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Jordan Staal’s two-way play fuels Canes’ hot start

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The Carolina Hurricanes are one of the league’s top teams a quarter of the way through the season, and a lot of thanks for that can be directed to the offensive emergence of the captain, Jordan Staal.

Carolina Hurricanes v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

The Carolina Hurricanes are a quarter of the way through the season, and it’s evident that Jordan Staal is the current frontrunner for team MVP and the accolades may not even stop there.

Not only is he retaining his dominance in both the faceoff dot and within his own zone of play, but now he’s surging as an offensive threat, leading the entire Hurricanes’ roster in goals (7) and points (15).

While some fans may see this offensive dynamo as a new side of him, Rod Brind’Amour doesn’t think this level of play is the work of a “new” Jordan Staal.

“I’ve always seen him play well,” Brind’Amour said following a 4-3 win in Chicago where Staal had extended a point streak to six in four games. “I think everybody gets kind of caught up in points to have to play well. That’s not really how I judge it. He always plays well. It’s nice to see him get on the scoresheet, but if you really watch his game, he’s had those chances and he sets up people all the time. The last little while, for whatever reasons, things have been going in for him and getting points.”

In terms of things just going in for him, Brind’Amour is on the money with that one. Staal is currently batting an absolutely ridiculous shooting percentage of 38.9% with seven goals scored.

For reference on how absurd that is, if he maintained this pace, he would have one of the greatest single season shooting percentages in NHL historywith minor caveats to exclude the likes of one-shot wonders and other outliers.

What’s even more ridiculous is that Staal is 14 seasons removed from his career best percentage (22.1%), which came during his 29-goal rookie campaign that saw him finish as a Calder finalist, and the fact that his shooting percentage just last season was 6.4%.

But in terms of Staal generating chances consistently through his career, well that idea seems to hold water too.

HockeyViz.com | Micah Blake McCurdy

His isolated impacts paint a picture of a player who generates a lot of offensive momentum. The heat maps from HockeyViz.com show a lot of generation in close that Staal is able to create.

But the disconnect has always been in his finishing. According to MoneyPuck.com, over the last three seasons alone, Staal has a Goals Above Expected value around -15.

This means that Staal was taking shots that should have resulted in an amount of goals accumulating in a 15-point differential between what was expected and what he actually scored.

It was no secret that Staal’s offensive game never seemed like a glowing part of the Carolina teams of years past.

From being forced to be a first-line center when the team desperately was searching for one, to moving all up and down the lineup with a myriad of linemates, Staal never had been able to make as much of an impact offensively with the Canes as it seemed he could have.

He hit 20 goals once with the Canes and 40+ points four times, only when averaging over 19 minutes a game and being taped together with the blossoming stars of Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen.

Those aren’t top-line numbers, but are perfect complimentary numbers for a third-line center, which is a luxury Staal has now finally been afforded.

With the emergence of Aho and the arrival of Vincent Trocheck, any worry of offensive pressure had been taken off of Staal’s shoulders and, you know, maybe that’s why he’s finding more success.

Because to be fair, his most offensively successful seasons came when he was a third-line center behind the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

“There’s definitely puck luck,” Staal said recently after another multi-point outing. “That’s what you need if you’re gonna put it in the net, so we’ve been fortunate there. We’ve gotten some bounces, and it’s been good to get them early and get going right away to start the season. I felt good coming into the season, I felt strong.”

And strong might be an understatement.

Because while the offense is kicking into high gear, the high level of defensive play and faceoff success that Jordan Staal was known for is still as good, if not even better, currently.

waveintel.org

This chart from waveintel.org, shows a lot of Staal’s underlying numbers in multiple situations and on both ends of the ice. The stats on the right are from last season and the ones on the left are this season’s.

The bigger the bars, the better the stat in relation to the league. So, it’s safe to say he’s been pretty good.

One of the key areas where Staal has really continued to set himself apart from some of his peers, is in the faceoff circle.

