Let’s rewind to the 2005-06 season and reminisce, where the Carolina Hurricanes conquered a Buffalo Sabres team on the cusp of reaching hockey’s pinnacle stage in a dramatic Eastern Conference Final series that went the distance. The Sabres and their fans were left wretchedly pondering what could have been as the Canes ultimately went on to stamp their names in the record books as Stanley Cup champions.
A 21-year-old Eric Staal was instrumental in taming the auspicious Sabres helmed by perennial All-Star goaltender Ryan Miller, providing the experienced team some youthful vigor.
Today, the eldest Staal brother aspires to bring the team he bested 15 years ago some peace of mind.
Over the span of his illustrious 16 years in the NHL, the Thunder Bay, ON native has accomplished splendor in the sport that only a handful of hockey’s greats can emulate. In wishing Staal a marvelous 36th birthday, here’s a look at his loaded profile and what he can still bring to the table for the Sabres in 2020.
A Hall of Fame Personality
Athletes’ primes vary by sport, but it’s safe to say the former Hurricanes’ captain is past his athletic peak at 36 years old. Nevertheless, Staal’s circumstances are unique in that his selflessness, hockey IQ, and longevity will surely delay the typical decline that comes with father time.
In addition, Staal’s stance in the league as an ambassador to the sport and leader to his teammates for over a decade will speak volumes in his future case towards being immortalized in the prestigious Hockey Hall of Fame (though he’s the first to admit that outlook hasn’t even entered his mind with plenty of hockey left in store).
One needs to only look at the copious amount of comments made by his teammates over the years to understand Staal’s influence on a hockey club. When the former second-overall pick in the 2003 NHL Draft hit the 1000-point plateau in December 2019, Staal’s Minnesota Wild teammate at the time and fellow 2003 draft pick Ryan Suter was adamant in proclaiming the centerman’s merit of the feat.
The Wild defenseman told Michael Russo in his 2019 article for The Athletic, “It couldn’t have happened to a better person. He is a class act on and off the ice, a great parent and a great teammate.” (from ‘Matt Dumba’s slump worsens, Eric Staal gets 1,000th point as Wild fall in Chicago’, The Athletic – 12/15/19). There’s no reason to believe the six-time All-Star Game participant will change his philosophy with the Sabres.
Team Success Speaks for Itself
The 2005-06 season was Staal’s most fruitful year in which when he made the second All-Star team and respectably placed fourth in Hart Trophy discussions (the cherry on top was being crowned a Stanley Cup champion, capping off an incredibly underrated season for an NHL newcomer). Since then, the accolades have been few and far between in relation to his revelry as a sophomore.
However, hockey is a team game and Staal has exemplified that notion in every game he’s played. His ability to do a little bit of everything has resulted in the Ontario native being a member of the exclusive Triple Gold Club, having won the Stanley Cup in 2006, and earning gold in both the 2007 World Championships and the 2010 Winter Olympics with Team Canada.
Perhaps the most astounding value he provides to his teams is his availability and longevity that simply cannot be overstated in a sport that constantly pushes the limitations of human physical constraints. Since entering the league in the 2003-04 season, Staal has missed a total of 23 games. Anyone who has played even a semblance of competitive hockey knows how remarkable that is, so I’ll leave it at that.
Among active players, Staal ranks highly in most major statistical categories. Most notably, the veteran is fifth in games played (1240), fifth in goals (436), seventh in points (1021), third in shots (3853), and sixth in goals created (393.7). Coming off a year in which he produced 19 goals and 47 points over 66 games, it’s safe to say Staal will continue his ascent of the historical ladder for years to come.
A Win-Win for the Sabres
Buffalo desperately needed a center to back up Jack Eichel that could simultaneously groom the team’s young hopeful centers in Dylan Cozens and Casey Mittelstadt. Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams did a fantastic job in meeting these objectives by obtaining Staal, and was able to shed some salary in the process.
The former Wild center checks out both requisites for the Sabres, providing reliable playoff intuition while being on the last year of his deal worth $3.25 million. The team’s roster flexibility means they can have Staal centering the second line for this upcoming season, buying more time for Cozens and Mittelstadt to grow into their destined roles.
If the up-and-comers outperform expectations and develop quicker than anticipated, nullifying the need for a center like Staal, the nature of his current deal enables the Sabres to move on without harm. If the prospects attach themselves to the veteran and the team finds long-term value in Staal’s mentorship, management can potentially extend the contract assuming Staal embraces the role.
Above all else, the acquisition presents the team with new avenues to explore in handling the franchise’s keys to the future while also adding digits in the win column.
A Promising New Chapter
Adding experience to a young team hoping to make a playoff splash will cast the grizzled vet in an unfamiliar role. However, he will be able to bring his intangibles to the forefront and offer distinct knowledge that will undoubtedly benefit the Sabres youthful core. In addition, he will be put in a less stressful situation where he no longer needs to be a primary foundational block for a franchise.
Staal has expressed interest in the idea of shepherding an upcoming team despite the initial shock of being traded. The Sabres can rest assured that no matter what the stat sheet displays next season, the veteran with championship pedigree will be available for his teammates and be driven to compete.