After a brief Stamkos vs. Tavares discussion, Laidlaw looks at Eric Staal vs. Anze Kopitar
I recently asked for suggestions for my next Cage Match article. From the sounds of it you guys really, really, really want to see a Steven Stamkos vs. John Tavares matchup. Here's the problem – it's too damned simple. Seriously, the only acceptable answer is Stamkos. I get that Tavares has similarly great pedigree and is really starting to shine but to this point Stamkos has a far better track record of NHL production. Why go out on a limb?
Is the argument for Tavares really that he hasn't had anything resembling a good teammate because that I just don't see it as viable. Tavares didn't just turn Matt Moulson into a three-time 30-goal-scorer overnight. Moulson produces consistently at that level because he is good and he's not even the only quality player on Long Island – Mark Streit anyone?
You could certainly argue that Martin St. Louis is better than any teammate that Tavares has had and that St. Louis has boosted Stamkos' numbers a bit but it's not like the lineup in Tampa Bay is so much more stacked than it is in New York. And does St. Louis appear to be slowing down any time soon?
I can't wrap my mind around it. Even with Tavares having arguably his best pro season he still sits well behind Stamkos in the scoring race and Tavares is doing so with an unusually high shooting percentage of 17.3%. Sure, that's what Stamkos shoots on a yearly basis but Tavares is a career 12.6% shooter so what happens when the bubble bursts?
The worst part of all this is that you can't even argue that Tavares has higher upside. Really, you think he does? Where is this mystical fairy unicorn and how much does it cost to ride? If Tavares had higher upside you'd think he'd get around to getting to it at some point. I know he's only 22 but this is already his fourth year in the league. Stamkos is just seven months older and he's already done bigger and better things on multiple occasions.
The only way I see this script flipping is if something drastic happens with the health of Stamkos but all the evidence points to Stamkos being both a health nut and genetic freak. He has only missed three games in his career (Tavares can claim the same) and shows no signs of slowing down.
I am an unabashed Eric Staal fan boy. I drafted him high in my first ever fantasy league and every season we would re-draft and every season I would take him again. I just love his consistency. He rarely gets hurt having missed just 14 games in his nine season career. Not only does he never get hurt but he almost never has slumps. Even during Carolina's recent slide (2-13-1, 1.75 goals per game) Staal remained perhaps the only productive Hurricane scoring 13 points in their past 16 dreadful games. The only slump I can recall him having was his snake-bitten opening to last season where he had just five points in his first 16 games but I'll explain that away by saying that he scored 65 points over his next 66 games.
Staal has scored at least 70 points since he broke in his sophomore year with 100. He isn't hitting those heights again because the league was simply much higher scoring when he did so but to be able consistently score in that 70-to-80-point range for almost a decade is still a huge asset for poolies. With 44 points in 41 games so far this season Staal is not slowing down and he's still on the right side of 30 with little reason to be concerned about him aging poorly.
The exciting thing is that Staal suddenly has help in Carolina once again. The Hurricanes went out and splurged last summer picking up Staal's brother Jordan and also signing free agent forward Alexander Semin.
Semin has shown us these flashes of brilliance before and he is in no way reliable now that he has a long term deal from Carolina in terms of health or performance but there's no denying he has been a real hit beside Staal this season. This gives Eric his best winger since Ray Whitney and Justin Williams were in town. Note that I'm not counting Skinner here since the two didn't play nearly as much together as you'd have thought considering how barren Carolina had been up front for several years. But you cannot discount Skinner's presence as he along with a healthy Tuomo Ruutu and Jordan Staal give the Hurricanes a deep second line to take some pressure off of Eric to do it all and it shows. Eric's zone starts are up from 50.1% last season to 58.4% this season.
Of course, the trading of Jussi Jokinen is a bit disconcerting from a team depth standpoint but there is still a lot to like in Carolina, which is good because Staal's two best seasons came in year where the Hurricanes had a top five offense (2005-06 and 2007-08). That might seem a bit obvious but when you consider that Carolina had a top five offense (3.16 goals per game) prior to their 16-game nose dive. Obviously a big part of that nose dive was the absence of Cam Ward but losing your goalie can't fully explain the offense falling off a cliff. That I attribute to the absence of Justin Faulk for the majority of the skid. Faulk is Carolina's most important defenseman playing big minutes in every situation. The team just doesn't run without him. That points to a lack of depth on the blue line, which is something Staal owners should hope is addressed this summer.
