It has been 10 games since the Rangers deadline acquisition of Eric Staal and we are starting to get an idea of where he is going to fit in for the Rangers as they make their playoff run.
While Staal has only tallied three points (one goal, two assists) in his first 10 games with New York, he has managed to maintain a positive goal differential (plus-3) when he is on the ice, even though he hasn’t played the majority of his minutes with the same linemates for more than three games.
His usage has also varied as he has been matched up at times with the opposition’s top line, as well as being matched up against less dominant lines in order to maximize on the opportunity to produce. Staal got off to a slow start, even with soft minutes, when he was initially matched with Kevin Hayes. As soon as he was matched with Oscar Lindberg and Viktor Stalberg, the Rangers found temporary lightning in a bottle.
While matched with Hayes – and a mixture of Stalberg and Lindberg – against the Blue Jackets and Penguins, Staal had an initial expected goal differential of .355. When paired with Stalberg and Lindberg, that number spiked to .686 over a three-game span while matched primarily against second to third line competition.
It is easy to see where that line had success. Of their 26 shot attempts at even strength, only six came off the rush. They used their size to dominate zone play and their skillsets are complimentary in nature. Stalberg likes to operate in front of the net and Lindberg is good at finding soft spots in the zone. With Staal’s ability to create and dominate along the boards, this line was able to maintain offensive zone pressure without speed off the rush.
With the return of Rick Nash and Staal becoming more comfortable, Alain Vigneault increased Staal’s responsibility and he began to get a steady dose off elite competition. Names like Dylan Larkin, Henrik Zetterberg, Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry began populating the opposition, and Staal was able to hold his own with a .512 expected goal differential. Through the game against the Kings, Staal was beginning to assert himself and had a positive differential of .534.
Then on Saturday night in San Jose, he was paired with J.T. Miller and Hayes. They were dominated by Ward and Marleau, particularly with speed and controlled entries. While Staal isn’t the impact player that can drive the offense by himself at this stage of his career, he is capable of dominant play if surrounded by other elite players.
The dream pairing of Nash and Staal hasn’t quite worked out yet in the small two-game sample. When backed by Ryan McDonagh or Keith Yandle with Kevin Klein on defense, he has maintained a dominant differential. When backed by Dan Boyle, Dan Girardi or his brother Marc Staal, his results haven’t been as productive.
At this point, the Rangers investment is minimal. A contract isn’t getting in the way of offensive expectations and for Staal to be effective here, he needs to push the play in a positive direction at even strength. If the Rangers choose to drop him down the lineup to exploit other team’s depth and pair him with Lindberg and Stalberg, they have that luxury. Staal can also work against elite opposition when not saddled with bottom pairing defenders and keep the Rangers out of the red.
In a physical series, Staal will be a great asset because of his versatile skill set. He can lean on teams and provide much needed center depth should an injury arise. While he hasn’t come in and immediately rediscovered his scoring touch, he is still a very effective player.