A Tale of Two Staals

"Jordan's better" was the chant of choice for Winnipeg fans during the Hurricanes visit to the MTS Centre on March 18, 2012 as Jet fans tried to do their best to rile up the Hurricanes captain. The chant was short lived, as Eric Staal would go on to have a three-point game that night and lead the Canes to a huge comeback win over a divisional rival. I think Winnipeg has been in the division long enough for fans to know their fan's culture and trolling opposing players is kind of their shtick. However, the whole debate of which Staal brother is the best was something that was being debated around this time last year.

Eric Staal has always been the older brother and the best of the quartet. He's the one with an 100-point season under his belt, a Stanley Cup ring and an Olympic gold medal to his name and he has been a #1 center for basically all of his career but if rewind to one year ago, Eric had arguably his worst season in the NHL. He still finished the season with 70 points in 82 games, but his goal total was its lowest since his rookie season, his plus/minus was amongst the lowest in the NHL for a good part of the year and his point-per-game rate was the lowest it had been in four years. Meanwhile, Jordan Staal had a career season offensively. He scored a career high in goals with 25 and had the highest point-per-game rate of his career with 50 points in 62 games.

Eric still had better numbers, but there were a lot of people wondering if Jordan could emerge as the superior Staal brother with Eric approaching 30 and Jordan set to enter the prime of his career and becoming more of a threat offensively. The common belief was that Jordan Staal has the talent to be a star forward but was being "confined" to a third-line center role with the Pittsburgh Penguins because of their center depth. I always felt that claim was overblown because Jordan's had plenty of chances to center one of the Penguins top-two lines with Crosby & Malkin spending much of the last two seasons injured, but still, a lot of people wondered what Jordan could do if he was put in a more offensive role and if he could emerge as the best Staal brother.

Those who were hoping to see Jordan in a more offensive role got their wish this season after he opted to not re-sign with the Penguins and was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes last summer. It was an opportunity for Jordan to take advantage of playing more minutes with better linemates and possibly have the "break-out" season that many were hoping he would have. Things didn't quite work out this way in his first season, though. In fact, when you look at how the seasons for both Staal brothers went, it's really interesting to see how much they contrasted with everyone's expectations. 

Let's start with Eric, he is a player who many believe is exiting the "prime years" of his career and would continue to see his offensive production decline as he got older. It's a reasonable claim since he has teetered around 70-75 points for most of the last few years and barely reached that plateau last season. All of these suspicions were thrown out the window after this season as Staal had one of his best years as an NHL-er. He recorded 53 points in 48 games, led the Hurricanes in goals with 18 and recorded an astonishing 3.44 even strength points per 60 minutes. In a full-season, Staal would have recorded 30-31 goals and 91-92 points, which would have been his best offensive output since 2005-06. Whatever was eating Staal last season was gone and he returned to producing at an elite level. Better linemates and Eric playing with a lot more confidence were noted as major reasons for this. Jordan, however, didn't have the breakout season that many were expecting.

Jordan recorded only 10 goals and 31 points over 48 games this year, giving him his lowest point-per-game rate in three years. He also ended the season with a -18 rating, which was the second lowest on the team next to Jeff Skinner and it's made a lot of people wonder if Jordan will ever live up to his draft stock. The narrative that is being spun now is that Jordan was in a "perfect" situation with the Penguins and will struggle on a worse team. It has also been suggested that Jordan couldn't "handle the pressure" of having a bigger role & carrying a top-six line. His low point total and awful plus/minus being used as evidence to support this.

Hockey is a game where everything seems to be judged on the results instead of the process which is unfortunate because the results can often be deceiving with goals & points largely being the product of luck. The numbers for both Staal brothers fall into this category and there is a good chance that their boxcar numbers are a bit of an anomoly. In other words, the chances of Eric continuing to be this good are very low but there is a very high chance of Jordan posting better numbers next season. We can determine this by looking at each player's career numbers and seeing how much this season sticks out compared to others.