And I sincerely hope that you don't think I am glossing over the lack of blue line depth or the extreme volatility of Semin's performance (not mention that of Staal's other winger Jiri Tlusty and his astronomical 18.4% shooting this season). It's just that these factors are extraneous. I firmly believe that without the improvements up front and without Faulk that Staal would go on producing like the 75-point player that he is, year in year out but with guys like Faulk and Semin and other improvements we could see Staal bumped to that 85-90-point range again. I'm not optimistic about it but I like the potential for it to happen. It's better than at any point in Staal's career since Rod Brind'Amour retired. And I didn't even mention the lottery pick that Carolina has coming in this year's draft. Certainly that could be used to add some more talent to the roster.
Anze Kopitar has less to complain about in terms of roster makeup. His team is loaded up front with big bodies (including his own), which helps to keep him from having to shoulder too much of the burden. His blue line is also patrolled by one of the absolute best in the game in Drew Doughty. I know we complain about Doughty's lack of fantasy production but there's no question that he plays as big and as tough of minutes of anyone in the league and that makes life easier for everyone.
Of course, it's not all peach and cake in LA. As much as Darryl Sutter is known for being defensive-minded the Kings are actually top 10 in league scoring this season so you can't necessarily blame the system. In fact, the Kings have a top 10 power play as well so they are even getting the easy points (Kopitar is tied for 22nd in the league with 14 PPP this season). No the issue isn't really with the system it's with linemates. Kopitar has spent the past few seasons living between Dustin Brown and Justin Williams, which isn't necessarily a bad thing especially if you are interested in winning hockey games but if it's achieving your scoring potential and competing for Art Ross Trophies that you have in mind you may want to look elsewhere. And just so we are clear, earlier I lamented the fact that Staal hadn't had good linemates since that same Justin Williams was with Carolina. I am not being a hypocrite here. The Justin Williams who propped up Staal's scoring back in the day was pre-knee implosion Justin Williams who was a 30-goal scorer. This post-knee implosion version of Justin Williams just isn't as productive.
The funny thing is that after all that complaining Kopitar is still one of the best and most consistent scorers we have in this league. He's every bit as desirable as Staal and for many of the same reasons. Kopitar hasn't scored fewer than 61 points in a season ever and the season he scored 61 he was a rookie. Over the past three seasons he has averaged 76 points and is right on pace with 37 points in 41 games this season.
Like Staal, Kopitar is a machine when it comes to playing games. He has only missed 17 games in his seven year career and has played through his fair share of injuries. I can't emphasize enough how much I love that kind of durability.
I have a real tough time making a choice here. Age really isn't a factor with both players in their prime but Kopitar is three years younger so you could give him a slight advantage. From a pure production standpoint though this has to be a draw. There isn't one variable that would have me shouting and screaming to make a choice one way or the other. I suppose I'd take Kopitar for the purposes of age but again these guys are both 75-point scorers with upside.
I could try to sell you on an argument that Staal is the way to go because his team has put more exciting offensive pieces around him and that could drive up his value in the short term but there's an equally reasonable argument to be made that Kings management has proven themselves more adept at icing a winner so that when Semin combusts from injury or lack of effort and Staal's short term advantage fizzles Kopitar will be left with the better long term outlook. I don't want to make either argument though so instead I'm going to cop out and look at multi-category leagues where Staal is a run-away favourite.
Again, consistency is the key here for Staal. He shoots a ton (at least 262 SOG a season since his rookie year), is a staple on the power play (at least 23 PPP a season since his rookie year), takes a surprising number of penalties for a team captain and is a reasonable contributor in the hits department. His lone weakness is plus/minus, which had corrected itself until Ward and Faulk went down. So like his points upside Staal needs Faulk around to be at his best.
Kopitar is similarly consistent but across the board he's not as good. The lone category he will best Staal in is plus/minus and that's because of how well constructed the Kings are, which is something that won't change. Kopitar is also better at hitting but that's marginal (Kopitar has 303 hits over the past four seasons, Staal has 236). Kopitar doesn't take many penalties and while he's a bulk shooter just doesn't stand up to Staal. In fact, Kopitar's shooting has dropped dramatically this season. His points are still up thanks to an improved assist rate but his SOG has dropped by nearly one per game. This season he has shot just 81 SOG.
I don't think the drop in shot rate is cause for alarm. Either Kopitar is focusing more on playmaking or there is an underlying injury. Either way his points are still up so why would you worry? The only reason you'd be concerned is if you are in a multi-cat league and stuck with a choice between Staal and Kopitar and in that case you'd take Staal.
In fact, in the spirit of making a definitive choice I'll take Staal in point-only formats as well but probably because I am biased.
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