Jordan Staal and the “Small-Medium-Large” line

The summer prior to the 2012-13 season was an exciting one for Carolina Hurricanes fans. Stuck in mediocrity for years, the Canes made a couple of significant off-season moves that figured to re-shape the team and possibly lead them back to the playoffs. One of them was making a big trade for Jordan Staal at the draft, giving up a top-ten pick, a solid roster player in Brandon Sutter and one of their better defensive prospects in Brian Dumoulin. It was a big package to give up, but the hope was that Jordan could help give the Hurricanes more depth at center and make their second line more threatening than it was in year’s past. In theory, this was a good plan but Jordan’s first 130 games in Raleigh have been underwhelming to say the least.

Jordan has 25 goals and 71 points during that time period and hasn’t given the Hurricanes second like quite the jolt they were hoping for. This isn’t to say that the trade has been a complete failure because Jordan has contributed in a lot of other ways. In Pittsburgh, he was lauded for his ability to help his line win the territorial battle while playing the tough matchups and this has carried over to his last two years with the Hurricanes. Muller typically matches up Jordan’s line against the opposition’s best and he has been good enough to tilt the ice in Carolina’s favor regardless of who his linemates are. He’s also been the team’s best penalty killing forward, so it’s not like Jordan hasn’t done anything since being traded to Carolina.

That said, Jordan is signed to an enormous contract and as valuable as play-driving centers are, they are going to need him to start producing more offense. This is the roadblock the Hurricanes have run into since acquiring him and it was especially frustrating this year. Jordan had his worst season in terms of points per game since 2007-08, recording only 40 in 82 games and having only three points in the first month of the season. Goals and points don’t determine everything about a player’s value, but it is frustrating to see Jordan not get rewarded for his play because for the most part, he has been very good with the Hurricanes. He has been one of their best forwards in terms of controlling territorial play at even strength and is easily their best center in this regard. It just hasn’t translated into much offense. The question is why.

Jordan’s offensive struggles are more limited to this year because last season, he wasn’t awful. The expectations for him may have been a little too high, but 31 points in 48 games would translate to about 50-54 points in a full-82 game season and that is pretty decent for a second-line player. Given everything else Jordan does, I think the Hurricanes would be happy to get 50-60 points out of him for the remainder of his contract if he continues to stay in the same role. His 40 points in 82 games this year, however, was underwhelming to say the very least and the Hurricanes are obviously going to need a lot more out of him in future seasons.

What can they do to help get him going, though? They tried using him with a scorer in Jeff Skinner last year and it didn’t quite work out. Those two along with Patrick Dwyer did an excellent job of tilting the ice in the Hurricanes favor, but it didn’t result in many goals and they also got caught on the ice for a lot of goals against on top of that. How much of that is their fault is up for debate, but if Jordan’s line is going to keep getting the toughs, that can’t happen. Kirk Muller knew this and did just about everything in his power to keep Skinner in a sheltered role. Thus, the Gerbe-Staal-Dwyer line was born.

Nicknamed the “Small-Medium-Large line,” these three had a nice showing in the pre-season, combining for a few goals and they ended up spending most of the season together. With the Hurricanes continuing to use Jordan as the team’s shutdown center, Gerbe & Dwyer were decent fits as wingers since they are both great skaters, play a “safe” game and don’t make many back-breaking mistakes that might result in goals against. They were generally the Hurricanes most “consistent” line but they were essentially a glorified checking line because they didn’t produce much offense at all.

Jordan is always going to take the blunt of criticism for his offensive production, but his most common linemates weren’t exactly helping matters.


Stats courtesy of Hockey Analysis

Jordan ran into the same problems as he did last season where he was able to help the Hurricanes drive the play no matter who was on his wings, but it didn’t result in many goals. To make things worse, he spent most of the season with Gerbe & Dwyer and produced at a third-line rate with those two. It’s not terribly surprising because Gerbe & Dwyer are both bottom-six players on a contending team. I know that Jordan is supposed to “elevate” the play of his linemates with his salary, but how much can really be expected out of those two as top-sixers?

Gerbe used to be a decent scorer and he may shoot the puck more than anyone else on the team, but his offense has gone down considerably since getting injured in 2011-12. He is also a career 6.8% shooter and finished above that mark this year, shooting at 7.2% so playing with Jordan actually helped him a bit. Gerbe has a lot more skill than he gets credit for, but his strategy with getting shots on goal & creating chances was pretty predictable. Almost all of his shots came off the rush with him streaking down the left wing and many of them came from 30+ feet away, so they were fairly easy for the goalie to stop.

Dwyer is also a career low-percentage shooter. His eight goals and 22 points in 75 games was a career high for him and he isn’t exactly the most gifted scorer in the world. He actually shot higher than his career average this year, but he still finished at a low rate and that’s generally how things have worked out for him over his six years in the NHL. Like Gerbe, Dwyer also tries a lot of low-percentage shots, but he does a better job of shooting to create rebounds and isn’t afraid to crash the net to score. It just doesn’t result in many goals and this year was no different. Jordan himself also had a career low shooting percentage, but the team scoring on only 5.1% of the 5v5 shots he was on the ice did a number on his point total and I’m not sure how much control he had over that.

One thing you’ll notice with the table above is that Jordan has produced at a top-six rate with two players: Jiri Tlusty and Alexander Semin. These two are usually playing the wings for Jordan’s older brother, but injuries and line-juggling led to Muller trying this unit out for a few games and the results were pretty good. Jordan had 13 points in 14 games during the month of March when he was primarily used on this line and his point totals seemed to improve when he was moved away from Dwyer.

jstaal points

There were some periods where the “Small-Medium-Large” line was able to produce but for the most part, they didn’t give the Hurricanes much results and Jordan seemed to thrive when used with mroe skilled linemates. The one exception being the 10-12 games stretch where they gave Jeff Skinner another shot with him, but those two just haven’t seemed to gel together for whatever reason. Otherwise, Jordan’s line seemed to get the job done offensively when you added someone more skilled on the right wing and he seemed to do really well when teamed up with Alexander Semin.

What exactly makes them so dangerous, though? Common sense should answer that question because Semin is a better goal-scorer than Dwyer and an automatic upgrade in all areas. It also changes Jordan’s line from a glorified checking unit to a tough-minute line that can produce offensively, which is something the Hurricanes desperately needed this year. They didn’t have the horses up front to pull it off on a regular basis, so adding a right winger for the first or second line could be a priority for next season. Jordan’s only 25 years old and has still yet to enter his best seasons, but the Hurricanes need to do a better job of getting the most out of him for those years.

Stats courtesy of Hockey Analysis & Extra Skater