Canadiens Get Much-Needed Center Depth With Staal Trade

On Friday afternoon, the Montreal Canadiens acquired veteran center Eric Staal from the Buffalo Sabres in return for third-round and fifth-round draft picks in 2021. The move came after Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin explained to reporters during his media availability Thursday morning that the team would not likely make any deals due to a cap crunch, saying “We have conversations daily but at the end of the day you always go back to the cap. Once you become a team up against the cap, it’s money in, money out.” He added, “I wouldn’t be expecting a lot.”

Related: Sabres Trade Eric Staal to the Canadiens for Picks

At this point, fans should begin to expect the opposite of what Bergevin declares publicly as once again his words contrast his actions. At the same time, it is not all that surprising that he kept his cards close. It was rumored the Carolina Hurricanes were also in discussions with the Sabres and maybe Bergevin wanted to lull would-be buyers into a false sense of security regarding time. It is hard to say for sure. Either way, he got his man.

In any case, and fortunately for the Canadiens, the Sabres agreed to retain half ($1.625 million) of Staal’s $3.25 million salary, making the cap hit much more favorable and the deal possible. Now only questions remain. Firstly, was the trade justifiable? Secondly and thirdly, where does Staal fit in and what does he provide moving forward this season?

Trade Is a Positive for the Canadiens

I see the trade as a positive for the Canadiens, meaning it is very easily justified. Staal’s contract includes a no-trade clause in which the Canadiens were listed as one of 10 destinations Staal would not want to go. However, Staal waived the clause and allowed Buffalo to make the deal. We can speculate all we want as to why the Canadiens were on this list in the first place but it seems pointless. Maybe he sees the team as a playoff contender or maybe he just wanted to remove himself from the horrid circumstances the Sabres are enduring. It is possible being united with Team Canada Olympic teammates Shea Weber, Corey Perry (2010) and Carey Price (2014) played a role in his decision.

In the end, only the fact matters: he chose to come to Montreal when he could have declined and waited for another team to make an offer, like the aforementioned Hurricanes. Staal’s decision tells me it is not a scenario where a player reluctantly agrees to move with little to no enthusiasm. This is a positive.

Eric Staal Buffalo Sabres
New Canadien Eric Staal as a member of the Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In terms of assets given up by the Canadiens, the third and fifth-round draft picks (2021) will likely not be missed. According to CapFriendly, the Canadiens still have two third-round draft picks in 2021 (Chicago and Washington) and two fifth-round picks in 2021 (Ottawa and Philadelphia). Overall, they possess 12 picks in the upcoming draft. With this in mind, the deal looks like a good use of organizational tools. The team has added more size, skill, and experience which should strengthen the team down the stretch this season.

Going back to the cap issue, the trade is still justifiable. As of now, with Paul Byron on the taxi squad, the Canadiens have approximately $4.8 million in cap space. The Canadiens are saving money with each passing day, highlighting how they should still be capable of making a potential impact deal prior to the deadline on April 12. However, it should be noted that another trade would likely mean a roster player would have to move to keep the team under the cap. There are many contenders for who could go. On this front, we will just have to wait and see.

Center Depth Security

The deal makes clear that the Canadiens harbor some mild reservations about the youth and inexperience of their current center group. This should not be misconstrued as doubt. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki, and Jake Evans have performed admirably on both sides of the puck this season. Still, though, each of them has had moments of inconsistency along with stretches of poor play. Staal, then, will be most likely deployed as a safety net.

Related: Eric Staal Is the Happiest Man in the World Right Now

His experience and poise should allow for him to reliably take some of the defensive matchup heat off of the young centers while giving Phillip Danault a break by taking key faceoffs. A role of this kind was very much needed for the Canadiens to allow for their younger centers to develop in a more insulated scenario. If Staal plays to his abilities it just may free Suzuki and Kotkaniemi from more difficult opposition matchups, allowing them to be given more room to create offensively.

Eric Staal Minnesota Wild
Former Minnesota Wild Eric Staal celebrates a goal with former teammate Jason Zucker. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

To that point about Staal’s abilities, he still boasts decent possession numbers, even in Buffalo where winning has not happened very often this season. His Corsi stands at 51.2 percent. His team has possession of the puck more often than not when he is on the ice. These possession numbers suggest his presence shouldn’t hurt the Canadiens on the defensive side of the puck. Instead, it should solidify and bolster the Canadiens middle, making the team a more dynamic threat come playoff time (if the Habs qualify).

Where Does Staal Fit?

As clear as it is that Staal will add depth to the Canadiens center position, it is less clear where he will lineup at even strength. Staal will still need to quarantine for seven days when he arrives in Canada Saturday. That lands us on Saturday, April 3 as the end of his quarantine. He may miss two, three, or maybe more games depending on how comfortable Dominique Ducharme is with playing Staal without some good practice time.

When he is ready, it seems reasonable that to start he will replace either Paul Byron or Jake Evans on the fourth line. Now that is an option as Evans would not need to clear waivers to be returned to the taxi squad or to the Laval Rocket.

However, Evans has played fairly well and the team in Laval has been solid too. It may actually make some sense to juggle Staal between the center and wing positions in the interim until the trade deadline. This would offer Ducharme more flexibility with his lineup. Either way, Staal entering the lineup as a winger could mean that Byron would remain on the taxi squad a little longer. Alternatively, Evans does come out of the lineup, and Staal centers a line with Byron and Perry. Staal is good enough that he could move up and down the lineup on a game-by-game basis. If more moves occur before the deadline, it may clarify where Staal will fit. Until then, it is all speculative.

Besides even-strength play, Staal could be a useful asset on the power play, giving the team more options. As shown in the video above, he still possesses a powerful shot capable of beating goalies clean. If he can find a niche role on the power play, much like Perry, he should manage to stay in the lineup full time.

I always remember Staal as a player who seemed to beat up the Habs game in and game out. Adding his experience, skill, and leadership should make the team more formidable moving forward and maybe he can help lay the beatings on someone else for a change.

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