Muller’s Matchups: Jordan Staal’s line

One of the Hurricanes main motives for making the big trade for Jordan Staal was to make the team deeper down the middle and give them a scoring center who they can trust against other team's top lines. So far, most would consider Jordan's performance underwhelming for what the Hurricanes gave up for him. At least going from a goals and points perspective. He scored at a 52-point pace last season while being a -18 and this year, he is on pace for only 38-39 points in a full-82 game season. Those are pretty mediocre numbers for a player making $6 mil. per year but there is obviously more to Jordan's game than what shows up on the score sheet.

I've been one of Jordan's biggest apologists since his arrival in Carolina and a lot of it has to do with the role he plays and how good his two-way game is. As most know, he is one of the best players on the team in terms of being able to drive the play forward and he usually does it while matched up against the opposition's best forwards. He did very well in this area last season. Next to Tim Brent & Jussi Jokinen, he was Carolina's best forward in this regard last year and he played tougher minutes than those two and his numbers are similar this year. With him on the ice, the Hurricanes are owning 53.9% of the 5v5 shot attempts, so he is still doing his job of being a play-driving center.

Jim Rutherford recognized this in an interview with ABC 11's Mark Armstrong, where he noted that Jordan is "matched up against the other team's best players every night" and that "it's not all about scoring goals with him." So he basically knows what Jordan's role is and how much he contributes away from the score sheet. Although, a look into quality of competition stats reveal some interesting things about him and the Hurricanes forward matchups this year.

Going by on-ice quality of competition, the Hurricanes first line has actually seen tougher assignments than Jordan's line and qualcomp stats show that the Canes first two lines have basically seen the same level of opponents this year. I've noticed some strange things with the Hurricanes matchups this year. I mentioned how much Manny Malhotra has been relied on in the defensive zone for basically every faceoff and that's led to him being out there against other team's top lines and there's been a few games where Eric Staal's line has gone head-to-head with the opposition's best.

It's hard for a coach to have complete control of the matchups every game, especially on the road, so there have been some games where Jordan hasn't played the toughs. Muller has also not been afraid to go power-vs-power at home, but how often has this happened? Enough for us to say that Jordan's role as a shutdown center is a little overstated? After the jump, we'll look at the Hurricanes matchups against some of their common opponents this year and see what exactly Jordan has been up against.

Carolina has played at least one home and away game against all but four teams in their conference  and they have played at least three games against seven teams this year. Using Extra Skater's matchup tool, I've gone through each of these games and looked at which players Jordan has spend most of his 5v5 ice time matched up against. This will give us an idea of how difficult his assignments have been, how Muller has been playing his matchups at home and if other coaches are trying to avoid Jordan's line when the Hurricanes are in town.

Let's start off by looking at Carolina's games against other Metropolitan Division teams.

Philadelphia Flyers (3 games: 2 home, 1 away)

Right off the bat, we have an instance where Jordan wasn't getting the tough matchup at home. In Carolina's two home games against Philadelphia this season, he has spent the majority of his minutes against Matt Read and/or Vincent Lecavalier's line instead of Claude Giroux. Muller opted to go power-vs-power in both of these games by matching up Eric Staal's line against Giroux while letting Jordan's line play against some of their second line & 3/4 defense pair. These were both close games, too so it's interesting that Muller went this route. 

Craig Berube had a similar strategy on the road only it doesn't look like he was as picky with his matchup as Muller. You can see that Jordan spent most of his time on the road against Lecavalier, Read & Couturier but also saw a fair amount of time against Giroux, as well. So going by this, we know that Jordan hasn't been getting the tough assignments every night, but this is usually the case most nights and it's especially true against the Penguins.

Pittsburgh Penguins (3 games: 2 home, 1 away)

Muller had Jordan glued to Crosby's line in both of Carolina's home games against Pittsburgh. On the road, Byslma kept Crosby away from Jordan for the most part and used his second line against him, which is still a pretty tough matchup with Malkin & Jokinen. With Pittsburgh, it's sort of a "pick your poison" situation with line matchups because both Crosby & Malkin are obviously both very dangerous players and you're going to be in a "power-vs-power" situation with one of your lines no matter what. Malkin didn't play in one of the games in Raleigh, so this is sort of a moot point but I think Muller still would have went with Jordan against Crosby regardless. Seeing how that was the matchup in the first home game. 

Washington Capitals (4 Games: 1 home, 3 away)

Muller was a little lenient with his matchups Carolina's one home game against the Caps this season. Jordan spent the majority of his 5v5 ice time against Backstrom, Ovechkin & Johansson, but he also had a few shifts against the Caps second and third lines. This is probably normal for  players who get a lot of minutes, but Jordan wasn't exactly logging a lot of 5v5 ice time this game, so it's interesting to see him have a few shifts against guys like Beagle & Volpatti. Although, this was when Semin was playing on his line so perhaps this was Muller trying to get the offense going a little by exposing some favorable matchups. 

On the road, it looks like Oates tried to keep Ovechkin away from Jordan's line and had some success with it. Jordan spent the highest percentage of his 5v5 ice time matched up against Ovechkin, but that was only 42.2% and that's a lot of time with Jordan matched up against other players. Another thing to note is that Oates split up Backstrom & Ovechkin for the last game at Verizon eCenter, so that may have created a couple favorable matchups for the Caps. 

