Stastny a big addition, Forbort not so much

Opinion

After bringing back Dylan DeMelo on a very team-friendly deal, the Winnipeg Jets looked to the past for inspiration for their next-biggest move of the off-season so far — reacquiring Paul Stastny.

When the Jets had their best shot at a Stanley Cup in franchise history so far, Stastny was a key piece they acquired from the St. Louis Blues to give them depth down the middle. He meshed perfectly with the team, and gave the Jets a punch on their second line that they hadn’t had since Bryan Little’s decline had placed him more in third-line centre territory.

In his previous stint with the Jets, Stastny formed a dynamite trio with Nik Ehlers and Patrik Laine that controlled over 55 per cent of the expected goals at even strength. But Stastny is two years older now, turning 35 before next season begins. Does he still have that much game? Before we find out, let’s look at the Jets’ other addition; unrestricted free agent signing Derek Forbort.

A former first-round draft pick, Forbort has been an NHL regular for four seasons but missed most of last season with a back injury. He went from depth defenceman to Drew Doughty’s most common partner in pretty tough minutes almost right out of the gate in his career, but overall, the results have been mixed.

While Forbort was on the ice, the Los Angeles Kings had generally been worse off, despite playing with Doughty, at least in 2017-18. In 2017-18, Forbort and Doughty were able to give the Kings a very solid top pairing, controlling play to the point where the Kings enjoyed an expected 55.5 per cent share of goals at even strength.

They weren’t able to repeat that success in 2018-19. Playing almost 1,300 minutes beside Doughty, the pair controlled just 45.7 per cent of the expected goals, and without Doughty, the Kings controlled play only enough to manage a meager 36.4 per cent expected goals ratio.

The pair were a bit better in very limited minutes this past season, about break-even, but Doughty saw his differentials rise by about four per cent without Forbort.

Forbort played fewer minutes in 2019-20, split between two teams after he was acquired by the Calgary Flames, while also dealing with a major injury, which makes him a tough player to evaluate. But I think we can say from his recent history that he shouldn’t be a top-pairing player.

Derek Forbort, pictured with the Los Angeles Kings in 2019, does have a talent for thwarting opponents offensive chances off the rush.

(AP PHOTO/MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ)

Derek Forbort, pictured with the Los Angeles Kings in 2019, does have a talent for thwarting opponents offensive chances off the rush.

That’s fine, since the Jets need depth. The concerning thing about Forbort is for a defensive-style defenceman, he doesn’t have a great impact on high-quality plays in his zone. Looking back to 2018-19, Forbort was in the top one per cent of all defencemen in the per cent of their puck touches that occurred in their own zone — a whopping 70.1 per cent — but his team still allowed more slot passes and inner-slot shots against while he was on the ice despite his zealous approach.

One area he did have an impact is in thwarting rush chances against, a talent that has stayed constant for three seasons prior to last season’s injury-filled one. Considering Forbort was likely forced to play way over his head in Los Angeles due to the Kings’ lack of defensive depth, it’s possible that his numbers could look significantly better on the Jets in a depth role. The important thing to keep in mind with him is low expectations. He’s not flashy, he brings some defensive value in certain areas, but he’s not a huge difference-maker.

Clearly, the big hope for the Jets is that the ripple effect of having a legit second-line centre for the first time in a couple of seasons is going to go a long way towards addressing some of those defensive concerns — keeping some of the stress off their defencemen.

There are several reports on Stastny focusing on his on-ice differentials remaining strong and only his on-ice shooting percentage really lagging, which goes a long way towards explaining the fall in his offensive production this season. The Vegas Golden Knights as a whole struggled to get the percentages to work for them in 2019-20, with Marc-Andre Fleury having a tough season in goal, his backups having even tougher years, and not getting nearly the offensive production that their underlying numbers indicated they deserved.

Was Stastny a victim of circumstances, or is there more to the story?

From his differentials, we can see he has an inconsistent impact on inner-slot shots, but a stellar amount of control of slot passes and shots, even if that control might be slightly decreasing over time as he ages.

The good news for the Jets is that Stastny’s defensive impact is very strong. Even on an incredibly strong Vegas team, Stastny stands out pretty well at limiting pre-shot movement against, and that should go a long way towards helping the Jets out even if the offensive production doesn’t fully return.

Expecting Stastny to repeat the 69-point pace he put up in his first season in Vegas is likely unreasonable, since the trio he formed with Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty was one of the league’s most dominant, but improving on last season’s 44-point pace wouldn’t be a surprise either.

However, there are some concerns.

Last season saw Stastny post career lows among fully tracked seasons in a multitude of important play-making metrics, which helps to explain why his on-ice shooting percentage dropped.

He went from among the league’s de facto first-line forwards in 2018-19 in offence creation at 5-vs-5, to a fringe second-liner in 2019-20. It’s possible this was just a down year for him, but age also catches up to everyone eventually.

Still, if the worst Stastny can be is a player who pushes 20 goals and 45 points while playing a solid defensive hockey, he’s still a big upgrade for the Jets down the middle, and they aren’t stuck committing to him through his mid-30’s as he’s an unrestricted free agent next off-season.

Last season, Stastny also didn’t get the consistent deployment with Stone and Pacioretty that he received the season earlier. He also played between Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, and with Alex Tuch and Cody Glass. Bouncing around more often might have made it more difficult for Stastny to get his game going offensively, though none of those players are slouches.

The biggest takeaway from Stastny being moved around between three lines is that each of those lines was dominant. They controlled between 56 and 62 per cent of expected goals at 5-vs-5, meaning overall no line was hurt by slotting in Stastny.

That ability to mesh with anyone should really help a team in a bit of flux like the Jets are.

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

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