's best line on top of that. Still though, Staal is normally much better shot-wise when playing in these situations. Scoring chances, however, are a little better.
Staal finished as a +1 in scoring chances at even strength, which is low compared to some other forwards on the team (Pittsburgh's third and fourth lines did exceptionally well) but still pretty good considering his playing situation. He didn't create much offensive but he did his job at defending the Habs top-line, who were on-ice for four or fewer scoring chances during the entire game. Unfortunately, one of the three chances Staal was on-ice for ended up being a goal, which was Mathieu Darche tipping a point shot from Brian Gionta over Marc-Andre Fleury's shoulder.
You can't put the blame on Staal for that goal but one thing I did notice was that he doesn't shoot the puck much, which was something I noted in my season projection for him. Staal had zero shots in this game and only two attempts, both of which missed the net. There were a couple of instances where Staal had a good opportunity to get a scoring chance but opted to pass the puck into the slot instead. This actually happened more than a few times on the powerplay. If Staal gets to play either either Semin or Skinner, then this habit won't be much of a problem but I wouldn't mind it at all if he shoots more instead of looking for another player. We already have Jussi Jokinen doing this.
One more observation I made with Staal in this game was that he plays very aggressive on the PK and this is something that is welcomed in Carolina. He would always go back into the opposing team's defensive zone to challenge the defenseman with the puck and delay their breakout attempt, which would kill about 10-20 seconds off the powerplay. That may not sound like much, but it really goes a long way because a lot can happen in a short amount of time in hockey. He also did a nice job of breaking up passes in the defensive zone and sometimes turn it into offense the other way, like when he hit Zbynek Michalek with a stretch pass as he was exiting the penalty box to create a breakaway chance. This is only one game but I think it's fair to say that Staal will more than replace Brandon Sutter's contributions on the penalty kill.
The scoring chance data posted here was tracked by myself, but Olivier Bouchard also tracked this game at En Attendant les Nordiques if you want the Montreal perspective. My numbers are pretty similar to his but I had the final chances at 21-13 Pittsburgh with the Pens having a 17-9 advantage at even strength.
Here's where we start to go more in-depth. Scoring chances tell us who is driving the play and who is controlling the offensive zone, but neutral zone play is also very important to consider, which is why we are going to look at Staal's zone entry data. This gives us a better idea of who is driving the play forward by noting which players are entering the zone more often and how they are doing it. Studies done by Eric T. at Broad Street Hockey & NHL Numbers show that players who enter the zone by carrying the puck have a better chance at producing offense than those who simply dump the puck in or enter the zone without control of the puck.
Eric along with Geoff Detweiler at Broad Street Hockey have done this study for the Flyers last year and there are many other bloggers who will be joining him this year. I've done a few games for the Hurricanes so far and will post some of my findings there soon but for now, let's take a look at Staal and the neutral zone play of Staal and the rest of the Pens in this game. Was Staal relied on to carry the puck more than his linemates? Let's find out.
I have three Penguins games tracked from last year tracked so far, but we are just going to look at this particular game against Montreal for now. The Pens were much better at controlling the neutral zone in this game than Montreal, as they had 55 five-on-five zone entries compared to only 46 by the Canadiens. Although, it's worth noting that the Pens had control of the puck on only 44% of their zone entries compared to 54% by Montreal, which is probably because Pittsburgh was playing a lot of dump-and-chase once they had a 2-0 lead. They were still controlling most of the shots & scoring chances, though and a lot of that relates to Montreal struggling to get the puck out of their own zone. Pittsburgh did a fantastic job of pinning the Habs into their own territory and not allowing them to create much offense for the majority of the game.
Staal's line had 16 zone entries at even strength with Kunitz having 10 entries by himself and Staal & Dupuis having three a piece. The Pens also created six shots off of Kunitz's zone entries, so one might think that he was the driving force behind this line during the game. While Kunitz did have 10 entries, he had control of the puck on only four of them and the rest were dump-ins. The Pens created eight shots on the six times he dumped the puck in, though which I suppose is a sign of his teammates/linemates being able to produce a lot of offense and not just Kunitz's ability alone. There were a lot of times where the Penguins were able to pin Montreal into their own zone for a good minute or so because the Habs struggled so much to get the puck out of their own end. I remember a few of those instances occurring after the Penguins dumped the puck in, so that could have affected Kunitz's overall numbers.
Staal had control of the puck on his three zone entries but Pittsburgh generated one shot off it so there isn't much to go by here. Over the three Pittsburgh games I have tracked so far, Staal has nine zone entries, eight of which coming with control of the puck and the Penguins have generated nine shots off them. This is a small sample size here, but the fact that Staal carried the puck into the zone most of the time is a very good thing because the Pens were creating at least one shot for every time he entered the zone. The fact that he had fewer entries than most of his teammates is a little interesting, though. I thought he would have more than three in a game even if he wasn't playing on the first line but I guess he was more comfortable with Kunitz handling most of the zone entries.
Zone entry tracking made possible thanks to scripts developed by Eric Tulsky from Broad Street Hockey & NHL Numbers
Exiting the Zone
Finally, we are going to look at zone exits. This often tells you more about puck-moving defensemen and how much they are relied upon but it can also be useful for forwards, as well. What I did here was look at every time a certain player touched the puck in an attempt to exit the zone at even strength and made note of whether or not they got the puck out. I also noted if they got the puck out by carrying or passing the puck past the blue-line or advancing it by some other method. In addition to that, I noted if they turned the puck over or iced it. A more detailed look at this method can be seen here.
This data doesn't tell you a lot about forwards unless they played with a defenseman who struggled to get the puck out, but we're going to look at it for Staal anyway to see if he could get it out of the defensive zone on his own.
10/20/11 vs. Montreal
As you can see here, Staal and just about every other Penguins forward wasn't relied on to advance the puck that much. That's to be expected with most teams, mainly ones with defensemen who are able to move the puck forward with relative ease. This is something the majority of Penguins defensemen were able to do, as all of their d-men were able to successfully advance the puck on at least 25% of their touches at even strength. That may not sound like much but you have to remember that defensemen are relied upon to exit the zone more often than forwards and therefore touch the puck more often which means they advance the puck on a smaller proportion of their touches than forwards. The only issue with the Pens defensemen had with exiting the zone was that they turned it over quite a bit, Matt Niskanen being the prime culprit there. Either way, Jordan Staal was relied on to advance the puck only five times during five-on-five play and successfully got it out twice. There isn't much we can determine based off that, but I'm hoping it will be different once I get more data tracked.
To compare sides, the Canadiens had three forwards with at least 10 five-on-five puck touches at even strength and they had only two defensemen who successfully advanced the puck on 20% of their touches. Woof. Further emphasizes how much trouble they had when it came to advancing the puck and why they were greatly outplayed at even strength.
So what did I learn from all this? Overall, not much since it is only one game but I'm excited to see what conclusions we can make about Jordan Staal and many other players after I get more games tracked here. If there is one thing I did learn from this game it is that Staal's defensive strengths is as good as advertised. It would also be nice if he shot the puck more, but that's just a personal opinion.