O.K, I know a lot of people are going to see this and immediately say that Jordan Staal has a career high of 50 points and that therefore he is in fact not a #1 centre, and is not as good as I am going to suggest he is in this article. But give me five minutes here and see if I can’t bring you around to my way of thinking.
Recent Cup Winners
If you look at the NHL in the last five years, the Kings and Hawks have won the Cup twice each and the Bruins have one, plus an additional Finals appearance.
The top centres on these teams are Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar and Patrice Bergeron. This year all three were named Selke Trophy Finalists, and it seems clear that having an elite two-way centre is one of, if not the, most important thing(s) a team needs to have long-term success and be competitive every year in the NHL.
That is why, if I was going to build a team, my first priority when constructing it would be to find a centre comparable to one of those three. In my opinion, the centre who is not yet in their group, but who stands the best chance of entering it, is Jordan Staal.
Now, I know that what I am about to write is perhaps going to look like a whole bunch of excuses or a justifications, but, even so, I think it’s a fair point to make: Jordan Staal has never been in the position to excel.
For the first six seasons he played in the NHL he was behind Malkin and Crosby, playing on the third line. While depth at centre was a key to the team’s success, no one can argue that playing on the third line severely impacted Staal’s offensive development.
When he moved on to Carolina, it was expected that he would break out offensively, and he really hasn’t, putting up seasons of 31 (lockout), 40 (played all 82 games) and 24 points (played 46 games).
One of the reasons for this is that the Hurricanes were bottom-ten in scoring in the NHL for two of Staal’s three seasons in Carolina. In the year where they were not a bottom-ten scoring team, they missed being one by six goals. Clearly, J.Staal hasn’t been getting any help from his team when it comes to scoring.
During his three seasons in Carolina, his most common line-mates have been Nathan Gerbe and Patrick Dwyer (!). Not exactly players who are going to help you pad your offensive totals.
Then there is the fact that he is tasked with playing all the other teams top lines. Unlike his three Selke nominated comparisons, he doesn’t play on a team or with line-mates that are helping him balance this out.
Furthermore, we must consider that in two of those years he had a PDO rating of 95 and 96, as well as a year where his shooting percentage was under 6%, suggesting that he has been quite unlucky.
We must also consider that after the Carolina top line (this past seasons) of Staal-Staal-Semin, there was no secondary scoring to speak of, and because of this, teams that played the Hurricanes were able to throw all their best defenders at that one line.
There is also the adjustment from a specific role in Pittsburgh to playing on the top line in Carolina, and the fact that last year he had to come back from a broken leg.
So sure, a lot of excuses, even I will admit it. But, taken together, I think they are suggestive of a player who would obviously produce more if healthy, used properly, played on a line with offensive players and on a team with secondary scoring.
Basically, there is every reason in the world to look at Jordan Staal, his ability and his talent level and expect him to put up more points going forward.
This past season, only the widely considered best defensive-forward in the NHL, Pavel Datsyuk put up better possession numbers than Jordan Staal’s 59.54 CF%.
Staal is not only one of the games premier defenders and penalty-killers, but when he was on the ice this year (5v5) his team had the puck for nearly 60% of the game. That is incredible.
In comparison to Bergeron, Kopitar and Toews, Staal had the best possession numbers while playing a minute and half more than all of them at even strength, on a worse team. Except for Bergeron, he started in his own zone the most and had the biggest Defensive-Corsi Impact.
If not for the fact he only played 44 games, Staal surely would have been nominated (and possibly won) the Selke Trophy. If you consider the “excuses” mention above that have limited his offense, and agree that under the right circumstances (which wouldn’t be all that hard to manufacture on a winning team) that he could easily be a consistent scorer in the 65-80 point range that Toews, Kopitar and Bergeron occupy, then it stands to reason that Jordan Staal – who is only 26 – could easily join that group in the future.
Remember also, that this group of centres have led the three best teams in the NHL over the last five year period.
And that is why, if I was building an NHL team today, the player I would target is Jordan Staal.
The Leafs should use their trade chips (Kessel, Phaneuf, JVR, Lupul, Bozak) and target him as the player they want to build their team around.
I too want to build through the draft and ice a sustainable winner, however, if you look at Columbus, Carolina, Florida, Edmonton, Washington, Tampa, Pittsburgh, the Islanders and Chicago (recent teams to try such a strategy) it is very clear that unless you get lucky in multiple years and secure several elite players (and avoid drafting Gudbranson or Eric Johnson) that this strategy is flawed.
You can’t bank on winning a draft lottery (and it will be harder to do so going forward because of the new rules) and even if you could, a team full of 19-year-olds isn’t ideal anyways.
What that means in terms of the Leafs is that in addition to drafting high for the next couple of seasons, the Leafs need to acquire some veteran players they can build around as well.
Jordan Staal has a great contract ($6 million/Year, through 2020) he’s big (6’4 220lbs), he is an elite defender and has room and potential to grow offensively, and the best teams in the last five years all had similar players.
If the Leafs had Staal-Kadri-Holland-Gauthier as their four centres, I think is pretty crazy-good. When you consider that they then could surround them with Nylander, Marner, JVR and Panik, I think it’s reasonable to suggest the Leafs could compete a lot sooner than people believe.
In my final analysis, the Leafs should pursue Jordan Staal at all costs.
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.