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Morton's Microscope: Jordan Staal

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Hello, this is a new weekly feature that will focus on the play of one Hurricane from an analytical and/or film-based point of view. Under the microscope this week is 'Canes center Jordan Staal.

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When Jim Rutherford pulled the trigger on the blockbuster trade that brought Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes from the Pittsburgh Penguins at the NHL Entry Draft in 2012, he envisioned a new era of Hurricanes greatness ushered in by having two large, well-rounded, Cup-winning centers anchoring his top two lines.

Unfortunately, for a whole multitude of reasons, that vision that Rutherford had never came to pass as a reality. Whether the Staal brothers were hampered by an embarrassing lack of forward depth, abominations of defense units, sub par goaltending, or injuries, the results of the two-Staal era have always been lacking and falling short.

Jordan has, for the most part, held up his end of the bargain. No, he hasn't blossomed into the 65-70 point beast that Rutherford felt he could with more advantageous deployment and better line mates, but he has been very good nonetheless.

While the Hurricanes ultimately did not come close to making the playoffs in any of Jordan's three seasons in Raleigh prior to this one, things are a bit different this year, at least for now. While games in hand and a considerable amount of teams to contend with make it very much an uphill climb, the Hurricanes are in contention for a playoff spot. One could make the case that the forward most crucial to these brittle playoff hopes is none other than Staal himself. Let's dig into the data and try to establish what is different in Jordan's game this season in particular when compared to those prior.

Deployment

In the lockout shortened 2013 season, Jordan's introduction to Carolina was a strange one. He was used almost entirely in an offensive role, with Jeff Skinner on his wing for about 450 of his roughly 700 minutes at 5-on-5, according to stats.hockeyanalysis.com.

As a result, Jordan posted his most lofty offensive numbers in the sightless eye. His points per 60 minutes that year sat at 1.62, by far his highest as a Hurricane. But while that partnership did elevate Jordan's production, it ultimately caused Skinner's to suffer. Skinner's points per 60 that year of 1.26 represented what still stands as his career low. With the long-held offensive philosophy for this team being to let Eric carry the top line offensively while Skinner produces from the second line, it didn't make a whole lot of sense to let Skinner's offense suffer with a center he did not find chemistry with. Skinner has not spent more than a few games at a time on Jordan's wing since that season.

Additionally, the partnership between Jordan and Skinner actually hampered Staal's effectiveness as well. Despite increased offensive output, Jordan's defensive game suffered. His on-ice shots against per 60 minutes that season was 31.57, also his highest as a Hurricane. His corsi relative was just +3.3%, his lowest as a Hurricane.

So when being used in an offense-first role, Jordan was able to produce nicely over a relatively small sample size, but his defensive and play-driving abilities seemed to suffer too much. As a result, 2013-2014 saw Staal spend the lion's share of his ice time with Nathan Gerbe and Pat Dwyer on his wings in a checking role. That season, his points per 60 dipped to 1.19, but his corsi relative jumped up to +5.0%, which is bordering on elite as opposed to just very good, which is where he was the year before.

Those two very different seasons took place under the coaching and system of Kirk Muller. Under Bill Peters, the Canes have tightened up their system and become a low-event hockey team. Below is a graph that plots out Jordan's on-ice shot for and against totals for each of his four seasons as a Hurricane:

As you can see, Jordan is a constant positive player in terms of on-ice shot differential. However, if we agree that his most valuable use to the team is as a shutdown center, then deploying him in the role that he's been used in lately is probably a good idea. That downward slope that represents his shot suppression is a thing of beauty, and those most recent numbers represent truly elite defensive ability.

Production

As I alluded to earlier, the hope that Rutherford had in mind when acquiring Staal was for him to blossom into an elite point producer in addition to his already established ability as an elite defender and possession driver. While that may not have happened, that is not to say that Staal hasn't produced well given his role. After a certain point, it has to be accepted that a player is what he is. And before delving into these next few numbers, it's important to keep in mind that since Jordan plays very heavy minutes against every opponent's best players, his rate totals are going to be slightly artificially deflated.

Staal's production over the years has ranged from high-end second line production to high-end third line production, and this season is no different. Staal currently has 31 points in 54 games, a pace for roughly 47 over 82 games. That would be a career high as a Hurricane, but even strength production is surprisingly not to thank. Here's another graph:

So Staal is having a much better year than last season in terms of generating primary points, but his secondary assist boom in his injury-shortened campaign last season makes his overall point rates seem less impressive. However, Jordan's power play production is a new wrinkle to his offensive game that is helping to boost his recent uptick in production.

I'll spare you all from a third graph, but Jordan's chronological power play points per 60 minutes have gone from 3.85, to 3.25, to 4.65, to 5.95 this season. That's a pretty significant jump, and hopefully it's more indicative of improved power play tactics and Jordan getting his legs back under him than it is just a random outlier.

Especially of late, Jordan's increased offensive output is a very encouraging sign. With 16 points in his last 14 games, Staal has led the charge of pulling the Hurricanes back into the playoff picture. Coupled with his defensive dominance and possession prowess, Staal's success is sure to be crucial going forward if the Hurricanes expect to have success as a group.