With the Carolina Hurricanes season over with the close of the regular season and now Eric Staal’s season over nearly as quickly with the abrupt 5-game series loss ouster of the New York Rangers by the Pittsburgh Penguins, both parties have now officially entered the offseason and the process of figuring out what they do for the 2016-17 season.
From a Hurricanes future standpoint, I think there are 2 angles to the Eric Staal situation. First is the basic rational assessment of statistics, team needs, salary cost, etc. Second is the Ron Francis’ decision on what could be a new era of Hurricanes hockey.
Eric Staal with the Rangers
Ironically, Eric Staal’s departure and time with the Rangers probably increased the probability or at least the possibility that he could return to Raleigh. Puck Daddy (Greg Wyshynski) wrote a reasonable summary of Staal’s stint on Broadway and included some quotes from Staal that offer context and clues for what is next for Eric Staal. The summary version performance-wise is that at least at a headline statistic level, Eric Staal fell flat after leaving Raleigh. He had only 3 goals and 3 assists in 20 regular season games in New York (25-point pace over 82 games) and had nothing in terms of goals and assists to show for 5 games in the playoffs, was an eye-popping minus 7 and was not on the ice for a single Rangers goal for in the series. In the Puck Daddy article Staal alludes to his limited role which played a part in his production, but there is no way to spin what he did in 2 months in a Ranger’s jersey as positive with regard to his next contract.
Had he closed out the season with the Hurricanes, his modest 40-point scoring pace would have made it more reasonable for teams desperate for a top 6 center to judge that he was limited only by his line mates and dragged down by a team with scoring challenges much bigger than him. It would have been easier to project more from him in their lineup. His third line role with the Rangers does offer some insulation, but at least some doubt has been cast on the “he just needs a change of scenery” story for the next 3-4 years of his career. And ironically, had Eric Staal not already had a turn with the Rangers and had the blue shirts still encountered the same playoff fate without him, just maybe he would be part of a shake up being pulled inward instead of being very likely 1 of the players headed out this summer.
Shorter version: Sure Eric Staal’s third line role is to be considered, but the possibility that he just is not a big point producer in the NHL anymore added fuel in the past 2 months.
Meanwhile in Raleigh
With the departure of Kris Versteeg and Eric Staal and the reuniting of Skinner/Rask/Lindholm down the stretch, one could make a case that the Canes are minus an entire first line right now. In fact, that is how I temporarily slotted the team’s current forward personnel in my recent post looking forward to the 2016-17 season. My math counts 8 (nearly) sure thing forwards in Jordan Staal, Joakim Nordstrom, Andrej Nestrasil, Victor Rask, Jeff Skinner, Elias Lindholm, Jay McClement and Phil Di Giuseppe. My suggestion to re-sign Riley Nash (and pass on re-signing the other free agent forwards) would still push the Canes count to 9 NHL forwards. That still leaves the Canes needing 3-4 more forwards to fill out the roster. More significant than the volume is the fact that at least a couple, if not all 3, of the additions really need to be top 6, scoring-capable types if the Canes are to boost their offense which ranked 27th out of 30 in terms of goal scoring for the 2015-16 season.
Price (see below) and sincere desire to return are obviously issues, but coming off a playoff miss that makes it challenging to attract top end talent and a sparse market for qualified free agent help, Eric Staal could fit part of the bill for what the Canes need to add this summer even if he is not a pure top-end first line center at this stage of his career.
My 2 cents on where the other 25-30 points went
Based on his 40ish-point scoring pace with the Hurricanes and even less with the Rangers, the obvious question is whether the 31-year old 2016-17 version of Eric Staal even meets the basic requirements of being “scoring-capable.” I think that is a fair question based on his third-linish scoring totals that have now stretched across 2 seasons and at least partially across 2 teams.
To attribute a scoring drop from his traditional 70ish-point total to the 40s the past 2 years to 1 factor is probably oversimplifying things, but from watching more or less every Hurricanes game from his entire career, I feel okay in offering an opinion on what has changed.
