(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)
Hockey continues to have a weird fetish for defensive defensemen, and it's a market inefficiency that's difficult to understand.
Remember this summer when Brooks Orpik signed that five-year deal with Washington that would inexplicably pay him $5.5 million per? And how everyone laughed? Those contracts are handed out more frequently than you think. Such is the case with Marc Staal, who signed a 6-year, $34.2-million deal with the New York Rangers on Sunday.
Now, Staal isn't exactly Brooks Orpik-level ineffective at driving play — and Washington fans are learning to their chagrin just how much tread has come off the tire for this man who will turn 35 in September and still have four years left of hefty paychecks coming his way — but he's not as far off the pace as you might expect, either.
The Rangers as a whole seem to overvalue grit and toughness, which explains why Tanner Glass has played rather a healthy portion of their games this season despite the fact that he's one of the worst players in the NHL and his only value comes in the form of his waning pugilistic prowess. Staal does more than that, obviously, but his actual on-ice value is not, unfortunately, what it's perceived to be.
But why the rush on this deal? Why now? Well, apart from concerns that he might bolt elsewhere — say, Carolina — Larry Brooks says it might have something to do with the quality of his play over the last six weeks or so, during which time he has posted positive possession and goals-for numbers (though negative when compared to what his team has done while he's off the ice) and hasn't given up a ton of scoring chances despite eating the most minutes of any Blueshirt blue liner. And as those who watch the NHL regularly well know, teams love buying as high as possible on guys whose contributions are primarily judged using the eye test. Consequently, the thing is that this stands in stark contrast with what he's done for the entirety of the season, and most of the last several years in New York.
Not including any of this the weekend's games (to better explain the Rangers' mindset here), there were 59 defensemen in the league that had played at least 700 minutes at even strength, which we can therefore safely categorize as “top-pairing defensemen” — i.e. 30 teams play two defensemen on their top pairing, thus, 60 guys in the league are top-pairing defensemen. Of that group, Staal ranks 18th from the bottom in terms of the corsi quality of competition he faces, which is to say that the 50.5 percent corsi rating opponents have against him is, as far as top-pairing D are concerned, rather poor and comfortably in the bottom third. So why, by that metric or any other metric, would you make him the 15th highest-paid defenseman in the league.
Well, some of the names below him in terms of CF% are of note: Shea Weber, Andy Greene, Roman Josi, Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie and Ryan Suter take up six of the bottom seven spots, with Dion Phaneuf the lone outlier as a guy who probably doesn't deserve that role. Certainly, all these defensemen are well-paid and play what anyone would call very tough competition as far as the eye test goes. Some of them are considered among the best in the league at what they do, despite the fact that — at least in the case of Weber and Josi — viewings of how well they play don't always line up with the numbers.
(Sam Page recently broke down why he thinks this is the case with Nashville's top pairing pre- and post-Suter.)
A lot of times, these guys' issues can be excused pretty easily. Weber and Josi have trouble turning the puck over and taking it out of the defensive zone with carries, but don't really give up quality chances very often. Giordano and Brodie play on a garbage team and while their CF% is poor, their ratings relative to the rest of the team remain exemplary and have them in very serious contention for the Norris. Suter plays roughly a billion minutes a night. Greene has an awful team in front of him and is basically trying to bail out the Titanic's hull with a candy dish. Phaneuf played for Randy Carlyle. You can do this for most of the guys on the list who aren't pushing the puck in the right direction.
But speaking of the eye test, is there any universe in which you'd as an impartial observer would put Staal and Dan Girardi in the same conversation as Weber and Josi or Giordano and Brodie? The answer is no, right?
I often wonder how much of a team's deployment of its defense especially is based on capability versus perceived capability. In this case, we'd have to acknowledge that Girardi and Staal are, at best, the second- and third-best defensemen on the Rangers behind legit star defenseman Ryan McDonagh. And yet it's these two who get the toughest assignments by far. Then McDonagh is roughly in the same area (and indeed, suffering a bit of a tough season with worse possession numbers than Staal) if a little back in terms of stringent usage, and the rest of the Rangers' defensemen are being pretty heavily shielded.
Why does McDonagh, who we'd all agree is better, get the protection? “Because of his offensive utility,” is likely the answer — you put him on the ice when the puck is in the attacking end because in theory he's more capable of both keeping it there and doing something with it — and because his reputation is not built largely upon his willingness to block shots and “play tough.”
But what one has to understand about McDonagh is that in the last four seasons, only this one could be considered an abject failure to this point, in terms of personal on-ice success. And the Rangers still outscore their opponents when he's on the ice this year, albeit barely. Girardi and Staal never outscore their opponents in full seasons. Staal's plus-6 over 21 games in 2013 is the only time either he or his partner has had their heads above water in terms of relative goals-for in that time. And over that entire period, neither drives possession or goalscoring relative to the team (in 250 and 180 games for Girardi and Staal, respectively). This despite the fact that, prior to this year, Staal's most common pairing partner was possession-driving force Anton Stralman; in fact, for many of his most frequent collaborators, Staal serves as a bit of a possession and scoring anchor, which probably shouldn't come as a surprise.
The Rangers have invested $11.2 million against the cap to these two defensive defensemen for the next five years — Girardi's will expire the year before Staal's would — whose numbers don't back up the cost. (The Maple Leafs made a similar mistake in extending Dion Phaneuf for big money.) Which is a long time to invest in guys who are going to spend the majority of those contracts on the wrong side of 30.
