In the end, most New York Rangers fans knew it was inevitable. The Rangers are big-game hunters, having picked up Keith Yandle and Martin St. Louis in the last two trade deadlines.
So despite my sound advice for them to not acquire an aging and declining Eric Staal, they did it anyway, because this is the type of move they make. With Henrik Lundqvist also getting older and their window possibly coming to a close, the Rangers are going for the Stanley Cup once again.
What the Rangers yielded to Carolina for Staal was significant, though certainly not nearly as bad as it could have been. In the trade, the Hurricanes received two second-round draft picks (one this year and one next year) and 19-year-old Finnish prospect Aleksi Saarela.
Saarela is the piece of the trade that stings the most for the Rangers. Having just selected him in the third round of the previous NHL draft, they are already parting with him. With an excellent performance for Finland in the World Juniors, he was beginning to show the Rangers (and the rest of the league) that he was possibly another third-round steal by New York, just like Anthony Duclair (who was dealt last year) and Pavel Buchnevich (more on him later).
Saarela picked up four goals and three assists in seven games in that tournament, helping Finland capture the gold medal. Several strong attributes were evident in his play, making him a very attractive piece for a Carolina team looking to rebuild.
For @NHLCanes Aleksi Saarela is a very good prospect. High IQ, makes plays. Quick & plays & executes at high pace. Versatile. Competes.
— Craig Button (@CraigJButton) February 28, 2016
The second-round draft picks also leave the Rangers with even fewer picks than before, as they seem to give up multiple picks every year. Still, Rangers fans should be thankful for the pieces they kept.
They did not give up another first-round pick, as they have done in recent seasons. They also did not part with their top prospects: the aforementioned Buchnevich — who could become a very strong scoring winger for the club very soon — and American defenseman Brady Skjei, who has already had a cup of coffee with the Rangers this season. Chris Kreider, whose play has picked up recently, also stays with New York.
The Rangers only have to take on 50% of Staal’s salary this year, as Carolina retained the other half in the trade. This gives the Rangers more flexibility if they want to make any other moves before the deadline.
— Pat Leonard (@PLeonardNYDN) February 28, 2016
The fact that Carolina retained salary and did not force the Rangers to give up more is certainly a win for New York. As for the here and now, Staal, despite his sub-par production this year (10 goals and 23 assists in 63 games), does make the Rangers a better, deeper team.
Once Rick Nash returns from injury, the Rangers could move some players down in the lineup to create a much better bottom six as well, with Oscar Lindberg, Viktor Stalberg, Kevin Hayes, Dominic Moore, Jesper Fast, and one of J.T. Miller or Chris Kreider comprising that group. This could also mean the end of Tanner Glass being a regular in the lineup, which definitely makes the Rangers stronger.
Since the Rangers actually have some depth at center with Derick Brassard, Derek Stepan, and Hayes, Staal — a natural center — will likely have to slot in at a wing position, which he has done before. A top six of Brassard, Zuccarello, Nash, Staal, Stepan, and Kreider/Miller could be extremely potent. The hope is that Staal playing for a contending team, with a better supporting cast of players, will help him increase his production down the stretch and in the playoffs. His underlying possession numbers are outstanding, so that is a good sign for the Rangers.
In the end, Staal would have been a more significant addition a few years ago, and if he were not set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season with the Rangers having no way to keep him unless significant other moves are made.
That said, the Blueshirts did not grossly overpay for Staal, and while they still have other issues that may or may not be addressed, he should help the club for the rest of this season.