Analytics and Eyeballs: Marc Staal is Bringing the D

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Mike Valvano

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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.

32 comments

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  1. Long live the King
    With the cap projected to go up to somewhere around $80-82M, I don't think that $500k will break the bank. Won't happen but here's my dream team for next year...

    wrong link. thats to the edit the roster page
    LONG TIME FAN
    Doubt the NYR will be signing Tavares.

    What they need to do is know if they want to go that route, understand whether they are in a position to do that or not cap-wise, and if he wants to sign here.
    To the cap-wise portion of that program, it's completely doable, although it will take some planning and determinations on who on the roster is expendable to make that happen.
    Long live the King
    Any potential trades the Rangers make in season are 100% directly related to the standings. If the Rangers fall out of a playoff spot over the next month they'll become sellers looking to move Nash, Grabs, DD, and Holden. If you can find a taker for Staal as well, even better. At that point adding a "weaker" player to the third pair is actually more beneficial. You call up Graves for the last month or two. Allows you to see Graves at the NHL level. If Graves plays well awesome. If he sucks you learn that about him and while improving you draft position.
    You should be worried about Staal. While he may be playing better than last year, it remains highly unlikely he plays out the contract here. If we truly have any shot at signing Taraves we could really use the $2.8M saved by trading Staal 50% retained. Also, retaining 50% of his salary is better cap wise than buying out the last 2 or 3 years of the contract.

    It gets a little more nuanced, cap-wise. Year 1 (18/19) of a Staal buyout this Summer would see a savings of $500K over a 50% retained trade. So if there is a signing target like Tavares where every little bit of cap space will become vital in year 1, then a buyout could be preferable. You can worry about year 2 (19/20) when a Staal buyout would add $500K over a 50% retention when Zucc and McDonagh are UFAs and there could be cap savings there if the team moves on from them.
    How you handle this all depends on short-term and long-term objectives and targets. It's all complicated by how many seasons the Rangers "went for it" specifically when the team wasn't really close enough to. That will likely be the case again this deadline.
    Sod16
    Given that we don't have anything better to put on the third pair, why are we so anxious to trade him if it means retaining salary and/or taking on other people's problems (which we would probably grow to dislike more than we dislike Staal now)? On a team that has resorted to a guy who was on the taxi squad coming out of training camp as a first unit defender and is now enduring prolonged indifferent play from Kevin Shattenkirk, I wouldn't be too worried about Marc Staal.

    Any potential trades the Rangers make in season are 100% directly related to the standings. If the Rangers fall out of a playoff spot over the next month they'll become sellers looking to move Nash, Grabs, DD, and Holden. If you can find a taker for Staal as well, even better. At that point adding a "weaker" player to the third pair is actually more beneficial. You call up Graves for the last month or two. Allows you to see Graves at the NHL level. If Graves plays well awesome. If he sucks you learn that about him and while improving you draft position.
    You should be worried about Staal. While he may be playing better than last year, it remains highly unlikely he plays out the contract here. If we truly have any shot at signing Taraves we could really use the $2.8M saved by trading Staal 50% retained. Also, retaining 50% of his salary is better cap wise than buying out the last 2 or 3 years of the contract.
    Given that we don't have anything better to put on the third pair, why are we so anxious to trade him if it means retaining salary and/or taking on other people's problems (which we would probably grow to dislike more than we dislike Staal now)? On a team that has resorted to a guy who was on the taxi squad coming out of training camp as a first unit defender and is now enduring prolonged indifferent play from Kevin Shattenkirk, I wouldn't be too worried about Marc Staal.
    Was the same as they did with Girardi; however, they decided to buy Girardi out because the buyout window closes before the list has to be submitted on July 1 and they couldn't take the chance that none of the teams on the list would take him.
    I know its wierd. Pretty sure CapFriendly used to have it differently. Every article from when he signed says the same thing...
    The deal, which will carry an annual $5.7 million cap hit, was reached in the aftermath of a meeting in Boston on Wednesday between Rangers assistant general manager Jeff Gorton and agent Paul Krepelka that was reported exclusively by The Post on Friday. It is believed to include a full no-move clause for the first three seasons followed by a modified no-trade.

    https://nypost.com/2015/01/16/rangers-marc-staal-agree-on-six-year-extension/
    Will still have the NMC so they can't send him down or waive him, but he has to give the Rangers a list of teams he will accept a trade to.
    AmericanJesus
    I agree with some of this and disagree with other parts. I think you're spot on with saying you can't do a conventional trade. However, I think these are the likely options with moving on from Staal:
    1. Trade with 50% salary retention. Staal would be a decent player signed for 3 years at $2.85M (average of $2.5M per year in actual salary since his contract dives a little). I think you could even get a modest return there, maybe a 3rd round pick or a C level prospect.
    2. Trade with no retention for another team's problem that better fits the Rangers. Given the team's young forward core, maybe that's a forward with too high a salary. You can tweak this around the edges by including something with Staal to maybe knock a year off the length of the contract, or maybe $1M less in salary.
    3. Buyout. This one hurts a little more than retention as far as cap hit after year 1. Starting in 18/19, it would be $2M, $3M, $3.8M then $1.35M X 3 years. The actual salary is $8.1M total, verses $7.5M in a 50% retention trade.
    Obviously, these are in preferential order. According to Capfriendly, Staal has a NMC for the duration of his contract. So if he refused to waive, #3 would be the only viable option. Then it might make sense to wait one more year, considering his play this year. With buyouts, you always have to determine whether the dead cap space and salary of replacement give you a better player than just keeping the player you'd buyout. That might not be the case until the following year, and the buyout is softer then as well.