Which brings us back to this six-week window in which Staal has been so effective and, apparently, earned six years of relative contract certainty and a much bigger paycheck. What's gone differently to launch his play to the “next level?” Wouldn't you know it, they've gotten him away from tougher assignments, essentially using and sheltering him like a second-pairing defenseman even if the minutes don't reflect that. Which, yeah, that's going to make you look a lot better. So good you might appear to deserve, say, a 40 percent raise.
The problem for the Rangers too is that they clearly didn't feel they have a viable replacement on hand if they let Staal test the market, which is fair enough. You sometimes overpay to insulate yourself from the risk of going without — a lesson Glen Sather learned the hard way this summer when reliable “glue” guys like Stralman, Benoit Pouliot, and Brian Boyle bolted for more money elsewhere because the Rangers couldn't afford to pay them — but part of the issue is that this, in turn, means that you can't spend the money on the players who actually deserve to be paid it.
Most of the Rangers' core is locked up, but there will be some hard decisions to make in the next few years, and the Staal and Girardi contracts will probably start to look and feel more and more like particularly cumbersome albatrosses as time goes on.
You don't always get what you pay for in the NHL, but it's often because you're buying something you haven't really valued or evaluated properly.
What We Learned
: Frederik Andersen is being hailed as something of a savior in Anaheim, largely because he has a .925 save percentage and has yet to lose in January. Which will make anyone look good.
Arizona Coyotes: Shouldn't of traded Dubnyk.
Calgary Flames: Joni Ortio has been excellent since his call-up from the AHL and the Flames are riding him for all he's worth. We're talking .953 even after giving up three on 22 to San Jose Saturday night. Much more of this and Karri Ramo's probably going to be on the trading block.
Carolina Hurricanes: Speaking of which, it would be nice if Anton Khudobin could continue his strong run of late. He's stopped 105 of the last 111 shots he faced (.946) after starting the year winless in his first 10 starts (when he stopped just .900).
Columbus Blue Jackets: The state and local government in Columbus are rather wisely using All-Star Weekend as a means of getting NHL owners to think about putting some more of their other businesses in the Columbus area. Yeah but no it totally matters who makes the All-Star Team.
Detroit Red Wings: Decent goal from Tomas Tatar for his 20th(!?) of the year.
Florida Panthers: If one guy is good at playing defense as an 18-year-old, why do we even think most 18-year-old D aren't NHL ready? Good argument here.
Montreal Canadiens: Congratulations to the Canadiens on being “unheralded.” By whom? Tough to say. But they're unheralded despite being one of the best teams in hockey from the start of the season to right now and also being the most mythologized team in league history and also not being very good apart from getting a season and a half's worth of bounces to go the right way.
New Jersey Devils: You thought things in New Jersey were bad before? Cory Schneider's hurt now, and it might be a concussion or something. Any amount of time he's out is going to be one in which the Devils are even more likely to lose.
New York Islanders: The Islanders finally lost on Saturday, 6-4 to the unheralded Canadiens, snapping a four-game winning streak despite Carey Price being out for the night with an injury. They're still fourth in the league.
New York Rangers: Kevin Hayes has been pretty damn good for the Rangers so far this season, 15 points in 39 games in a third-line center role with basically no power play time all season (okay, 5:34). But still,
Philadelphia Flyers: Facing one of the longest scoring droughts in franchise history? All you gotta do is play the Buffalo Sabres. Club record was 199:43, but the Flyers eked in under the wire when RJ Umberger scored in the second period just 168:50 into the latest streak.
Pittsburgh Penguins: The Pens just bought as high as possible in signing Marc-Andre Fleury to a four-year extension. He's playing some of the best hockey of his career right now. Let's get a contingency plan in place, I guess.
San Jose Sharks: The Sharks put up just 22 shots on goal — only four in the first, 10 in the second, eight in the third, and none in less than half a minute of overtime — at home against Calgary, so the fact that they even got a point out of the game was probably charitable on the Flames' part.
St. Louis Blues: Shout out to Ken Hitchcock, now No. 5 all-time in coaching wins. Dick Irvin is up next and only seven wins away.
Tampa Bay Lightning: The stretch pass from Anton Stralman on this Ryan Callahan goal is out of control.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Sounds like the Leafs are giving up on the season after this 0-for-4 West Coast trip. They should never have fired Carlyle!!!!!!
Vancouver Canucks: Ryan Miller is on two straight shutouts and all he had to do was play Philadelphia and Carolina. What a life goalies in the Metro lead that they get so many games against those teams all the time!
Winnipeg Jets: I guess I didn't realize how imperative getting on top of things was going to be for the Jets in the coming offseason. Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, and Michael Frolik will become UFAs after 2015-16. How much do you have to spend to keep them?
Play of the Weekend
Yo shout out to Reto Berra.
Gold Star Award
Kyle Okposo had four goals in a critical game between the Isles and Penguins, then a goal and an assist in a loss to the Habs, so maybe that's good.
Minus of the Weekend
Best of luck to Kimmo Timonen. Guy can't buy a break.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week
User “Dark Knight” is not the hero his city needs.
Dan Briere (Cap Purposes)
And I do it... a lot.
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