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Jordan Staal Is Carrying The Penguins Through The Playoffs

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The more I watch the Pittsburgh Penguins - Tampa Lightning series, the more I marvel at the way Dan Bylsma manages his bench and employs his game strategy.  Without his two best forwards, Bylsma's strategy and tactics (and the best defense in the game) have allowed the Penguins to dominate territorially and outshoot by a wide margin.

The more I see Dan Bylsma ride Jordan Staal game in and game out, I'm reminded of some lyrics from The Beatles' "Abbey Road":

Boy, you're gonna carry that weight
Carry that weight a long time
Boy, you're gonna carry that weight
Carry that weight a long time

It's Jordan Staal's game, and Bylsma's application of that game that has propelled the Penguins to a 3-1 series lead on the Lightning.

Staal is the only Pittsburgh Penguin with a Zonestart ratio under 50%.  While it's no surprise that a dominant possession team like Pittsburgh would have most of the team starting in the offensive zone, it is a surprise that they have all but one player with more offensive than negative zonestarts four games into the playoffs without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Bylsma has used Pittsburgh's possession dominance to give his lower lines the best chance to succeed, made obvious by the offensive zonestart percentage of Mark Letestu (78.4%), Craig Adams (64.3%), and Max Talbot (54.8%).  Staal has 22 defensive zone faceoffs while Letestu and Adams have 23 combined.  While Pens fans have been pointing to "rolling four lines, keeping them all fresh" and "clutch play" as the primary factors behind the success of their fourth line, I'd argue that Mike Rupp, Adams and Aaron Asham are succeeding because they're starting in the offensive end.

It's not just Staal's zonestarts that show how Bylsma has been riding his young center.  Thanks to Vic Ferrari time on ice tools, we have an avenue to quickly survey and understand head-to-head matchups in any NHL game.  Through four playoff games, Jordan Staal has played 58.72 minutes at even strength.  48.3 of those minutes have come against either Vincent Lecavalier or Steven Stamkos.  Lecavalier has played 61.1 minutes at even strength and 31 of those minutes have come against Jordan Staal.  Bylsma is hard matching Staal to Lecavalier and when that's not available, Stamkos and giving the kid the tough faceoffs. 

Below is a table showing the head-to-head ice time for each of the Penguins' centers in the series thus far, taken from Ferrari's scripts.

V. LECAVALIER 13.1 31 13.1 7.9
M. ST LOUIS 14 30.8 19.8 10.9
S. STAMKOS 11.5 17.3 26.6 11.6
T. PURCELL 12.5 14.3 7.9 6.9
S. GAGNE 8.6 13.2 21.9 11.6
N. THOMPSON 10.3 13.1 7.7 11.9
D. MOORE 19.3 11 17.4 16.5
R. MALONE 16.5 9.8 18.3 14.2
S. BERGENHEIM 14.5 8 9.8 12
A. HALL 8.9 6.1 6.9 11.3
S. DOWNIE 4.8 5 14.2 3.7
D. TYRELL 6.4 1.9 4.4 10.9
M. RITOLA 0.7 0.7 0.3 0.7


Staal's primary foe, Lecavalier, has a zonestart percentage of 55.6%, second easiest on the Lightning.  Coach Guy Boucher is obviously trying to put Lecavalier in situations to maximize his offensive abilities.  Staal is not allowing that to occur.  Staal's work, the Penguins top four defenders and a miserable on-ice shooting percentage of 3.7% have combined to limit Lecavalier's goals for on per sixty minutes of time on ice to .91, for 135th of 153 regular forwards in the playoffs thus far.  Staal's GFON/60, meanwhile is 2.04, good for 78th, despite the limitations of matchups and zonestarts. 

Bylsma hasn't let up on Staal's special teams duty, either.  Staal has averaged 2.52 minutes per game on the penalty kill, and 3.90 minutes per game on the power play, ranking 28th among forwards thus far.

While the hockey world waits for news of Sidney Crosby's return, Crosby himself must look at all of this with wonder.  If he's able to make it back next round and Staal can continue to carry that weight, what will Crosby be able to do to the easy minutes?