The most noticeable difference in Eric Staal’s game for me in the past couple years as compared to years past is his ability to score on the rush. In his early years (think Stillman/EStaal/Cole from 2005-06) a significant portion of Staal’s offense came from receiving the puck at or near the offensive blue line with a head of steam. From there, even a defenseman in good position was in big trouble. Eric Staal had the raw speed to often just blow by them on the way to the net or to use the threat of that possibility to get the defenseman to overreact to defend the rush which opened up a shooting lane for Staal’s deadly ability to rip a shot from any distance and flat beat a goalie. Over the past couple years, that part of Eric Staal’s game has disappeared. I have spent all of the past 2 seasons wrestling with whether he just physically does not have that gear anymore or if it is more a function of just not having the right combination of line mates and puck-moving defensemen to receive the puck in that situation often enough. My non-statistical estimation is that while Eric Staal has not received the puck as much in that situation that he very clearly also just is not nearly as dangerous in that spot when it happens either. I would love to see a stat for what percent of the time Eric Staal pulled up to assess the situation/look for a pass inside the blue line versus storming onward toward the net both recently and earlier in his year when his scoring totals were higher. My estimation is that the biggest single factor in Eric Staal’s decrease in scoring proficiency in recent years is the decrease in ability to skate into the rush when a line mate has the puck and score on the rush when he has the puck.
So is Eric Staal just not capable of playing in the top 6 in the NHL anymore?
One could take my opinion that Eric Staal’s game has changed and lost a key component with age and then project that it is not coming back making him a 40-50-point NHLer in a role similar to what he had with the Canes in 2015-16. And from there it is not too big of a leap to simply say that he is not capable of being a top 6 forward anymore. I do not think this is an outlandish or indefensible position, but I do not completely agree.
I think there is a key difference between being a “driver” of a top 6 scoring line versus being capable complementary player on a top 6 scoring line. Joe Thornton has always been the type of playmaker who has been the catalyst for his line. Early on, he turned Glenn Murray and Sergei Samsonov into elite goal scorers for a period of time in Boston. He later vaulted Devin Setoguchi to a 31-goal season followed by 2 more seasons north of 20 goals before he left San Jose in his prime and never to reach 20 goals again. But in today’s salary cap NHL that features parity and the impossibility for a good team to keep all of the talent it develops (reference Blackhawks parting ways with Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg and Johnny Oduya despite each playing a role in winning the 2015 Stanley Cup) no team is able to populate its top 9 or even top 6 all with first-liners. There is a need to find some balance of chemistry and complementary players to go with a couple stars that drive the offense. So there is room for a complementary player or 2 or even 3 in the top 6 especially if the price is right.
What Eric Staal brings to a first or second line
And that, I think, is where Eric Staal fits at this stage of his career in today’s NHL. I actually think his puck possession ability, well-rounded game and enough offensive ability could fit on a top line. The key is that I think Eric Staal is now the complementary player, not the driver. So for him to play on a scoring line on the Carolina Hurricanes or any other team for that matter, he better be bookended by 1 if not 2 top end offensive wings who can convert the puck possession that he drives by being strong in the face-circle and behind the net into scoring. That is where he missed this season as a Carolina Hurricane. Eric Staal’s combined Corsi For was a solid 55.0% counting both his time with the Rangers and with the Hurricanes (from Puckalytics), but the scoring just never materialized. He registered just 12 goals and 20 assists at even strength in 83 games and his line primarily with Kris Versteeg and a combination of mostly Elias Lindholm and Phil Di Giuseppe never became a scoring line.
In short, I think he is at best a complementary top 6 player at this stage of his career, and in today’s salary cap world, the fair value on that role prices significantly differently than that of a bona fide top line center who will drive an offense.
Could that fit into the Hurricanes lineup for 2016-17 and beyond?
I think it could. Again, my math says that the Canes need to add multiple first line type scorers to the mix to boost the offense. Francis’ budget and the difficulty winning top-end talent in the open market after another playoff miss will make it challenging to land what the team truly needs via free agency especially given budget limitations. I expect Francis will use some of the draft assets and possibly a prospect or 2 to add a forward or 2 via trade, but I do not see him spending recklessly and deviating from his committed plan to restock the system for a more sustainable improvement. So in that scenario, at the right price, Eric Staal could fit as sort of a #3 first line forward. And with the modest production for the Rangers and so many teams limited by the salary cap, just maybe that price is now in range.
