The NHL season is in full swing, and the Detroit Red Wings, who were expected to be much more competitive this season, have floundered out of the gate. They are just 4-10-3, last in the Central Division, have allowed the fifth-most goals in the league, own the league’s second-worst power play, and the sixth-worst penalty kill.
Though there’s plenty of blame to go around, the team’s revamped blue line, which was expected to be an upgrade from the 2019-20 season, has left much to be desired. Leading the pack, seemingly, is veteran defenseman, Marc Staal.
Fan frustration around the 34-year-old Staal is quite evident – simply look here, or here, or here for the most recent examples. But here’s the thing: Staal has not been playing poorly. A quick peek as his advanced analytics place him in the middle – sometimes even near the top – of almost every category on the Red Wings.
So, despite being frequently lambasted as one of the worst defensemen on a disappointing blue line, here’s a look at what analytics tell us about Staal’s performance this season as a Red Wing.
Staal’s Statistics Show Puck Possession and Offensive Prowess
Certain elements jump off the page immediately. For example, Staal’s rating of minus-5 is 21st on the team, though it should be noted that top scorers Dylan Larkin (-5), Bobby Ryan (-5), Filip Hronek (-6) and Anthony Mantha (-7) rank right there with him. His plus/minus rating sits above only Filip Hronek’s among Detroit’s active defensemen, and defensive pairing partner Troy Stecher is also faring marginally better at -2.
The story gets much better from there, though. Staal’s four points this season are the second-most of any blueliner, and his two goals lead all defensemen.
Take a look at his advanced metrics and his output looks even better. The chart below highlights analytics among Staal and his Detroit cohorts, which shows average time on ice, Corsi For Percentage, takeaways, and turnovers.
Staal is in the middle of the pack as it relates to how the Red Wings’ defensemen are performing. He averages the fourth-most minutes per game, has the third-highest Corsi percentage, the third-most takeaways, and though he has the most giveaways, his counterpart, Stecher, has 12 himself.
Statistically speaking Stecher and Staal have been the most effective of all the defensive pairings. They possess the puck a little over half the time, posting a combined Corsi of 50.2, which is markedly higher than the team’s overall average of 47.8. For more context, the 2019-20 iteration of the Red Wings did not have a SINGLE regular defenseman post a Corsi percentage higher than Stall’s mark of 49.6. Nemeth led the way last year with a mark of 48.5 in 64 games.
So, whether comparing to this year’s team or last year’s team, Staal is decidedly not performing as poorly as some have made it seem.
Other Analytics Indicate Above-Average Play
Though effective, Corsi is far from being the only tool used to measure a player’s effectiveness. Point shares, for example, help indicate a rough estimate of a player’s contribution to their team’s scoring. So, whereas someone’s offensive point share indicates the estimated points contributed while on offense, the same measurement is also taken from the defensive side. The chart below highlights how Detroit defenders have fared to this point:
DPS = Defensive Point Share
TPS = Total Point Share
Staal ranks second in total point share per game, at .7, behind only Hronek’s 1.1. In fact, his overall point share is tied for fifth on the team, along with Ryan, Mantha, and Stecher.
There are even more measuring sticks available. For example, the team’s save percentage when Staal is on the ice is a mere 87.9, which ranks 20th on the team. Though low, that number ranks ahead of Hronek, Ryan, Mantha, and Vladislav Namestnikov. When taken in context with the team’s overall shooting percentage while on the ice, Staal fares much better, ranking 14th. His mark of 8.2 percent ranks ahead of Hronek (7.4) and Nemeth (6.7) and is just behind Merrill (8.3) and Djoos (8.8).
Collectively, this all tells us that the Red Wings possess the puck nearly half the time when Staal is on the ice, and though the team may be slightly more likely to give up a goal, it’s also far more likely to score.
Return on Investment Goes Beyond On-Ice Performance
When Steve Yzerman acquired Staal from the New York Rangers, he also brought in a second-round pick in the 2021 draft. Staal is a clear upgrade from last season’s abysmal defense, but the additional pick gives Detroit the ability to continue stockpiling its prospect pipeline. It should also be noted that there may be even more return on the horizon if Yzerman can swing a trade for the former first-round pick as the deadline approaches.
There’s reason to believe that’s possible, as Staal is having one of his better seasons to this point. With two goals already, he’s already matched his entire output from last year and is on pace to score more than he has in recent memory. (The last five seasons he has scored two, three, one, three, and two goals, respectively). To this point, his Corsi percentage is higher than it’s been since he finished the 2013-14 season with a mark of 54.3, offering even more incentive for a team that needs a veteran presence during a playoff push to bring him aboard. If that happens, Yzerman’s return on investment for Staal would be even greater, stretching beyond the 2021 second-round pick.
All things considered, that would be an impressive haul for a player who is unquestionably providing sound defense, much better than what the Red Wings had just one season ago … despite what his critics may say.
A die-hard hockey fan in the desert, and proud Iowa State alum. Detroit Red Wings and Arizona Coyotes contributor for The Hockey Writers.