Analytics and Eyeballs: Marc Staal is Bringing the D

Marc Staal is a good hockey player.

His performance late last year and in the playoffs shouldn’t undermine the resume he’s built over the last decade or, like the jettisoned Dan Girardi, how valuable he’s been to the Rangers organization as it’s transitioned from expensive also-rans to perennial playoff squad. This year, motivated by a desire to rebuild his legacy and, perhaps, the fear of not having a role locked down, he’s been one of New York’s best defenders.

As Katie Strang mentioned in The Athletic, “He knew that the player that was on the ice against the Senators was not how he wanted to be remembered. He wanted to come back as a leader of this team, so he knew he had to play like one.”

More cerebral than he probably gets credit for, Staal himself knew that much of the criticism wasn’t unwarranted. “Any time it doesn’t go well for your team, and I’m a guy that’s counted on to be consistent and play at a high level – when you don’t do that, you’re going to get some of the blame,” Staal said.

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But after earning a spot in the lineup after Alain Vigneault specifically said nothing was guaranteed for him, Staal has been his old steady self. And on a team who whiffed on free agent signings—Kevin Shattenkirk and Brendan Smith—to improve the defense, has helped anchor a squad that is better than last year.

Since the win on Halloween against Las Vegas that may have saved Alain Vigneault’s job, the Rangers have been amongst the league’s best. In the 30 games since, the Rangers have surrendered just 71 goals, good for a goals against average (GA/GP) of 2.37 which trails only Tampa Bay and Boston over that period. On the season, the Rangers rank eighth, with a GA/GP of 2.69. Of course, the play of Henrik Lundqvist and Ondrej Pavelec contributes to that as much as any individual defender, as both have been excellent, but goaltenders do not post solid numbers in a vacuum.

Any measurement of the Rangers’ defensive performance, however, must also be given the context of shot rates. Over the last couple weeks, the Rangers differentials have been, in a word, troubling. The forward group plays a large role in that, and Vigneault’s selective shot style also does, but that’s not a trend that favors this group.

But therein lies the trouble with Staal. Even at his peak, he’s never been an analytics darling—which spurs much of the vitriol towards him—but he’s about the same possession player he’s always been this year. To date, he has a 45.5% corsi for (CF or CF%) with a grinding 59.3% defensive zone start (dZs) rate. Essentially, his performance is the yin to a player like Cody Franson’s yang. For the sake of Rangers-specific context, Kevin Shattenkirk has a CF of just 47.3% while cruising by with a smooth 64.2% offensive zone start percentage (oZS).

Marc Staal does not post solid offensive numbers and does not sparkle on spreadsheets. Where he shines is in the subtleties of playing defense and his incessantly underrated athleticism.

Lindy Ruff, like many of Staal’s critics, never truly appreciated the veteran until he coached him. As Strang writes, “Ruff notes Staal’s blend of athleticism and hockey IQ have allowed him to excel at the NHL level. Some players have one but not the other; Staal, who [played] his 729th game on Wednesday, has that rare combination of both. Ruff always knew from coaching against him that [Staal] was a solid defender, that he was strong with his stick. But seeing him play up close has given him a new appreciation for some of his other skills that are more subtle and frequently go unnoticed. It’s often on what Ruff calls the ‘D escape plays’ that he appreciates Staal most.”

He’s been able to escape that first-guy forecheck with his own little fake here, a fake pass or open up his own outlets himself, not [pass] the puck to get out of the zone, but to do it on his own,” Ruff said. “That’s a combination of being a little evasive [with] a little bit of deception, which I don’t  know a lot of people would throw in with his name, but I’ve seen a lot of little great little plays where he’s been able to escape the forecheck on his own. Something I wouldn’t have thought was in his repertoire, but he’s got the confidence to do it.”

Those things materialize most on the penalty kill, which has been tops in the league since Halloween; stopping opposing power plays at an 86.7% clip. It is he, not captain Ryan McDonagh, who leads New York in short-handed ice time per game.

More plainly put, Ruff flat out said that “He’s been our lead guy killing penalties.”

“Escape plays” don’t get much credit in Vigneault’s transition-based attack, especially not with elite skaters McDonagh and Brady Skjei and a puck-mover like Shattenkirk also on the back end. But where Ruff gives credit, Vigneault does as well, especially compared to last year.

AV told Strang, “I’ve always liked the way he defends. He’s got a great stick, he’s strong on his one-on-ones, but I will say that, so far this year, I find him more effective with the puck. He’s been able to find the easy open outlet quicker, which has enabled him and his [defensive partner] to spend a little less time in our zone. He’s had tough matchups and he’s handled them well.”

An unremarkable pass is often the right one in the defensive zone, and Staal has never been given the credit he deserves in this regard. Giveaways are a finicky stat, but Staal has fewer (21) than every other Ranger defenseman (other than Anthony DeAngelo and Steven Kampfer) this year. He has fewer than half the giveaways of McDonagh (45) and nearly two-thirds fewer than Shattenkirk (58). While that largely means he’s not aggressive in creating transition, it also means he’s sound and steady.

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That steady hand is appreciated by the coaches and, not surprisingly, the players. Kevin Hayes, well aware of the criticism towards Staal, has been unabashed in his support.

“Staal is an unbelievable player,” Hayes said. “There’s a reason why he makes the money he does and there’s a reason why he’s played over 700 games in this league. A lot of fans and media kind of pushed stuff towards his way that’s very undeserved. He’s about as consistent as you can get. You know what you’re going to get from him every single night as a club.”

Spreadsheets don’t measure board play, one-on-ones, stick positioning or what the Rangers’ staff has called “D escape” plays. But the Rangers’ improvement in GA/GP and the bulwark penalty kill should be tangible enough to show that Marc Staal is a steady, rock-solid defender, even if he’s not going to give you 22:00 a night anymore.

“I’m a good player,” Staal told Strang. “I think I can play for a lot more years and I wanted to show that going into camp that I can still play this game at a high level consistently.”

He’s playing with the confidence to back up his words and his coaches and teammates believe in him. It’s probably time that everyone puts down the box score and gives Staal his due.

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