In 2005, Eric Staal potted 45 goals to go along with 55 assists, giving him a cool 100 points at the venerable age of 21. Since then, his production has fluctuated, dipping as low as 70 points in 2006, 2009, and 2011. In fact, he endured a terrible stretch to begin last year, posting just 5 goals and 7 assists through the first two months of the season. Although he did manage to break the 70 point barrier, it was widely considered a dreadful season for Staal. While many fantasy players may be ready to write him off, I believe he is poised for a rebound this year, providing some value to the owner who is willing to draft him. I wrote previously about getting value from every pick in your draft, and as I am expecting many fantasy players to stay away from him completely this year, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he is available in the fifth or sixth round of your draft.
Staal recorded only 24 goals last year, the lowest total since his rookie season. After not scoring less than a dozen power play goals for six years, he netted only seven with the man advantage. He did manage to tally 46 assists, good for his highest total since his 100-pt campaign. His shot total has gone down steadily from a high of 372 in 2008-09 to 262 last year, and he finished the season with a dreadful -20 rating. In his eight year career, only once has he missed more than one game in a season, and that was in 2009 when he still played 70 games.
Here’s a bit of trivia that may win you a bar bet: which player hit the post more often than any other in 2011? If you said Eric Staal, you’d be right…but since you’re reading an article about Eric Staal it’s probably not hard for you to guess that it was him. Staal hit the iron 17 times last year, while the second player on the list, Janes Neal, had 13 pings. If a couple of those 17 posters found the twine instead, Staal’s season may have looked different when it was all said and done.
Anyone who owned him on a fantasy team last year could tell you how painful it was to roster Staal, but a look at the advanced metrics provides a more in-depth explanation of what may have been going on.
The advanced metrics show that as Staal has matured, he has taken on more difficult minutes against more skilled opponents. We can measure the strength of a player’s opposition using a measure called Corsi Relative Quality of Competition (CorsiRelQoC for short.) This statistic looks a player’s minutes played against all individual opponents on the ice at the same time, and averages their net Corsi rating (shots + missed shots + blocked shots) while on the ice to provide a quick number that reflects whether the player played against the other team’s top players or their depth players. A more detailed description can be found in my stat glossary or head over to behind the net.
The above data shows that Staal’s quality of competition has increased over the years, peaking at a pretty solid .826 (generally anything above 1.0 is considered very stiff competition). QoC data only go back to 2007-08, so we can’t look at his competition for his 100-pt season. In addition, Staal is starting more of his shifts in the defensive zone relative to the offensive zone. In 2007-08, his OZ% was 53.4, while last year it was almost perfectly even at 50.1%. These numbers show that he is being asked to transition to a more defensively responsible role, so we should manage our expectations—I wouldn’t expect another 370+ shot season unless the Hurricanes get better on defense to free up Staal to focus more on offense. Again, there is no question that his output has declined, but let’s look at his last few seasons by month and try to get a better idea of what happened in 2011.
There’s a couple things I see going on here. His first couple of months were just plain lousy, where he was less than a 0.5 pt/gm player. He jumped to almost a point-per-game pace in December and January before skyrocketing in February, recording (8+9=17) in 11 games, good for 1.55 pts/gm thanks to an incredible .216 shooting percentage. He finished the season on a more reasonable pace, dropping back down to .84 pts/gm in March and April. If not for that incredible February, he might have finished with no more than 60 or 65 points, and the rumors of his demise might be quite a bit louder than they are today.
Eric Staal’s Corsi Relative stats have fluctuated with his performance the last few years: 15.2 in 08-09, 6.7 in 09-10, 11.3 in 10-11, and then 6.6 in 11-12. The up-down-up-down pattern is curious to see, but overall he is still helping drive the play of the Canes despite playing more in the defensive zone against tougher opponents.
One of the biggest stories of this offseason was Jordan Staal signing with the Hurricanes, putting two of the three Staal brothers on the same roster. Canes coach Kirk Muller has said that he will try playing the two on the same line in the preseason this year, which has some fantasy players salivating. Jordan had a great year with the Penguins last year, and if there is good chemistry between the brothers (and I would have to say there is a pretty good chance there is) they could elevate each other’s’ game considerably. Plus, with Jeff Skinner gaining another year’s experience, the Canes’ power play could be among the league’s best. The team brought back Joe Corvo to the team, which does not make a huge splash in the fantasy projections, although in his last season wearing a Hurricanes sweater he posted 11 goals and 40 points, so perhaps he will help out the youngsters somewhat.
There is no denying Staal’s decline in production recently, and I’m not going to promise that he will return to form and be an elite fantasy player again. I believe that as long as the Hurricanes are a somewhat thin team (even with the addition of Jordan,) and the Staal brothers are required to play tough minutes, the fantasy value will not be top-tier. The reason I wanted to focus on him in this article is that I believe he could really fall through the rounds at the draft this year. Personally, I wouldn’t take him sooner than the fourth round…and even then I’d have to see who else was available around him. But I could imagine him falling even farther, perhaps into the fifth, sixth, or even seventh round, in which case I would snatch him up and take the risk. I’ve seen him ranked as high as 25th for skaters by ESPN’s Sean Allen, so there is some optimism there but in the third round he’s probably too big a risk. I don’t know if he will ever get back to his 40-goal scoring days, but I could envision him becoming a 30+50=80 point player, and if you can grab one of those in the 5th or 6th, you’re happy to do so.
Staal is still just 27 years old, and there is definitely something to be said for a guy that plays in 80+ games a year. In baseball, there is sort of a trope where a young pitcher will have success early on, and then the league will adjust to his style, and then it is up to him to adjust to the league’s adjustments to him in order to sustain that success. I think there might be something similar going on with Staal—he is getting tougher minutes and his play has suffered, so if he can figure out how to re-adjust and become a great player again, he could definitely return a lot of value this year. Plus, I really like the addition of Jordan Staal to the team, and with Jordan having a great year last year and Eric having a really down year, fantasy owners could be more focused on the younger Staal. As I wrote in my Warren Buffett piece,the smart owner will “be greedy when others are fearful” which is why I think there is an opportunity to get a great bargain on Eric Staal this year.