Buffalo Sabres fans had a lot to say after Kevyn Adams executed his first trade as general manager last Wednesday, sending Marcus Johansson to the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Eric Staal. Staal is a potential Hall-of-Famer and is expected to have a very positive impact, both on the ice and in the locker room, as a second-line centre with the Sabres. The deal was the first trade the team had made since acquiring Dominik Kahun from the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 24, 2020.
A Natural Leader
“When I think of Eric Staal, I think he’s just one of those players who can really bring up the people around him,” said David Norden, a long-time hockey fan and recent transplant to Western New York. “He’s an overall team player.”
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Staal is joining the Sabres as a 35-year-old with 1,021 points (436 goals, 585 assists) in 1,240 games played. He is also a Stanley Cup champion, leading the Carolina Hurricanes to their first and only Cup in franchise history in 2006, and captained the team from 2010 until his trade to the New York Rangers in 2016. His leadership skills were also on display throughout his time in Minnesota, serving as an alternate captain in three of his four seasons with the team.
“Eric Staal is the type of person who can sell jerseys. He can get people out to games more,” said Norden. “He’s a marketer’s dream.”
Staal will be of great assistance in helping upcoming Sabres prospects find their game and make the transition to the NHL much smoother for them. He will also be able to provide superstar Sabres captain Jack Eichel with valuable knowledge and first-hand leadership skills he has picked up throughout his nearly two decades of NHL hockey.
“Eric [Staal] will bring leadership and credibility to the team,” said Marc Hurwitz, a diehard Sabres fan who was honoured by the team at the Tickets for Troops event for his service to his country. “Jack [Eichel] is young and never really had someone of his calibre to learn from. Now he does.”
Staal is going into his 17th season in the NHL and currently ranks seventh in regular-season games played, sixth in goals, and eighth in points among all active players. A member of the Triple Gold Club (2006 Stanley Cup champion, 2007 IIHF World Championship gold medalist, and 2010 Winter Olympics gold medalist), Staal has established himself as one of the most popular names in the game.
With a wealth of experience, Staal will certainly help in the development of a young Sabres roster with plenty of prospects on the way, including highly-touted Dylan Cozens who is likely to make his debut in blue and gold next season. Cozens is a centreman himself, too, which is certainly not a coincidence.
“All that experience is definitely going to be helpful, especially since we have Dylan Cozens coming up through the system,” said Nate Sciara, a Buffalo-native member of the Sabres faithful. “So, hopefully Eric Staal’s experience translates not only on the ice, but also in the development of Cozens.”
With Staal now filling the second-line centre role, Cozens’ expected transition to the NHL next season will be much easier. In an interview with TSN, Cozens said that he looks up to Staal as a role model and looks forward to having a player of his calibre “show [him] what it takes to play in the NHL.” Cozens will now be able to fill a third- or fourth-line centre role under less pressure while he tries to establish himself on the Sabres’ roster.
A Step in the Right Direction
Adams’ first trade as general manager was a bold one with low risk and high potential for reward. It seems likely this deal will turn out very beneficial for the Sabres. However, he still has a lot more work to do to get the team in a position to contend for a Stanley Cup, let alone the playoffs. The Sabres have not made the playoffs in nine straight seasons. If the team does not qualify next season, they will tie the all-time record (10) for the longest postseason drought in NHL history.
“This was just one trade,” said Sciara. “If I’m going to try to form a bit more of an opinion on Adams, I might need to see a couple more moves out of him. So, hopefully free agency and the draft will allow me to get a better perspective.”
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Adams will be responsible for acquiring the players and prospects Buffalo needs for long-term success, but the coaching staff headed by Ralph Krueger will also need be held accountable for properly utilizing and developing their assets. Krueger will be entering his second season behind the Sabres’ bench following a 30-31-8 season (68 points) in 2019-20, missing this year’s extended playoff format by a 0.007 PTS% margin.
“I don’t think it’s fair to judge a GM on a single move, good or bad,” said Hurwitz. “It’s up to Ralph [Krueger] to get that team to use his system.”
The Sabres have a long way to go before they will be equipped enough to bring home the franchise’s first Stanley Cup, but the acquisition of Staal is a great start. Sabres fans have very high expectations, and Adams proves he is ready to live up to them with this move.
Tom Pepper is an NHL columnist at The Hockey Writers. He lives in Toronto and is a diehard fan of the St. Louis Blues.