But then there is the much bigger thing to consider
Everything prior to this looks at Eric Staal from a concrete statistical, role, history and factual angle. The other big consideration for the Carolina Hurricanes is the non-quantifiable part – where, if anywhere, does he fit in the plan going forward for the Carolina Hurricanes. If you count the 2015-16 season, the Hurricanes were 0 for 7 in making the playoffs with Eric Staal as its captain. There are dozens if not hundreds of other factors, but it still is not a positive statistic in a league in which more than half of the teams make the playoffs each season.
Buried somewhere in the archives of my Carolina Hurricanes blogs on Hockeybuzz that can no longer be accessed, I wrote a long post basically saying that I trusted the Hurricanes brain trust to determine if Eric Staal was the right person to lead the team forward as the captain. The brain trust includes great and successful captains in Ron Francis and Rod Brind’Amour, long-time NHLers who wore letters in Glen Wesley, Corey Stillman and Ray Whitney and Coach Bill Peters who brings the Detroit Red Wings winning pedigree. All of these people have different experience and viewpoints with successful leaders and all spent time with Eric Staal. Basically, if that incredible committee believes that Eric Staal could lead the team forward, then I do not even consider questioning it.
Now that Eric Staal has left, perhaps the more interesting question is whether the leadership/’C’ consideration is as important. My gut tells me that it is. He was the captain for 7 years and only gone for 2 months. While I suppose it is possible that Eric Staal could return but not be named the captain, this seems messy especially since the Canes did not already hand off the ‘C’ while he was away, and it is unclear if he and the locker room could shift him to a different role.
Ron Francis is a class individual and has a personal relationship with Eric Staal but also has the best interest of the team in his heart. I will be shocked if at any point Francis chucks Eric Staal under the bus. If he is ready to move forward into a new era for the Hurricanes with new leadership, it will happen behind the quiet of the 2 sides just not coming to terms on a contract at the trade deadline and Eric Staal and his contract requests just not matching up with what the Canes had for needs and budget this summer.
So how do I think it ends?
On a numbers, $ and statistics level, I think Eric Staal could fit as a #3 first-liner for the right price $3-4 million especially given the fact that the Canes will be challenged to lure comparable players in a tight market.
But my hunch is that Francis has already made the decision to move on to a new era. To be clear, this is based on events but still intuition and NOT something that Francis has said outright. Per my comments above, I do not think he will ever say it that directly even if it is the case. The biggest data point for me is a key point coming out of Staal’s trade in late February. In talking about the decision to trade Eric Staal, Francis made comments about not being able to get comfortable with term. This suggests pretty strongly that the 2 sides never really even started negotiating the details of an extension. There are many possible explanations for this statement. It is possible that Eric Staal was asking for too much in terms of length of contract, but that seems unlikely. At 31 years old, I think the expected possible time frame on a next contract was fairly narrow and something that could have been worked out fairly easily if both sides wanted to do a deal. It is also plausible that Francis had decided that even if he wanted Eric Staal to return for 2016-17 that he first wanted to collect as many futures as possible via trade and then bring him back in the summer. We could still see that happen obviously. But another possible explanation is simply that Francis had decided to move on without Eric Staal and that the easiest and least painful way to do this was to manufacture an early sticking point in the negotiation process such that minimal effort and potentially ill will had to be invested into that process. This would also aid the next step of getting Eric Staal to waive his no-trade clause to be traded to a contender to play out the 2015-16 season.
Shorter version, my intuition says that Ron Francis made a conscious decision to move forward into a new era with new leadership and acted decisively on that plan on February 28, 2016 even though it will never be stated as that by him.
And with that, I probably put the ball on the tee for Eric Staal to be re-signed on July 1 making it clear that all along Francis hoped to have his cake (get small ransom in futures for Staal) and eat it too (keep Staal).
And if nothing else, we Canes fans get some potential drama to fill another long offseason.