Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, and the concept of the bounce back season

Photo: Andrew Theodorakis/NY Daily News

At the end of last spring, it was fairly apparent to anyone who had watched the team, whether it was all year long or just the short time the Rangers spent in the post season, that the defense was an issue. Putting aside GM Jeff Gorton’s attempts to address this issue or lack thereof, a popular narrative began floating around that the squad’s worst two defenders, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, would bounce back come October.

Although at the time this notion may have seemed plausible to some and wishful thinking to others, we’re at a point in the season where we can begin to evaluate whether or not that either player has truly bounced back. The Rangers have played enough games to get us to a point where statistical sample sizes are meaningful, and the body of work that we’ve seen on the ice is more than just a momentary flash in the pan.

Let’s start with the good news. Marc Staal, by pretty much any measure, has had a bounce back season. He’s been noticeably more poised on the ice in stark contrast to what we saw last season with his often fraught attempts to clear the zone, and has played a crucial part in helping the Rangers rush the puck up the ice. Statistically too he’s improved, with his CF% this season being 46.91%, higher than last season’s 45.32% and closer to the prior season’s 46.96%. Going by the relative numbers, he’s actually not only bounced back, he’s improved from where he was in 2014-15. His relCF% for the season is just below the team’s average at -0.05%, higher than last season’s -2.46 and markedly better than 2014-15’s -4.10.

This trend holds true for his numbers in terms of scoring chances as well, with his relSCF% for the past three seasons being -4.37, -4.19, and -0.34 going from past to present. The raw numbers there are similarly encouraging, coming in at 48.81 in 2014-15, 43.22 in 2015-16, and 52.22 this season so far. Whether or not he keeps up this level of play remains to be seen, but so far Marc Staal has shown that his skillset from his promising early seasons is still intact.

Things aren’t so promising when looking at Dan Girardi. In 2014-15 he was already on the decline, with a CF% of 46%, and although last season he hit rock bottom at 41.70 this season is not much better at 42.47. Raw scoring chances paint a slightly rosier picture, with Girardi bouncing from 48.72 two seasons ago to 42.33 last season and then 49.32 this season. It is worth noting however, that in the case of both Staal and Girardi, they may be benefitting from the fact that the Rangers have been better at preventing scoring chances as a team, and a rising tide lifts all boats to some degree in hockey.

In terms of how Girardi compares to the teams he’s been on, his relCF% for each season from 2014-15 to present are -5.46, -8.42, and -6.31 while his relSCF%s were -4.34, -5.37, and -4.32. All of this is to say that while he’s not playing as poorly as last season, he’s playing about as poorly as two seasons ago and remains one of the worst players on the team.

It’s also important to put things in perspective – Girardi’s season last year was historically bad, with his 41.70 raw CF% being the 12th worst of all defensemen who have played more than 510 minutes over the past three seasons, and what’s worse is that his relCF% of -8.42 was the second worst season within those parameters, ahead of only Trevor Daley’s -9.18% relCF% season in 2014-15. So to say that he’s improved needs to be contextualized – yes he’s gotten somewhat better, and the scoring chances numbers are encouraging, but he’s still among the worst players in the league, if not the worst, given that his CF% for this season is dead last in the league among defensemen who have played more than 230 minutes (sorry for the arbitrary cutoffs, the slider on Corsica is hard to work) and his relCF% is 13th from last.

So what we’re looking at in sum is a tale of two defensemen, one of whom has bounced back and the other, while slightly better, remains among the league’s worst. Couching things in context, Marc Staal has shown marked individual improvement that, while influenced somewhat by the team’s overall improvements from last season, is likely in large part credited to his own individual performance. On the other hand there’s Dan Girardi, whose improvements upon last season can very probably be chalked up to the team’s general betterment and the fact that it’s hard to have a historically bad season two seasons in a row. What this means for the future in terms of playing time, assignments, or the prospect of both trades and buyouts remains to be seen (although it’s not hard to make educated guesses), but this is where we are currently in terms of the defense.