The Eric Staal Trade Helps the Sabres in More Ways Than One

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Landing Staal gives Buffalo the veteran center depth it desperately needs. There’s also an ejector seat built in if the Sabres’ season goes south in 2020-21.

Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

Kevyn Adams certainly had time to dream this one up.

The Buffalo Sabres named him their GM in mid-June. Three months later, the NHL’s 24-team bubble playoff tournament continues and, with Buffalo not participating, Adams has been gifted all that time to work on his plan to retool the team under the maybe-too-watchful eye of ownership.

So you’d have to hope Adams’ first major move as GM would be a good one, something to reflect all that prep time. Well, it appears he’s passed his first test. On Wednesday, TSN’s Darren Dreger reported the Sabres had acquired center Eric Staal from the Minnesota Wild for left winger Marcus Johansson. It was a one-for-one trade, with no salary retained in either direction, and it’s tough to see it as anything but a win for the Sabres, whether you think they can improve next season or not. 

Say we believe the Pegulas want this team to contend now, lest they run their number of wasted Jack Eichel seasons to six and their star center finally wants out after not sniffing a playoff spot since Buffalo drafted him second overall in 2015. The Staal trade checks out. No team in the league has been more desperate for a No. 2 center over the past two seasons, as trading Ryan O’Reilly set off a disastrous chain reaction that probably got GM Jason Botterill fired. Patrik Berglund, the veteran who arrived in that 2018 trade, left the team for personal reasons, and prospect Casey Mittelstadt wasn’t ready to ascend to the No. 2 job. Rather than risk rushing their new No. 1 prospect, Dylan Cozens, into the second-line center duty should he make the team next season, the Sabres get great veteran insulation with Staal.

Yes, Staal will be 36 by the time next season starts. And, yes, the 42-goal explosion in 2017-18 was an anomaly. But he’s still averaged 23 goals and 55 points per 82 games in two seasons since. Per naturalstattrick.com, among Wild players who logged 500 or more minutes at 5-on-5 over the past two seasons, Staal sat third in goals per 60, fourth in primary assists per 60 and fourth in points per 60, That’s prototypical second-line center production. His shot rate plunged to an all-time low this season, but he can still help his wingers as a playmaker even if he’ll never be a premium goal-scorer again. His most common linemates at 5-on-5 over the past two seasons in Minnesota were Jason Zucker and Mats Zuccarello, and he should have wingers at least that good, if not better. Should Victor Olofsson stick with Eichel as the Sabres’ first-line left winger, for instance, Staal could reunite with his old Carolina Hurricanes teammate Jeff Skinner for a respectable second-line duo. If Cozens makes the team, the Sabres suddenly can roll Eichel, Staal and Cozens to drive their top three lines. That’s reasonable depth. And since the Sabres have a whopping $34.46 million in cap space, they can add more pieces, even once you factor in extensions for RFAs Olofsson, Sam Reinhart, Brandon Montour and Linus Ullmark, among others.

Better yet, Staal carries a $3.25-million cap hit , meaning Adams saves $1.25 million by dealing the disappointing Johansson’s $4.5-million cap hit to the Wild. Staal is also a pending UFA, so if the Sabres can’t climb toward contender status, they can move him to a contender. He has a 10-team no-trade list but would surely be open to a trade at the deadline if it vaults him into a Stanley Cup hunt. Since Staal can be flipped for draft capital, he’s a no-risk acquisition who legitimately makes Buffalo better in the short term and will provide some badly needed leadership and mentorship as someone with a Stanley Cup ring and seven seasons of NHL captain experience under his belt.

As for Minnesota…hm. Head scratcher. Johansson was a good middle-six forward with the Washington Capitals, and he was a key member of the Boston Bruins’ 2019 playoff run, but he was merely fine in his one-year run with Buffalo. He actually led the team in primary assists per 60, but he struggled to generate shots. At this stage of his career, he’s a reliable third-line type who is best deployed at 5-on-5. He’s a perfectly useful NHLer, but Staal impacts the game more at both ends of the ice and on the power play.

So why would Wild GM Bill Guerin take a straight-up downgrade who also happens to be more expensive? It could have something to do with last week’s Nick Bjugstad trade. Moving Staal lets Bjugstad rise up the depth chart. The Wild, though, could also be planning additional moves. Knowing they need a top-end puck distributor to complement breakout star Kevin Fiala or Calder Trophy candidate Kirill Kaprizov, might the Wild be on the hunt for a big-fish center? They don’t have a slam-dunk first-liner at the position coming up in their prospect pipeline, so maybe they’ll try to acquire some immediate help. Guerin has some pieces to move to get what he needs. It’s no secret the Wild are dangling coveted right-shot defenseman Matt Dumba.

Still, we can’t grade the Wild on this trade based on what subsequent moves Guerin may or may not make. Right now, on paper, Adams gets the unanimous decision victory. Whether Buffalo improves or not as a team, Staal is a helpful piece.