Staal is currently ranked third in the NHL in faceoff percentage at 61.7%. Though that rate may not hold till the end of the season, if it did, it would be Staal’s most dominant season at the dots — over 2% better than his previous best.

Overall, Staal’s faceoff numbers had followed a steady developmental curve as he got more experience in the league, but once he got to Carolina, his numbers exploded.

After his first season with the Canes, where he ranked 54th overall in faceoff percentage with a 50.1% success rate, Staal has been in the top-15 among the league six of his eight years, with over a 55% success rate each of those seasons.

If his position at third overall holds for the season, it will be his third time in the top five and fourth in the top 10 overall.

Outside of just experience and development though, there is a potential major reason why Staal saw such a dramatic improvement, because on the team, there just so happened to be a former player who was once one of the best faceoff guys in the league.

Brind’Amour ranks fourth all-time in career faceoff win percentage (58.74%) — with nearly twice as many draws taken as any player above or even close below him.

“That’s something that when I was not the head coach I obviously focused on a lot,” Brind’Amour said. “It’s important. I’m still involved in that, for sure. It’s something that I obviously have a pretty good knack for, so it makes sense for me to stay involved. So, that’s why I still stay involved in that.”

It’s safe to say that being coached by one of the game’s best faceoff guys may help lead you to becoming one of the league’s best faceoff guys.

This year the Hurricanes have only lost the faceoff battle four times, and two of those times were when Staal was out. In fact, the Hurricanes’ worst games in the circle this season came while Staal was on the COVID-19 protocol list.

And a good reason for that drop off is due to Staal’s role on the team.

Staal has long been one of the NHL’s best defensive forwards even since when he entered the league. A model for two-way play as a forward, Staal has collected Selke votes in all but two seasons in his career and was a finalist for the award in 2009-10.

Evolving-Hockey.com

Staal meshes a high defensive awareness with a large, strong frame that makes him hard to beat along the boards or muscle off in close. Good stickwork also allows him to strip opponents of the puck and spring movements out of the zone.

In Carolina, he’s had the most defensive zone starts for the team in that span, and averages well over half his starts in the defensive zone, showcasing his usage as the team’s go-to shutdown centerman.

If we look back only a year, during the 2019-20 season, Staal spent the highest percentage of his ice-time against what was deemed by puckiq.com as elite competition.

His percentage of ice time against elite competition (46.6%) was higher than any other player’s percentage and he also had the 13th highest Corsi For Percentage (55.4%) among those who faced elite competition.

One of the most recent examples of Staal’s ability to neutralize top threats came in the Qualifier round last season against the Rangers, where it was primarily Staal’s lines that absolutely shutdown Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, making them complete non-factors.

Staal is also currently averaging his most shorthanded time on ice per game this season. It comes partly due to Carolina’s early penalty troubles, but also goes to show the trust the coaching staff has in him to be out there consistently.

On top of his defensive awareness and abilities, his strength on the faceoff also highlights this high utilization. Puck possession starts with winning draws and the more time you can control, the more clock you can kill.

If Staal continues to maintain his offensive stride, there is no doubt that he could be a Selke candidate. It’s an award for a two-way player after all, and Staal is finally reemerging as a player who makes steady contributions on both sides of the ice.

Evolving-Hockey.com

There may not be a lot of rumbling nationally for Staal’s bid, but his coach certainly thinks there should be.

“He definitely needs to be in that conversation,” Brind’Amour had said when asked about the award.

And maybe it’s because the two-time Selke winner sees a lot of himself in his captain. Certainly similar games, similar roles and similar mindsets.

And that’s probably also why Brind’Amour will always go to bat for Staal. Because he knows how important he is to the team, on and off the ice. He knows, because he was in that same spot nearly two decades earlier.

Staal was never the answer for the Carolina Hurricanes’ struggles, but now with proper utilization and a reemergence of his offense, he is poised to be a key part in another potential run for the Cup.