    July 1 we'll have a list he'd agree to go to. If the Rangers fall apart before the deadline, then there is always a chance Staal agrees to a trade to a playoff team. We would also need a playoff team desperate for a defender. Staal would need to keep his play positive, as well.
    As for retention, there is a chance it could be less than 50%, as you mentioned. A lot depends on the return, of course. If the return is small, maybe we only retain 2 Mil per. If we get a "bad" contract back, then retention could be nil.
    Sod16
    His play is improved but his contract simply precludes anything approaching a conventional trade. He is not worth the money now, let alone several years from now. If you agreed to absorb the maximum half of his contract and took on someone else's problem in return, maybe you could trade him, but what good would that do? The no-move clause runs until this summer and after that there is a limited no-trade clause (which I presume limits the teams to which he can be traded). We couldn't trade him without his consent at the deadline. I think Gorton is probably planning on buying him out. If his play continues to be passable, it will be after next season rather than this year. It's a little depressing that Staal is the least of our problems at the moment.

    I agree with some of this and disagree with other parts. I think you're spot on with saying you can't do a conventional trade. However, I think these are the likely options with moving on from Staal:
    1. Trade with 50% salary retention. Staal would be a decent player signed for 3 years at $2.85M (average of $2.5M per year in actual salary since his contract dives a little). I think you could even get a modest return there, maybe a 3rd round pick or a C level prospect.
    2. Trade with no retention for another team's problem that better fits the Rangers. Given the team's young forward core, maybe that's a forward with too high a salary. You can tweak this around the edges by including something with Staal to maybe knock a year off the length of the contract, or maybe $1M less in salary.
    3. Buyout. This one hurts a little more than retention as far as cap hit after year 1. Starting in 18/19, it would be $2M, $3M, $3.8M then $1.35M X 3 years. The actual salary is $8.1M total, verses $7.5M in a 50% retention trade.
    Obviously, these are in preferential order. According to Capfriendly, Staal has a NMC for the duration of his contract. So if he refused to waive, #3 would be the only viable option. Then it might make sense to wait one more year, considering his play this year. With buyouts, you always have to determine whether the dead cap space and salary of replacement give you a better player than just keeping the player you'd buyout. That might not be the case until the following year, and the buyout is softer then as well.
    His play is improved but his contract simply precludes anything approaching a conventional trade. He is not worth the money now, let alone several years from now. If you agreed to absorb the maximum half of his contract and took on someone else's problem in return, maybe you could trade him, but what good would that do? The no-move clause runs until this summer and after that there is a limited no-trade clause (which I presume limits the teams to which he can be traded). We couldn't trade him without his consent at the deadline. I think Gorton is probably planning on buying him out. If his play continues to be passable, it will be after next season rather than this year. It's a little depressing that Staal is the least of our problems at the moment.
    LONG TIME FAN
    Has become a non-physical player since injury and it shows around the defensive zone.

    I'll try to keep an eye on this in future games, but I don't believe this is true. Staal's never been a devastating hitter, but he uses his strength well in front of the net and along the boards. One of his go to escape moves is to shield the puck off from an opposing player's pressure, sort of push that player past him and reverse with the puck to escape. That's using his strength (and hockey IQ) to make a successful play.
    If anything's suffered since his injury, it's his offensive game, which is worse than non-existant, he thinks he can still be effective, joins the play, only to repeatedly making nothing but possession turnovers.
    Long live the King
    Build up that trade value Marc...without Scandella Minn could use some help after/to lighten the load of their top 4 who play 26:50, 24:56, 22:41, and 21:17 a night. He also has a shit ton of playoff experience.

    Interesting thought, but we'd have to retain a lot of that salary, since, after this year, Dumba's going to get a raise and they'll probably be paying 3 defenders 5 million, with Brodin already making over 4 as well.
    I don't know if he's getting traded, regardless of his play.
    1.) The contract, number 1, obviously.
    2.) The return - including eating salary, will be minimal, and thats if someone overpays. (If theres a decent return in any way, I think its a universal yes)
    3.) The internet-anticipated removal of AV. The immediate replacement, but with most coaching changes, they'll let that coach pick his roster. (In the previous regimes, each coach got roster say prior to being fired, but that was Slats.)