Take Eric's season for example. Not only was he on-pace for his highest point total in seven years, but his scoring rate at even strength was higher than it likely was in his entire career.

Year GP TOI/60 Corsi Relative Corsi On On-Ice Sh% Sh% OZ% P/60
2007-08 82 15.03 4.6 7.3 9.86 12.3% 53.4 2.24
2008-09 82 14.53 15.2 14.75 8.1 10.8% 52 2.32
2009-10 70 14.89 6.7 0.29 10.9 10.5% 51.8 2.48
2010-11 81 15.17 11.3 5.52 8.89 11.1% 49.8 1.86
2011-12 82 15.72 6.6 0.19 8.35 9.2% 50.1 1.91
2012-13 48 15.63 -4.2 0.72 12.78 11.8% 57.4 3.44

Staal has managed to score at a high rate for basically his entire career but this season really stands out. He nearly doubled his even strength production from last season and scored at a rate that I'm pretty sure is a career high for him. It's questionable that Staal will be able to sustain this kind of production, if only for the fact that his numbers were so insane this season. Most knowledgable hockey minds are going to point to Staal's on-ice shooting percentage and say that luck was the main reason why his numbers were so good this year. I don't disagree since an on-ice shooting percentage of nearly 13% is going to come down in a full year no matter what. However, I'm not going to complete dismiss Eric's success to good luck since he is playing with much better linemates now than he has in years.

Alexander Semin might be the most talented winger that Eric has had in his entire career and I think Semin is a good enough play-maker & goal-scorer to have a positive impact on his linemate's shooting percentage. With that in mind, it's still unlikely that Eric will sustain this kind of production because the season he had was very rare. Since 2007-08, there have been only 25 players to score at a rate of three even strength points per 60 minutes and Staal's most recent season ranks highly on the list.

Player Year GP TOI/60 P/60 On-Ice Sh%
Daniel Sedin 2010 63 14.61 4.04 14.39
Sidney Crosby 2011 41 15.06 3.98 12.74
Henrik Sedin 2010 82 14.79 3.96 13.62
Alex Ovechkin 2010 72 16 3.7 12.52
Evgeni Malkin 2012 71 15.73 3.66 10.76
Eric Staal 2013 48 15.63 3.44 12.78
Sidney Crosby 2010 81 14.99 3.41 11.54
Sidney Crosby 2008 53 14.42 3.38 12.17
Nazem Kadri 2013 48 13.26 3.21 14.44
Chris Kunitz 2013 48 13.67 3.2 13.21
Rene Bourque 2009 58 12.27 3.2 12.27
Evgeni Malkin 2008 71 14.88 3.2 11.95
Jonathan Toews 2013 47 14.4 3.19 11.34
Alexander Semin 2010 73 14.18 3.19 12.1
Alexander Semin 2009 62 13.18 3.16 10.87
Taylor Hall 2013 45 14.81 3.15 9.52
Daniel Sedin 2011 82 14.32 3.12 10.96
Paul Stastny 2008 66 14.26 3.12 13.29
Daniel Alfredsson 2008 70 14.55 3.12 11.48
Jordan Eberle 2012 78 14 3.08 12.93
Evgeni Malkin 2009 82 15.03 3.07 13.23
Andrew Ladd 2013 48 15.11 3.06 11.41
Nicklas Backstrom 2010 82 14.97 3.03 12.45
Sidney Crosby 2009 77 14.83 3 11.02
Alex Ovechkin 2008 82 16.6 3 10.71

Eric's 3.44 ESP/60 was the fifth highest scoring rate since 2007-08 so that alone should tell you how rare this season is. There have been soem players who have been able to produce at a high rate in multiple years, but it's only the truly elite scorers who have been able to do so. Staal is a top-tier player but he isn't in the same class as Daniel Sedin or Sidney Crosby, so it's unlikely that he will produce at his high of a rate next year. Although, I'm very intrigued to see what to see what he and Alex Semin can do in a full season. Semin is a player who posted an elite scoring rate in two consecutive years and was on the borderline of doing so again this season. I would still take the under, though since not many players are able to sustain a shooting percentage that high on a year-to-year basis.

