After the Wild signed Eric Staal as an UFA this summer, there have been conflicting takes on what the Wild fan base should expect from Eric Staal. Head Coach Bruce Boudreau has suggested that Staal will start out on the first line, probably between Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle. Ryan Lambert at Puck Daddy doesn’t "necessarily see this going well." Even HW’s own Wilderness Walk has featured contradictory pieces on where Staal should fit among the Wild forward group.
So, in my first article for the Hockey Wilderness, I thought I would take a look at what HW and Wild fans might expect from Eric Staal next season. To be honest, I haven’t seen much of the Hurricanes, other than when Carolina plays the Wild, so this will be a very macro-level view. First, let’s look at Staal’s career box car stats.
Those point totals are really amazing. After getting drafted second overall in the 2003 draft, Staal puts up 31 points as a 19-year-old rookie in 2003-2004. The full-season lockout in 2004-2005 sends Staal to the AHL. Then, as a 21-year-old, Staal puts up 100 points in 82 games. His point totals in the following seasons are 70, 82, 75, 70, 76 and 70, followed by 53 points in 48 games during the 2012-2013 lockout-shortened season at the age of 28. He’s basically a point-per-game player from ages 21 to 28.
And that’s where we start to see Staal’s production decline. At the age of 29, Staal posts 61 points in 79 games in 2013-2014, followed by 54 points in 77 games as a 30-year-old during the 2014-15 season. Finally, last season Staal produced 39 points in 83 games as a 31-year-old. That’s quite a drop-off. Staal’s gone from a point-per-game player, to one who saw his production drop by 25 percent over his age 29 and 30 seasons to about .75 points per game. And last season saw a further drop of about 33% to about a half a point per game. So, what’s different between Staal’s play through the lockout shortened season of 2012-2013 and his play the last three years?
There’s no doubt that Staal’s getting older. As we’ve seen from studies focusing on forward aging cycles, that players tend to lose their fastballs after age 30.
And we’ve perhaps seen some of that with Staal. If we take a look at just 5-on-5 stats, Staal’s individual shooting percentage the past two seasons were the worst of the modern stats era for him. Last season, Staal’s shooting percentage was 6.41% and the year before was 6.28%. Other than the 2009-10 season at 6.56%, Staal’s individual shooting percentage has ranged between 13.13% in 2012-13 to 8.30% in 2008-09.
In addition, Staal’s power play production has decreased following the lockout shortened season. During his prime years, Staal ranged between 19 and seven power play goals versus seven to one power play goals post-lockout. And Staal’s power play assists ranged between 21 to 10 versus 11 to six post-lockout. Basically, the floor of his most productive years matches his peak after the most-recent lockout.
But shooting percentages can range widely from year to year and the power play is a pretty small sample size to judge even on an annual basis. We have more TOI to gauge at 5on5 and this is where Staal looks rather strong.
In an article about David Backes, Travis Yost pins first-line individual shot attempts/60 at about 14. Yost notes that Backes has not been a first-line talent in terms of shot generation since the 2011-12 season. Staal and Backes are the same age, yet Staal’s individual Corsi/60 has remained above 14 every season with the exception of the 13.93 he posted in 2012-13. In fact, that checks out. If you sort stats.hockeyanalysis.com by all forwards at 5-on-5 with a minimum of 500 minutes, you’ll see that the 90th best forward is Lars Eller at 13.67 (30 NHL teams times three forwards on a line). Staal ranks 58th in iCorsi/60 at 14.90 behind Logan Couture and ahead of Daniel Sedin. As a matter of fact, Staal ranks ahead of all Wild forwards, with noted shooters Jason Zucker and Zach Parise leading the wild at 14.77 and 14.19, respectively.
So, why is Staal’s production tanking, other than age? I would argue that has to do with Staal’s teammates. If you go to stats.hockeyanalysis.com and sort by forwards with 1000 minutes played in the 2015-16 season, Eric Staal has the 20th worst shooting percentage in the entire NHL . In fact, Staal’s most common linemates last season were Elias Lindholm and Kris Versteeg. Lindholm is a 21-year-old center from Sweden who shot 5.34% at 5on5 last season and Versteeg is 30 years old and scored 11 goals in 63 games with the Hurricanes.
What changes if Staal is centering a line with Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle on the wings? Parise’s 5-on-5 shooting percentage last season was 10.27, which is his highest 5-on-5 number of his career, but he’s never been below the 6.71% he posted in 2012-14. And Parise’s ICorsi/60 has ranged from 19.80 to 13.53 over the last nine years. Coyle’s 14.15% shooting percentage from last season is unsustainable. But a large part of his season was centering Thomas Vanek the boat anchor. He looked much more promising on the wing. And, in fact, performed well on the right side of Parise and Mikko Koivu in 2012-13.
Finally, Staal has shown over the course of his career that he is a strong possession player. Compare his chart to Koivu:
The fact is that the Wild will start the season with two possession monsters at center. And providing Staal with first-line center responsibility with Parise and Coyle allows the second line of Koivu between Nino and Zucker to power through secondary competition, a line that may have been the best line in the league through the first two months of last season.
If Staal can duplicate Koivu’s success with Parise and Coyle, the top six looks good for the Minnesota Wild.