The Detroit Red Wings, on July 25, 2021, brought back Marc Staal—an impending free-agent depth defenseman. They secured him on a one-year deal worth $2 million, which isn’t too bad considering the team’s cap space at around $11 million.
The 6-foot-4, 208-pound defenseman played ok hockey in his first season with the Red Wings after being traded from the New York Rangers along with a 2021 second-round pick (Artem Grushnikov), which general manager Steve Yzerman used in a trade with the Dallas Stars to move up in the draft and nab goaltender-of-the-future Sebastian Cossa. But in 2021-22, the grizzled veteran with over 1,000 games played has been a real bright spot for the Red Wings in an extremely tough season.
Staal isn’t going to wow anyone with his point totals. It’s not the kind of game he plays, and it has never been. However, in 62 games, Staal has scored 15 points, which is the most since his 2015-16 and 2008-09 seasons with the Rangers. He’s on pace for 17 points, which would be the fourth-best total in his career behind seasons where he scored 29, 27, and 20 points. Of course, his best seasons are behind him. He isn’t averaging over 20 minutes of ice time per game. However, he has still proven to be one of the more effective players on the Red Wings roster.
Among Red Wings defensemen with over 100 minutes of time on ice at 5v5, he sits second in expected goals for percentage (xGF%) at 47.52. The only player that sits ahead of him is one of the pieces from the Nick Leddy trade, Jake Walman (51.1). There is a caveat to that number, though, and it’s that Walman has only played nine games in a Red Wings sweater. Staal has played 62 games. Also, yes, if you were wondering, he is ahead of Moritz Seider in this department. But Seider has over 300 minutes more of ice time at 5v5, so I would take it with a grain of salt. If one changed the parameters to even strength, Seider (47.78) would be behind Walman (51.05) but ahead of Staal (47.59) with almost 337 more minutes played than Staal.
Suppose we were to dive deeper into the weeds and look at more analytics like goals above replacement (GAR); Staal grades out well. He sits second in that category with 11.7, sitting behind only Seider (13.6). The next closest defenseman to those two? Filip Hronek with a GAR of 2.6.
Expected goals above replacement (xGAR) is where Staal falls off. He is fifth in the category among Red Wings defensemen, and he sits only slightly above replacement level at 0.6.
One might ask, why is his GAR so high while his xGAR is so low? That seems a bit fishy, no? It might make more sense after looking at his regularized adjusted plus-minus chart. Fair warning: I laughed out loud because of the discrepancy in these numbers.
Staal isn’t getting many shot attempts off, nor is he playing incredible defense or driving an excessive amount of offense. But somehow, his RAPM goals for per 60 (GF/60) is almost three standard deviations above the mean, which is elite. Yes, THE Marc Staal is increasing the rate that the Red Wings score goals two, nearly three standard deviations better than the average player.
When one watches Staal play, it can be good or very poor. As the data shows, his defense could get better, even though it’s the least of the Red Wings’ worries at this time. He can get beat a lot from the outside because it takes him too long to open up his hips and shift his weight. He also is known to pinch down low in the offensive zone, more than plenty of people would probably like him to do. Over this long season for the Red Wings, there have been plenty of times that his pinches have cost the team an odd-man rush and a goal. There have also been other times where it has worked very well.
Staal is the prototypical veteran defenseman that happens to be having an unbelievable year contributing to the goals the Red Wings are scoring by the analytics. The bar is low, but what he has been able to bring as a left-handed defenseman has been huge for the team, even though from the outside looking in, it may not be as apparent.
Staal is a pending unrestricted free agent after the 2021-22 season, and if he were to be brought back by Yzerman, there shouldn’t be much shock. At the very least, he brings a stable, veteran presence in the locker room and on the ice. He also won’t cost much to retain. With a continuous flow of younger players coming in and fighting for roster spots, including on defense, he would be good to keep around. Nonetheless, Staal has been a bright spot for the Red Wings in a season full of problems and losing.