Canadiens Could Really Use Eric Staal for Some Centre Depth

Buffalo Sabres centreman Eric Staal is a veteran with a winning reputation. This year’s trade deadline will bring several teams to call upon general manager Kevyn Adams and inquire about his availability.

At 36 years old, he may only have a few shots left, and as an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, Staal might choose to play somewhere else in the summer. That means his former teammate-turned-GM might decide to deal with him now and get something in return to help his team down the road: a pick, or a prospect at the least. 

With the Sabres reeling in the MassMutual East and teams across the league eager to move early due to COVID-19 quarantine requirements, the next few weeks will surely be busy for the rookie GM. But if Adams wants to trade Staal, there are some obstacles. 

Obstacles to a Staal Trade

Staal has a modified no-trade clause in his contract that comes with a 10-team no-trade list populated mostly with playoff teams. That is how he ended up with the Sabres despite his reported wishes to stay put in Minnesota. We don’t know who is on that list or if teams not on it will be interested in his services. 

Second, his value is depreciating. Everyone wonders just how capable he is of still pulling productive seasons against younger and younger opponents. 

Writes Jon Vogl: 

Like (Taylor) Hall, he should be willing to go anywhere. (He) hasn’t won a playoff series since 2009. His Stanley Cup win came in 2006. Staal has a very limited number of chances left. Why would he want to waste one in Buffalo?

It looks like he’s already checked out. Sunday’s loss to the Islanders wrapped up a 14-game stretch of no goals, three assists and a minus-12 even-strength goal differential.

‘Buffalo Sabres trade tiers: From Jack Eichel to the UFAs, Eric Staal and more’ Jon Vogl, The Athletic, 03/07/2021

In a recent report, Jean-Charles Lajoie of TVA Sports reports that the Montreal Canadiens might pursue Staal to shore up their position down the middle as they head towards the playoffs.

Staal’s Role with the Sabres 

Staal’s trade to the Sabres last September played a role in Taylor Hall signing with the Sabres this off-season. 

“Whether I’m playing with Jack or Eric, that was my thought coming into this year – there are two really good centremen to play with here, and that can create matchup problems for other teams, hopefully,” Hall said after a practice at the end of January.

Eric Staal Buffalo Sabres
Eric Staal, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Specifically, on Staal, Hall said that he has “still got it” and always seems to know exactly where to be and where to put pucks for his linemates. Although getting on in years, he’s a proven champion and a leader in the locker room.

But, Staal has struggled to deliver on this reputation in a Blue and Gold sweater.

Vogl again:

It looks like he’s already checked out. Sunday’s loss to the Islanders wrapped up a 14-game stretch of no goals, three assists and a minus-12 even-strength goal differential.

The Athletic

The fact remains that what Staal brings is what most contending teams are looking to add in the lead-up to a Cup run. It’s what the Sabres were expecting him to bring, but alas, this season has not turned out the way anyone named Staal or Adams had hoped. 

Where Staal Would Fit into the Habs Roster Well

The burning question for Canadiens’ GM Marc Bergevin is whether or not he can bet on Phillip Danault, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki and Jake Evans down the stretch.

It would appear not because Lajoie of TVA sports has reported that Bergevin is attempting to acquire a centreman at the deadline. The man he would like to see the Habs pursue is Staal. 

Marc Bergevin
Will Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin try and make a deal for Eric Staal? (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

In an editorial during his daily program JiC in late February, Lajoie explored several different center ice options that Bergevin may have expressed interest in acquiring. But he really dialed it in on Staal as his focal point. 

“He scored 42 goals just three years ago in Minnesota,” said Lajoie. “He wastes the last years of his career with a club that is not going anywhere except into the wall. Olympic champion in 2010, Stanley Cup champion in 2006. He has always excelled against the Canadiens like his former teammate Erik Cole and, most recently, Josh Anderson.”

Over his career, Staal has 45 points in 50 games against the Canadiens, which is oddly a decent predictor in recent years for how successful a player will be when playing for the team. 

If Bergevin really has questions about his team’s needs at centre ice, Staal could be the answer. Having him slot into the lineup might buy players like Suzuki and Kotkaneimi some time to learn the hard lessons and grow their game. 

Staal might find his role a bit easier by not having to do the locker room leadership game on his own in Montreal. Along with Corey Perry, Shea Weber and Carey Price, he will calm emotions in the locker room when temperatures run high. That could also do wonders for the Habs postseason push.

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