All Carolina fans breathed out a collective sigh of relief when it was announced that Eric Staal would be ready for the 2013-14 season after suffering a sprained MCL while playing in the World Hockey Championship. As team captain, Staal's presence would have been missed in the locker room if he was out for a longer time but his impact on the ice would have been an even bigger void to fill. Staal has been the Hurricanes best offensive player for the last eight years and he is coming off one of his best seasons of his career. There is normally a lot of criticism directed towards Staal and his large contract but this year, he earned every penny of his $8.5 mil. salary.
After being held without a point in the first two games of the season, Staal recorded a hat trick in the Hurricanes 6-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres and didn't look back after that point. He finished the year with 18 goals and 53 points in 48 games, which is pro-rated to 90-91 points in a full-season, and his line with Alexander Semin & Jiri Tlusty basically carried the team offensively for basically the entire year. Seeing how there were only 12 games this year where Staal did not record a point, it's more than fair to say that the Hurricanes scoring woes can't be pinned on him and his line. All but 10 of his points also came at even strength, so that makes his season even more impressive.
It was quite a special year for the oldest Staal brother and it's a shame that the Canes had such a bad season because Staal's production, along with the rest of the first line's, ended up being "wasted" in a way. Staal still has plenty of good years ahead of him, but it will probably be difficult for him to replicate his even strength point-production from this past season. It's not that Staal isn't capable of scoring at an elite rate, because he is, but more to do with the fact that Staal's past season was so absurd and very few players have been able to produce at that level annually. For some perspective, Staal had more even strength points than any other player in the NHL and the second highest 5v5 scoring rate, (trailing only Sidney Crosby) which was also the seventh highest since 2007-08. Staal is a fantastic player, but expecting him to continue producing at this rate is unreasonable because so few players have been able to do it.
That being said, Staal will still be only 28 years old at the start of next season and is now playing with better linemates than he ever had before, so Staal can still perform at a high level even if this season was an aberration of sorts. After the jump, we'll take a closer look at the year that was for the Hurricanes captain and get a better idea of what to expect from him in future seasons.
|E. Staal||Forward Rank|
Being the first line center and best overall player on the team, Staal played a ton of minutes on a nightly basis. Alexander Semin was the only player to have more even strength and power play ice time than him and he was also a regular fixture on the second penalty kill unit. Matchups were the only area was Muller limited Staal a little, as he was usually sent out against other team's second lines while his brother, Jordan, handled the tougher assignments. Jordan being able to handle and beat these minutes allowed the coaching staff to free up the first line to play in more offensive situations and boy, did they ever take advantage of it. Muller deployed a similar strategy with Brandon Sutter last season, but the big difference between the two players is that Sutter struggled to break even territorially against other team's top lines while Jordan succeeded in this area. This allowed Eric's line to not have to do the bulk of the heavy lifting and let them focus more on offense. It's a strategy that I expect the Canes to continue for the next few years.
Ice Time Graph
Another perk of having a center like Jordan Staal on the team was that it allowed Muller some flexibility with his lineup and not depend on Eric Staal to play 18-20 minutes of even strength ice time per game. Jordan would often get more minutes than Eric on nights where the Hurricanes had a lot of power plays or if they were playing with a lead and focused more on shutting down the opponent. The Canes never really had that luxury before, and it allowed them to not lean on Eric as much at even strength as they did in past years. This sort of changed in the last five games of the year, though but the Hurricanes had a depleted roster during that time so I won't much stock into those numbers.
|E. Staal||Forward Rank|
|5v5 Fenwick Diff/20||-0.549||12th|
|5v5 Chance Diff/20||-0.27||8th|
Eric Staal's season was almost the polar opposite of his brother's. His territorial performance was pretty mediocre compared to the rest of the team but almost every shot that his line got on net managed to beat the goaltender. Thus, he ended up with an absurdly high scoring rate and was on the ice for the second most even strength goals on the Hurricanes. This was a season to remember for Staal but the chances of him replicating it are low if you look at his underlying numbers.
Despite not playing the toughest minutes and getting a zone start push, Staal was barely winning the territorial battle at even strength. This is something that I've been concerned about for awhile because Staal's ability to control possession has declined quite a bit in past years and it continued this season even with Jordan taking on most of the tough assignments for him. Staal was also giving up more scoring chances than he was creating, which is a huge concern for his production in future seasons because he was also barely breaking even at controlling the territorial play on top of that. Basically, every underlying stat suggests that Staal got very lucky this year and he is due for a bit of a setback next year.
However, there is some reason for optimism and it stems from Staal having better linemates now than he has ever had in his entire career. I think Jiri Tlusty's season might be an aberration but it's a completely different story for Alexander Semin. While Staal has rarely been able to produce at this high of a level at even strength, Semin has done it for most of his career. For the last five years, Semin has recorded over two points even strength points per 60 minutes and has also been among the NHL's best best scorers during that time. I haven't done a study on this, but it's very possible that Semin is good enough to influence his linemate's shooting percentage and it's possible that he can help Staal maintain strong offensive numbers for the next few years.
Semin certainly played a key role in Staal's success this year when you look at how they performed territorially with and without each other on the ice. When they played together, the Hurricanes controlled 51% of the even strength shot attempts, this number dropped down to 45.6% when Staal was not playing on a line with Semin. Staal also posted some brutal underlying numbers late in the season when Semin was out with various injuries. A funny story I remember from earlier in the year was that Staal helped Semin "turn his career around," but going by the underlying numbers, Semin was the one driving the bus on the first line.
5v5 Zone Entries
|E. Staal||Forward Rank|
Eric's neutral zone performance isn't too different from his brother's. He didn't lead a lot of rushes into the zone but when he did, he was more likely to carry the puck over the blue line and the Hurricanes were more likely to create offense off these entries. The reason why he didn't have that many total entries was probably due to him playing on a line with Alexander Semin who, along with Jeff Skinner, handles the puck in the neutral zone more than any other player on the team and he was responsible for leading most of the rushes. It probably wouldn't hurt Staal to lead more rushes into the zone, but there is only so much to go around on the first line.
Season Grade: A
Mediocre underlying numbers aside, Staal was the offensive catalyst for this team on a lot of nights and had one of the best offensive seasons in recent history, so he isn't getting anything less than an A here. Staal is the captain and the Hurricanes may have had a bad season but as far as "leading by example" goes, Staal did that just about every night. It's really hard to blame him or anyone on the first line for the way this season ended because at many times, they were the only bright spot for the Hurricanes.
The Final Word
Even though Staal had his best season in years, there are a lot of things pointing to him seeing his numbers declining next year. His numbers were probably going to decline one way or another because of how absurd his even strength scoring rate was this year and how much of it was influenced by a high on-ice shooting percentage. His mediocre territorial performance with favorable zone starts also causes some red flags to go up and has me believing that this season was one of a kind for Eric Staal. As good as he is, Staal hasn't consistently been able to produce at this level and he had a lot of bounces go his way this season and it resulted in him having a career year. Whlie it's doubtful that he will have another year like this, Staal still has plenty of great years ahead of him. He is still in his late 20's and getting to play with a talent like Alexander Semin could make a world of a difference in future years. We'll just have to see what the future holds for him.