If the operative word for the Carolina Hurricanes 2010-11 season was "transitional," then it was transitional and then some for the 26-year-old franchise centerpiece, Eric Staal. In his first full season as captain of the team, the year brought one new challenge after another for Staal; much of it lived at the center of the spotlight.
Consider the tremendous personnel turnover on the roster, including two alternate captains who were new to their roles as well. Add in a ridiculously rough travel schedule (with the October from hell) and his unprecedented role as the Uber-All-Star for three days in January, and clearly his off-ice role this season was more vital and even more visible than ever before.
On the ice, as Jim Rutherford's cornerstone centerman with a commensurate salary, Staal was asked to carry the load for the team pretty much everywhere across the whole 200 x 85, except maybe inside the paint of Cam Ward's goal. Staal accepted the role and the pressure with humility and confidence.
So how do we as fans evaluate a player of whom so much is expected? Is the blame for a season finishing in the bottom half of the standings to be considered a failure of leadership? So much of this Exit Analysis series comes down to expectations and results and where the two diverge. How do we measure out what portion of our disappointment in April is "on" Staal, what is "on" Coach Paul Maurice? Or should it be traced farther up the food chain to Rutherford or owner Peter Karmanos, Jr.?
#12 / Center / Carolina Hurricanes
Oct 29, 1984
|2010-11||81||33||43||76||-10||72||12||3||8||21:56||296||11.1||840 / 911||48.0|
|2009-10||70||29||41||70||+4||68||13||0||5||20:42||277||10.5||486 / 676||41.8|
|2008-09||82||40||35||75||+15||50||14||1||8||21:02||372||10.8||718 / 868||45.3|
|2008-09 playoffs||18||10||5||15||-3||4||3||0||1||21:31||73||13.7||150 / 195||43.5|
No one can question how much the Hurricanes rely on Eric Staal when they see these Iron Man stats:
- In the NHL for the 2010-11 regular season, he was a very close third among forwards for Time on Ice, both average per game and total minutes played, behind Corey Perry and Ilya Kovalchuk. And Kovy didn't get nearly the strenuous shorthanded time. Both numbers were new career highs for #12. For reference, Staal's TOI Average was higher than the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews, and Ryan Kesler.
- Since they publish this stat, Staal had highest average number of shifts per game than any NHL forward this season, with 27.5. Okay then.
- Eric Staal took more faceoffs than any other player in the NHL this season, by nearly 100 over Toews, and also a new career high for him.
Related to TOI, the centerman suffered an upper body (head) injury vs Pittsburgh on February 25, and missed one road game vs the Canadiens. Staal also incurred a lower-body injury on March 22, vs Ottawa, later identified as a strained groin. We learned from Maurice following the Game 82 loss, that the injury never healed, instead getting "worse and worse," but he played at or near 20 minutes per game for 7 of the remaining 9 games.
Staal put up more points (76) in the regular season than he had in three years. Among NHL players for 10-11, he finished 12th for goals scored, 11th for points scored, 7th for powerplay goals scored, 7th for game winners.
Among the Canes players, Staal ranked first for G, A, Pts, PPG, SHG, Shots, TOI (among forwards), Faceoffs taken, and Faceoffs won. He dominated the team's scoring across the board, even with Jeff Skinner in the mix. How much more can one guy do?
Let's talk about Faceoffs
Beyond scoring goals, Staal became Maurice's #1 choice in the faceoff circle. We all know that early on this season the faceoff win percentage for the team was at historically low levels, hovering below 40%. Staal's numbers were significant contributors to that figure, and not in a good way. But looking at the stat line we see that his 48% final number is great improvement from previous years and a long way from where he started in the fall.
To see what it took to change the numbers so radically, I focused on the 31 games following the All-Star Break. Without going through 31 gamesheets, I can't give your the exact win percentage over that period, but I did a graph to show how the numbers broke down, per game. I made the "neutral line" at 50% and all points above filled in red; games where he won less than 50% are gray. I also added a line to indicate his personal season average of 48% and the team's overall statistic, which was 44.6% for the season, 29th in the NHL (Edmonton was last at 44.4%).
With a lot more red (>50%) than gray (<50%), even with the injury, his improvement is apparent, and well over 50% for the last push down the stretch. If that trend continues in 2011-12, Canes fans may be able to relax a bit on this matter.
[Click on image to see full size]
In his exit interview [video - 9 mins] Staal was asked by Bob Wage where the players needed to improve to push the team over the top and get to the postseason next year. Staal seemed to say the primary culprit for failing to make the playoffs was the lapses in team defense, including the forwards, who needed to focus on their responsibilities when playing in the Canes end of the ice. One of the standard "issues" with Staal over the years (and blaming Staal is a sport unto itself in North Carolina) is that he "cheats" positionally, tends to devote more energy to scoring goals and not attending to his defensive responsibilities as an elite #1 NHL center should. This season we all watched him display a new level of commitment, becoming a conspicuous force across the full 200-feet of the rink. When he was dedicated to that, good things happened for the whole team. Problems were more likely to crop up when Staal, for whatever reason which may have been rooted in the best of intentions, strayed from that role. The difference was enough to define a game.
It's a statistic that is often regarded as suspect, but Staal's plus/minus of -10 was a career low. The second worst was at -8 in 2005-06, his only 100-point season. Staal was -4 in the final game of the season vs Tampa Bay, and therefore at -6 for the previous 80 games. Put it all together, and it doesn't tell me a whole lot.
For me, the Hurricanes put their playoff chances on life support with some uninspired losses in the weeks following the All Star break. Those losses, three in particular, all at home and which were the 2nd halves of back-to-backs, (to the Devils - Feb 19, Columbus - Mar 12 and Toronto - March 16) had a bigger impact than one horrific do-or-die period vs the Lightning April 9th. Inexplicably, the team lacked the focus and urgency to win those nights where the challenge shouldn't have been too big, and when it would get them up over the red line. How could that happen? Those are the times that your Captain needs to do his share to get everyone in the right frame of mind for the next game. As a group, they weren't ready and we might agree there is plenty of blame to go around.
Staal's penalties are worth some attention as well. Of the top 25 scorers in the league, only Cory Perry (104) and Steven Stamkos (74) exceeded Staal's 72 PIM. (The average PIM for the top 25 is just under 40 minutes) The "Splits" tab at NHL.com's Eric Staal page shows that 17 of his 33 minor penalties were for Slashing (7), Tripping (6) and Cross-checking (4). This occasional lack of discipline, often enough at the worst possible game situation, has been part of the frustration for Staal critics and bolster the argument that he is selfish or immature. Others defend him to say every player retaliates, he's just not sneaky enough to get away with it.
It's hard to look at all the good and say the penalties ruin the player's successes. But these are moments that are seemingly under his control. When they happen with frequency, it detracts unnecessarily from the positive impact he has on the game.
Eric Staal was the highest paid player on the team at $7.5 million salary for 2010-11. His cap hit is at $8.25 million for a 7-year contract that runs 5 more years to 2016. He also has a no trade clause. According to CapGeek.com, Staal's cap hit is the fourth highest in the NHL, behind only Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.
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As the most recognizable face of Carolina hockey, Staal enjoys and endures the privilege of the most scrutiny and most criticism whenever the team's results fall short. I'm not sure he gets the equivalent praise when things go right. Life all alone in the spot light is no doubt thrilling. And yep, that's why he makes the big bucks.