Eric Staal arrived in the summer of 2003 a skinny-chested teen of unlimited potential. He exits a 31-year-old man, a captain and father, his tenure defined by unqualified success and unparallelled frustration. He was the leading scorer in the 2006 playoffs that ended with a Stanley Cup, and yet the Carolina Hurricanes never made a playoff appearance in the six seasons he served as captain.
That drought was likely to reach a franchise-record seven even before Staal was traded to the New York Rangers for second-round picks in 2016 and 2017 and 19-year-old Finnish prospect Aleksi Saarela, a relatively modest return for a player once considered the face of the Hurricanes’ franchise. But the deal is about the best that could be expected at the trade deadline for a player who had scored only 10 goals in the final season of a contract that made him one of the highest-paid players in the NHL.
Trading Staal before Monday’s deadline was the only option for general manager Ron Francis after the Hurricanes lost three of four games even before Sunday’s 5-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues, putting a serious dent in the Hurricanes’ slim chances of making the playoffs. Staal had already arrived at PNC Arena when he was asked to waive his no-trade clause, and the deal finally went through about an hour before puck drop.
“This group has played some really good hockey from December to this point, and they’re working hard and you never want to have to do this,” Francis said. “When you look at the big picture, when we couldn’t get comfortable on a contract, we couldn’t lose an asset like that for nothing. It was too important to the franchise moving forward.”
Staal leaves behind an oddly mixed legacy. In 2006 and the years immediately following, Staal played like one of the best centers in the NHL. After the Hurricanes made it to the conference finals in 2009, Staal’s production suffered as he played through countless injuries and, even when healthy, could never get back to playing at an elite level, never more than this season.
That made him a target of fan discontent over the team’s persistent shortcomings and what was occasionally perceived by some as a lack of effort on Staal’s part. Regardless, he exits as one of the most honored and accomplished players in franchise history, in a small group with Francis and Glen Wesley and Rod Brind’Amour, behind only Francis in the all-time franchise leaders, entirely alone when confined merely to the Carolina era. From the 2006 champions, honored only a few weeks ago, only Cam Ward remains.
Given all that, the return for Staal is almost certainly less than what Francis would have gotten had he decided to trade Staal in either of the past two summers, but the current equation was complicated by Staal’s contract and no-trade clause, the Rangers’ specific cap and draft-pick situation, the deadline market and the unavoidable reality of Staal’s performance this season.
Francis wasn’t done yet, sending Kris Versteeg to the Los Angeles Kings later Sunday night for 20-year-old Russian forward Valentin Zykov and a conditional, but later-round, pick. Versteeg wasn’t the only player to mysteriously disappear from the Canes bench during the second period Sunday. Riley Nash did as well and John-Michael Liles could also be on the move, although trading Ward became infinitely more difficult when the Hurricanes retained a portion of Staal’s salary – the Hurricanes are now retaining salary on the maximum of three contracts and would have to find a taker for all of Ward’s $6.3 million salary.
The Hurricanes now have six picks in the first three rounds of the next two drafts, but you can never have enough. Even if there are only so many prospects one NHL team can accommodate at a given time, stockpiled picks can always be traded.
In the modern NHL, there are two kinds of negotiable currency: salary-cap space and draft picks. Francis has plenty of the former and can get even more of the latter by Monday afternoon.
It all amounts to long-term investment in a new and uncertain future that, for the first time in more than a decade, no longer includes Eric Staal.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock