Marc Staal, a career Ranger, has been the target of much vitriol the past few seasons. While it’s impossible to blame the player for the contract he signed or the usage he is given, he is the unfortunate representation of all of that on the ice. For the majority of his contract, Staal has been below replacement. This is almost entirely because offense dies on his stick, but his snow angels didn’t necessarily help his cause.
Rewind to last season, when he was paired with Tony DeAngelo for a little while, and all of a sudden the numbers were starting to improve. Staal, he of no offense and all defense, and DeAngelo, he of no defense and all offense, formed an old school defense pairing, reminiscent of Leetch and Beukeboom or Zubov and Lowe. But the two were separated to start this season, only being reunited in December. Since then they –along with the rest of the team– have taken off.
For the past several weeks, we’ve been stressing trends here, and for good reason. The Rangers through the end of November were an absolute disaster. The Rangers from December to today are significantly improved, almost middle-of-the-road defensively. We’ve seen it on the ice. The defense pairs that have remained relatively intact since then are a major part of the reason, and this includes Staal.
Big thanks to Sean Tierney and everything he does with these visuals, making my life a lot easier in trying to explain it. Like every Ranger this year, Staal started off poorly, but that was the lowest point of the season for him. He got markedly better quickly, but slowly hit another valley towards the end of December. He then skyrocketed up with great play, as his defensive numbers started taking center stage. He has seen a swing downwards, mostly a factor of two poor outings against the Islanders, but he’s still, surprisingly, above average from an xGF% standpoint.
The naysayers are going to be quick to say that this is entirely due to Tony DeAngelo and his ability to control the puck. And yes, that is a big factor here, but we’ve seen Staal drag down other offensively gifted players in the past. This year is a little different. The system in the defensive zone is significantly easier on him than Alain Vigneault’s, another key factor. One other is that the Rangers finally seem to have figured out what David Quinn wants on the forecheck and on zone entries, thus gap control has improved significantly.
This is a lot of words to say that it’s not just the kids playing better lately. The Rangers are a whole new team since December, and that includes Staal. He’s certainly not perfect, nor is that contract worth it, but he’s been serviceable.