Drew Stafford is a divisive player partially because he got results in his short time in Winnipeg, but did so while struggling without the puck and with a 16.1% shooting percentage. Stafford is a better hockey player than he is given credit for, but there are a few key things to look at when talking about re-signing him beyond his possession and scoring numbers.
For all the talk about possession, it still only accounts for about 42% of the game, so it is definitely not everything. There is a lot of luck in hockey and Stafford was able to take advantage of this luck when it came to his shooting percentage. This is important because while possession is not everything, there are other components to look at when deciding whether or not to sign a player to a new contract.
Age is one of the most important pieces to look at when deciding whether or not to keep a player. Players tend to reach their peak around age 25 and really start to fall off the cliff around age 30. There are some players who do not meet the same downfall though at 30 for reasons that are not entirely clear yet. Stafford is probably in the former group for a few specific reasons: he has a low shot rate, making him a more percentage-driven shooter and he is not a strong defensive player. Those two components seem to help drive whether a player can stay as a top player for a longer time than anything else. A player like Marian Hossa does both of these things well and has remained a top player for a long time because of it while a player like Dany Heatley is more of a percentage-driven shooter (relying on luck more than sheer volume) and that seems to mean that his time as a NHL player is shorter.
This does not mean that Stafford will completely fall off the cliff, but recent history has not been particularly kind to aging percentage-driven scorers after they reach the age of 30. Heatley, Thomas Vanek and other shooters who rely more on percentages than shot generation as a whole. There is no real research supporting this yet, but skaters who are 30 and over tend to fall off the cliff rather suddenly and the ones who do it earliest are those do not generate many shots.
How does this pertain to Stafford? Well, he is 29 now and is a percentage shooter. Outside of possession stats and the fact that he has dragged down every line he has played on, he is a prime candidate to simply fall off the face of the earth counting stats wise, in part because his style of play is more vulnerable to percentage swings.
When signing and trading players there needs to be some consideration for roles and maximizing all players skills. Stafford limits the Jets because of his defensive deficiencies. Any line that has Stafford on it has to be protected defensively, which means that another line that may bring more to the table offensively than him has to start in the defensive zone more often to ensure that his line does not get exposed. This may be more indicative of the issues that the Jets fourth line presents to the team because they are more of a defensive worry and therefore get a massive zone push that forces skilled players into tougher situations that are harder to score from.
If the Jets do end up retaining Stafford, they have to be able to know that he will be protected from too many defensive zone starts while also knowing that other forwards will not be over-burdened by having to pick up more defensive zone starts because the fourth line cannot handle them. This is where a fourth line with a specific purpose could be of use. Even though it is enticing to have a fourth line comprised entirely of youth, it may not be the best idea if the fourth line is going to be used to ease up zone starts for other lines.
Possession is not everything, but it is a large part of the equation. When looking beyond the possession numbers for a player like Stafford, red flags start to emerge. He is aging and is entering a time of possible rapid, major decline that is mostly unpredictable. He also lacks the skills that would make him a good player even if the scoring disappears tomorrow. These are two facts that need to be discussed when talking about Stafford's future with the Jets.
Stats are great because they tell us not if our eyes are lying to us, but if our eyes are remembering the whole picture. The problem with everyone is we remember the big moments; the goals, the hits, the saves but the real game is played with those moments being a part of a symphony of moments that may have a larger overall impact on the game. If a player has many good moments, but those moments are overshadowed by poor decisions and lacklustre play, the player is more of a liability than a help to the team.
Stafford could be a good player for the Jets next season or he could be a terrible signing because of the lack of diversity in his game. The absence of scoring does not make a player bad; it is the absence of defensive ability and skill that tends to make a player bad. One of the reasons Eric Tangradi was a good fourth liner was he had the ability to make some plays, even if he was rarely able to score goals or put up points. Goals are the most important part of hockey, but when they are not there the question needs to be asked: what else is this player bringing to the team and is that enough to justify their spot in the line-up?
Does Stafford do enough other things to help the Jets when he is not scoring to justify a spot on the team or could they get the same thing from someone like Nikolaj Ehlers?