New York Islanders (3 games, 1 home, 2 away)

The games against Philadelphia is looking more and more like an outlier as Jordan vs. Tavares was the main matchup in the Hurricanes one home game against the Islanders. It was basically the same thing on the road, too. I expected Jordan to go head-to-head more with Tavares here because Eric got hurt in the second game against the Islanders and Jordan saw his minutes go up, but it looks a little more spread out overall. 

Columbus Blue Jackets (3 games: 2 home, 1 away)

Columbus is a little tougher to figure out because I'm not completely sure what their "top line" is and they had one of their key players out (Nathan Horton) in Carolina's first home game against them. It doesn't look like either team had any matchups going on at home or on the road, though. Jordan spent a lot of minutes against Umberger, Foligno & Jenner, but he was also matched up against Johansen, Atkinson & Letestu quite a bit, as well. On the road, his ice time was pretty evenly distributed against the Blue Jackets top nine. This could change with Johansen continuing to emerge as an offensive threat, though. 

New Jersey Devils (2 games)

The Devils lines have changed a lot this year, so I'm not exactly sure who their top scoring line was when the Hurricanes played them. I do know that Patrik Elias typically gets the shutdown assignments, so it's interesting to see Jordan get matched up against him at home. I also thought he would spend more minutes against Zajac than he did. The Devils are one of the few teams who have dominated Jordan at even strength, so maybe Muller will try to keep Jordan away from Elias next game.  

Non-Metropolitan Division Matchups

Toronto (3 games: 1 home, 2 away)

The home matchup is pretty easy to identify here with Jordan going up against Kessel's line and it was a similar case on the road. Although, it looks like Carlyle used some of his more defensive-minded players against Jordan's line in both games at the Air Canada Centre. This isn't too surprising when you consider that they were playing with a two-goal lead for most of the second game. Carlyle gave Jay McClement's line nearly eight mintues in the third period that game and this was another game where Semin was playing on Jordan's line, so them being matched up against a shutdown line isn't terribly shocking here. Carlyle was also using Bozak & Kessel in a power-vs-power role earlier in the year, which explains why Jordan played about half of his minutes against Bolland in the first matchup. 

Tampa Bay Lightning (3 games, 2 home, 1 away)

Stamkos played in only one of these games, but Muller didn't use Jordan's line against him at all that night. It's interesting because you'd think that would be one of the matchups your best defensive center has to win, but Muller opted to go power-vs-power here for some reason. This was around the time that Muller was using Jordan with grinders, so I wonder if that made him hesitant to use him in a shutdown role? He had a similar matchup going on in their second meeting with Jordan not spending a lot of time against Martin St. Louis' line. Although, that game was 3-0 at the end of the first period and over after 30 minutes, so the matchups likely went out the window here. It's interesting to see that Jordan spent a higher percentage of his ice time against St. Louis on the road than at home, though. 

Montreal Canadiens (3 games: 2 home, 1 away)

Montreal's another team with two lines that you can target if you're the home team. On paper, their "first line" is Plekanec is their "first line," but Gallagher, Desharnais & Pacioretty have done more damage against the Hurricanes and Muller has used Jordan against that trio quite a bit in Carolina's season series against the Habs. Oddly enough, Plekanec's line saw a bit of Jordan in Carolina's one game in Montreal.

Minnesota Wild (2 games)

Muller tried to keep Jordan on Koivu & Parise for Carolina's home game against the Wild while Mike Yeo used a multitude of forwards against Jordan. Probably in an attempt to keep Koivu & Parise away from that line. It's interesting that he used guys like Konopka & Veilleux against him in a close game, though. It's either a sign that Yeo doesn't pay attention to matchups or he doesn't feel intimidated by Jordan's line at all. 

Colorado Avalanche (2 games)

Another case where a matchup is easier to spot at home than on the road. Muller gave Jordan the Duchene line in Raleigh while Patrick Roy didn't have a set of forwards he consistently rolled out against Jordan's line. Although, the game in Denver was a blowout and Jordan was bumped up to the first line with Eric, so that probably threw things off a little. 

St. Louis (2 games)

The Blues have a deep forward corps, but Backes' line is easily their best and Jordan didn't spend much of his 5v5 ice time matched up against them. It's interesting because Muller did the same thing a couple years ago against St. Louis by matching Eric's line against Backes instead of Sutter. Maybe there's certain centers he trusts Eric more against? That seems to be the case looking at this and some of the other matchups. 

Boston Bruins (2 games)

This is similar to the two Blues games where Jordan was kept away from the opposition's scoring line at home. Patrice Bergeron is the Bruins best center, but Krejci's line is their best offensive unit and Jordan did not get that matchup in Raleigh. In fact, he spent more time against Krejci on the road and that's interesting because you'd expect Boston to play away from that matchup. The amount of time Jordan spent against the Bruins fourth line at home is also interesting when you compare that to his ice time against Krejci. 

Vancouver Canucks (2 games)

The Canucks have one definitive top line and Muller did everything he could to keep Jordan pasted to the Sedin twins in Vancouver's one home game against Carolina. The Hurricanes ended up losing that game, but Jordan did a fine job against the Sedins in terms of territorial play and John Tortorella tried to play away from this matchup when the Hurricanes came to Vancouver. This is one of those instances where Staal made a pretty big impact.

To sum it up, Jordan has played against the opposition's best in most of Carolina's games this year and other coaches have tried to keep their stars away from him while the Canes play on the road. There have been a couple times where Muller has drifted away from this strategy, but things have stayed constant for the most part. It's a little odd that he changed things up against two of the best centers in the league in Giroux & Stamkos, though. Maybe he sees something that makes Eric more suited to playing against them than Jordan? It's worth diving more into.