First let me say upfront that I am NOT in the ‘Eric Staal is playing horribly right now, so he must be traded’ camp. His scoring is a bit light, but I think Eric Staal has actually been playing pretty good hockey overall. I also think he has quietly put the team first and lined up behind Coach Bill Peters’ plan. He has been a more regular fixture in front of the opposing goalie, and he has swapped back and forth between left wing and center without any grumbling about preferring to play center.
But 3 factors have me looking forward to an Eric Staal trade:
1) The team is gradually falling farther below the playoff cut line. It is too early to declare it completely over, but maybe soon not to early to start making decisions based on odds.
2) The team could use the salary relief with a rough season attendance-wise. Eric Staal makes $9.5 million this season so that breaks down in about $3.2 million for each third of the season. One third is over and already paid. The second third will lead up to the trade deadline. And the last third will be after the trade deadline. There is literally a couple million $ to potentially be saved depending on how much salary the Canes need to eat to make a deal work.
3) The return in terms of assets for rebuilding could be significant.
I could see the scenario where Eric Staal leaves only to return next summer, but that is a decision for after figuring out the first 1 and seeing what happens while he is away.
Eric Staal fits best with a team playing to win a Stanley Cup now, willing to pay futures to do it and in need of a top 6 forward and/or first/second line center. The challenge will be finding teams who need this, are willing to pay for it and can make it work with the limitations of the salary cap. In addition, Eric Staal will need to waive to his no-trade clause.
So more directly – It’s a bit complicated.
The list of destinations could grow, but here are the ones that I think make the most sense:
The Predators were very good in the regular season in 2014-15 but then stumbled in the playoffs. With the elite teams in the Western Conference and a team light on top-end offense, Eric Staal is a very good fit. The most interesting thing about Nashville is the $ situation. The Predators are not cap-constrained. The team could actually take on all of Eric Staal’s remaining salary and could even do it right now. Might Francis consider taking less in trade assets to save more $? If so, Nashville is easily the best possibility for this. The Predators could in theory take Eric Staal now and not need cap relief in the form of the Canes paying part of Staal’s salary.
New York Rangers
The Rangers will make the playoffs, but they are 1 of 7-8 teams for whom anything less than winning the Stanley Cup will mostly be a disappointment. The team is built to win now and like Nashville is strong in net and on the blue line, but could use more horses upfront. Eric Staal fits. The challenge here is that the Rangers are right up against the cap. Since the Rangers are tracking toward the playoffs without Staal, the team would be inclined to wait right up until the trade deadline to add him. In addition, the budget will be tight and possibly necessitate the Canes keeping some salary or taking a contract back.
The Canadiens are similar to the Rangers in that they should be able to push into the playoffs without any extra help. The help is needed FOR the playoffs, not TO GET INTO the playoffs. Montreal is also built from strength in net and on the blue line but could use help at forward. Finally, Montreal is another team that is pretty tight cap-wise but does have a bit more wiggle room than the Rangers. Again like the Rangers, this team’s 2015-16 will be defined by what it does in the playoffs.
Minnesota has had a couple decent regular seasons and made the playoffs, but thus far they have been unable to get over the hump in the playoffs and beat the elite in the Western Conference. The Wild are another team that would take some creative cap work to fit Staal, but just maybe enough room can be made right near the trade deadline with only about one-third of the season remaining.
As a fairly young and rising team that is just entering (or trying to enter) the Western Conference’s growing elite category, the Stars would not figure to be as desperate/aggressive in terms of spending to ‘win now’ in 2015-16. But GM Jim Nill architected this team largely from making savvy trades more in the name of making permanent additions to the team. But could he also have 1 ‘go for it’ short-term trade up his sleeve come trade deadline time?
Depending on how crazy the bidding war gets and who is on the fence of the playoff race, I could see a few other fringe teams enter the bidding if it is not too crazy. A few might be able to pay more in $ by making the Canes eat less in salary simply because they can make it work cap-wise. And teams who could potentially miss the playoffs own first-round picks that are of higher value because of the potential for small lottery odds.
If I had to take a wild guess, my bet is that Eric Staal is traded right at the trade deadline. I think he goes to the highest bidder among the teams who have had recent regular season success but need to now convert in the playoffs. The front runners in that group are the Canadiens, Rangers and Wild. If I had to pick 1, I would give the edge to Montreal simply because they have a tiny bit more cap space wiggle room and arguably a team that is good but not good enough without a bit more help.