I was reading an article the other day, and something that routinely bothers me in hockey discussions reared its head once again. Here is the article in question, FYI. It’s from NBC Sports Pro Hockey Talk, and it talks about where Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews should rank among the NHL’s elite centers. In my mind, he shouldn’t.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first, though. I’m not trying to say Jonathan Toews isn’t a great player. He’s got three Stanley Cups and is a strong leader and two-way player. But in recent years, it feels like Toews gets lumped in with the Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar crowd based on his name and those past runs. He’s broken 70 points once in his career, and hasn’t broken 60 since 2015.
And all of that got me thinking about a question I’ve often had: is Toews really that much better than Canes two-way forward Jordan Staal? Enough to justify the $4.5 million more per season that he makes? After reading the aforementioned article, I decided to formally investigate.
I decided to split this up into categories by which centers are usually judged by: raw scoring, faceoffs, possession driving, intangibles and affordability. Admittedly, I know next to nothing about advanced stats/possession numbers. Zeke was kind enough to lend his expertise on that subject and write that part of the comparison, and all credit for that goes to him. Let’s get started.
Raw scoring: At first glance here, this edge goes to Toews. He’s got 292 goals and 674 points in 791 games to Staal’s 206 and 482 in 843 games. So, over his career, Toews has averaged 70 points per 82 games to Staal’s 47. That looks like a pretty big disparity, but if you go more recent, Toews is averaging 61 points to Staal’s 48. Still a gap, but not nearly as much. You also have to factor in that Toews has had a chance to play with players like Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad, etc while Staal’s best frequent linemate in that span was probably… Elias Lindholm? Not to mention Staal is getting paid a lot less for his production than Toews, but more on that later.
Edge: Toews, but if you go more recent and factor in linemates, it’s a lot closer than you think.
Faceoff win percentage: While probably a bit of an overrated statistic, winning a faceoff allows your team to start your shift with possession of the puck, so it’s still an important metric for evaluating centers. Toews has a career faceoff win percentage of 56.9 to Staal’s 51.6, but in the past three seasons, Staal is averaging 57.8 to Toews’ 57.2. These two are pretty much dead even here.
Edge: Draw (see what I did there?)
When you look at their Corsi percentage, both Staal and Toews are great possession drivers with a 54.94 percent and 55.73 percent respectively. While Toews does have a slightly higher Corsi rate, this is likely due to his deployment and usage rates.
Andrew laid out points earlier, but to take away time on ice differences we can look at their even strength points per 60. Toews blows Staal out of the water with 2.15 p/60 compared to Staal’s 1.44. The gap has narrowed as of late, in 2017-2018 the Toews gap narrowed to just 1.64 compared to Staal’s 1.47. This shows that Toews generates possession and scoring better than Staal.
To dive more into their offensive production, we can look at shooting percentage. This takes out possession and shows how good of a pure goalscorer each player is. In 2017-2018 Staal did edge out Toews 7.8 percent as opposed to a flat 7 percent from the Blackhawks center.
However over their careers, it’s not even close. Toews again edges out Staal in this category 8.89 percent to 6.5. percent showing that Toews is getting better chances and scoring at a more efficient rate than Staal since both players came into the league.
Towes, who played on a line with Brandon Saad and either Patrick Kane or Richard Panik throughout the season has a zone start percentage of 58 percent. This means that ignoring neutral zone starts, he started in the offensive zone more than the defensive zone. Staal’s 48 percent start percentage means that he starts primarily in the defensive zone.
Since Corsi measures shot attempts, you would expect a player who starts in the offensive zone to have a higher corsi percentage. If they win the draw they immediately generate shots, and if they lose the faceoff they have a better chance of still causing a turnover or getting off the ice before a shot against is generated.
Staal has been deployed more as a defensive center over his career, so the fact that he is still able to generate positive possession shows just how effective he is as a player. It’s even more impressive when you look at the laundry list of players he has had playing on his wings.
Edge: Toews, but the numbers show how much of a shame it is that Staal isn’t mentioned for the Selke, but Towes is year in and year out.
Intangibles: This is where a strong edge has to go to Toews. He’s been the Blackhawks’ captain since 2008, has led them to three Stanley Cups, has been named to six All-Star games, is a member of the Triple-Gold Club and has both a Conn Smythe and Selke Trophy. Staal won a Stanley Cup in 2009 as a member of the Penguins, but has not won a major award. It should be noted Staal has not had nearly the same supporting cast Toews has, particularly since joining the Hurricanes, but this is where the Hawks’ captain makes his money.
Affordability: This one is pretty easy to peg. Both players are probably at least slightly overpaid for what they bring in terms of raw scoring at this point. However, when you factor in Toews’ recent drop in production, and how close these two have been in terms of scoring, faceoffs and possession numbers in the past few years, this is an easy win for Staal here making $4.5 million less per season than Toews, with a contract that hasn’t contributed to leading his team into salary cap hell.
Final verdict: This is a tough call. The numbers do show that Toews is a better player than Staal, but it’s very, very close in faceoffs and possession numbers (once zone start numbers are factored in), and offensive production is closer than you’d think, especially when you factor in linemates. Is Toews, at this point $4.5 million better than Staal? I’d say not.
The fact that Toews gets so much more Selke love than Staal is a testament to how being on a big-name, successful team can give you a boost in that regard. It really is mind-boggling Staal does not get more Selke consideration given how well he shuts down the opposition and drives offensive possession despite being used in a mostly defensive role. If the Canes do make the playoffs, expect to see Staal’s name in the top five, at the least, in Selke voting.
Would I rather have had Jonathan Toews’ whole career, with all the accolades and his career seasons on my team, than Jordan Staal’s whole career? Absolutely. Would I rather have the current version of Jonathan Toews making $10.5 million per year than the current version of Jordan Staal making $6 million per year? I’d have to say no.