As for Jordan, he also had a rare season but in a negative way. The major flaw with plus/minus is that it automatically rewards or blames players for events that they may have had no control over. A player with a poor plus/minus rating usually means that he played a lot of minutes on a bad team or one with poor goaltending while a good plus/minus likely means that a player was used on a high scoring line or his team received excellent goaltending when he was on the ice. In the case of Jordan Staal, the Hurricanes goaltending was horrendous whenever he was being used during 5v5 play. How bad you ask? Bottom-ten in the NHL. There were definitely some instances where Jordan missed an assignment and it led to a goal against, but to assume that he was directly responsible for Carolina's goalies posting a .878 save percentage when he was on the ice is silly. His personal shooting percentage was also four points lower than his career average, which indicates that he was the victim of bad luck at both ends of the rink and it had a negative impact on his boxcar numbers.

Some might say that Jordan wasn't on the receiving end of any good luck because he was playing poorly, but this was far from the case if you look at his performance beyong goals and points.

Year GP TOI/60 Corsi Relative Corsi On On-Ice Sh% Sh% OZ% P/60
2007-08 82 12.67 2.6 -7.51 7.01 6.6% 37.5 1.15
2008-09 82 13.2 6 0.06 9.92 13.3% 40.3 2.05
2009-10 82 13.53 7.9 10.44 9.35 10.8% 50.8 2.11
2010-11 42 14.77 0.3 6.97 9.51 12.1% 48.5 1.84
2011-12 62 14.73 4.8 12.02 8.79 16.8% 47.8 2.3
2012-13 48 15.05 8.4 9.38 7.09 8.8% 48.8 1.74

Jordan was given very tough assignments compared to Carolina's other forwards. He started more shifts in the defensive zone and was regularly matched up against other team's first lines. Despite that, Jordan still managed to carry his line well and drive the play forward at even strength. It is something that he has been very good at over his entire career and continued to do so in Carolina. His underlying numbers didn't drop off much compared to what they were in Pittsburgh, but his shooting percentage went down the toilet. That's the reason why his scoring rate declined and there wasn't much he could do about it. I still have my doubts about Jordan being able to be as big of an offensive threat as many believe, but I do have a lot of confidence in him rebounding next year and continuing to give the Hurricanes a great one-two punch down the middle.

In short, all of the pucks were going in Eric this year while almost nothing was going right for his younger brother and they ended up having very different seasons. It wouldn't surprise me if the roles are reversed a bit next season because if you go strictly by their ability to control possession at even strength, Jordan was much more impressive than Eric.

  Corsi% FenClose% Chances For/60 Chances Against/60 Chance Diff/60
Eric 50% 48.90% 4.21 4.48 -0.27
Jordan 54% 53.50% 5.23 4.37 0.86

Despite getting cushy zone starts, Eric was barely winning the territorial battle this year and was actually giving up more than he was producing in terms of scoring chances. Meanwhile, Jordan was dominating in this front. Whenever he was on the ice at even strength, the puck was in the other team's zone and his line was constantly producing shots on goal. You can tell from his high scoring chance rate that he wasn't just "shooting from everywhere" either. Jordan's +44 even strength scoring chance differential was the highest on the team this season and the Hurricanes were producing over five even strength scoring chances per 60 minutes, a rate that was the highest among regular forwards.

It's a shame that Jordan didn't have a lot of points ot show for it, but he really played well this year and should be a huge part in the Hurricanes rebuild. I wouldn't say that Jordan is better than Eric just yet, but he was certainly a lot better this season than people gave him credit for.

Stats courtesy of Behind the Net