For the second season in a row, the Rangers have pushed all their chips to the middle of the table at the trade deadline. In an attempt to extend their Stanley Cup window, the Rangers acquired Eric Staal from the Carolina Hurricanes for Aleksi Saarela and two second round draft picks.
The question is: Does Eric Staal make the Rangers a Stanley Cup contender? There is no doubt that the Rangers are a better team today. Without sacrificing a roster player, the Rangers bolstered their top two lines and, with the trickle down effect of a player like Jesper Fast moving down to the fourth line, improved their depth as well.
Staal is also a versatile forward who can play wing on the top two lines as well as slide into Rick Nash’s spot alongside Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard until Nash returns. He can also provide center depth, an important role should injuries arise in the playoffs.
Staal is no longer the offensive impact player from his Carolina prime as his points per 60 minutes and his shot rate at even strength and on the powerplay have dropped significantly, but Staal is still capable of driving the play.
Looking at Staal’s possession numbers, we can see that when he is on the ice, he is still capable of controlling the puck. Even though the last two seasons have resulted in two of the worst offensive seasons of his career, his possession numbers are hovering around the 57% mark.
I‘m interested in whether his offensive struggles are related to inflating his possession numbers. And while his overall numbers may be in decline, all of the #fancystat indicators for a buy-low are there in a low shooting percentage as well as an extremely low PDO (Percentage Driven Outcome: Shooting % + Save %). The question is: Should the Rangers have made this gamble?
Last season, when the Rangers aggressively acquired Keith Yandle at the deadline, it was a no-brainer because the Rangers were legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
It is always difficult to decipher the Rangers true place in the standings because of the dominance of Henrik Lundqvist. He has proven throughout his career that he is the anchor in net and on the team.
One way I measure this impact is combining Wins Above Threshold and expected defensive goal totals. Expected goals against are measured using a model based on location and pre-shot movement (slot line carries, passes, same side slot line, tips and deflections). Wins Above Threshold is a metric created by former Hockey Prospectus writer Philip Myrland that measures what save percentage a goaltender would need for his team to finish at .500 (e.g., If the Rangers score three goals in a game, in order to gain a point, Lundqvist or Antti Raanta during a 30-shots game would only need to measure a .900 SV%). The lower the required SV%, the less responsibility on the goaltender.
I then combine it with their expected save percentage total to determine the strength of the teams offense in relation to the defense.
During last season’s Presidents’ Trophy winning campaign, the Rangers needed .897 goaltending to record a .500 record. Their expected SV% was .915. Their offensive production paired with their shot suppression left a differential of +.018. This shows that they controlled their defensive zone to the extent that even a league average goaltender would have produced a playoff team. With Lundqvist and Cam Talbot producing significantly above average seasons, the Rangers finished first overall.
At issue is this year’s gamble. Using the same metrics, the Rangers win threshold is .905 and their expected SV% is .906 for a total of only +.001. Entering Monday’s game, Raanta was 5-4-2 with a .907 SV%, which lines up almost perfectly with this assumption.
If the Rangers had received average goaltending all season, they presumably would be a .500 team. This would make the Rangers gamble on Eric Staal a risky one, except the Staal gamble isn’t really a separate all-in push.
This is a continuation of last season’s Yandle all-in. A decision that was made when the Cup was within reach. Come the offseason, the Rangers have some important issues to face. The cap becomes a factor, re-signing Yandle is not a guarantee and whether they can shed the significant salary required to do so may not be possible. While Lundqvist continues to amaze, he can only do so for so long. The Rangers know it and are going to ride the King out until the end.
There is no full stop on an all-in. You watch the cards play out and hope for the best. When the final card is played, you either pull in your winnings or you pick yourself up and move forward.
This Staal decision and any other similar decision in impact was made the moment they acquired Yandle last season. Any other course of action would have been a half measure and half measures don’t win you Stanley Cups.