The low risk Eric Staal trade has potentially high rewards

The Canadiens just may have profited from the Buffalo fire sale.

When examining the deal that sent Eric Staal to the Montreal Canadiens, there are two parts that we have to take into account: the price paid, and how his skills fit within the Canadiens roster. For now, let’s start with the role we expect Staal to take in Montreal, taking into account the potential uncertainty of both the schedule and the availability of Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

Taking a look at Staal’s numbers this season, they’re not bad at all. When you consider that he put up these numbers on arguably the worst team in hockey, they’re actually quite encouraging. At just over 430 minutes at five-on-five this season, he has clocked in at 51.87% in terms of shots at goal share, so he has treaded water rather well on a team that is drowning.

His goal shares paint a harrowing picture, however. Despite an expected goals-for of 49.85%, he has seen only 27.59% of five-on-five goals going to his team while on the ice. Treading water unfortunately couldn’t help this Buffalo roster, as even the most prime version of himself likely would have struggled to do so. But what can he do on a stronger  Canadiens roster?

The top three spots at centre are filled for the Habs once Kotkaniemi returns from the COVID exempt list, which could be right around the time Staal finishes his mandatory quarantine. As such, it would seem that he’d be tried out in Jake Evans’ spot on the fourth line, but we shouldn’t be surprised if Staal ended up higher on the depth chart. While he lost some of his capabilities with age, he remains a potential offensive threat in this league.

At this point in his career, four elements of Staal’s game still distinguish him from the average NHL player: his predictability, passing ability, protection skills, and net-front game.

The centreman knows who he is. He is comfortable in the way he plays and his teammates rapidly learn what to expect from him. It is not complicated. He attacks the same areas of the ice, skates the same routes, looks for the same plays, and finds pretty much the same solutions to most offensive problems. Those are: moving the puck rapidly to teammates in transition, protecting it along the walls, firing on net, and skating there for tips and rebounds.

There is a lot of value in simplicity when combined with the right complementary skill in the NHL. That simplicity or predictability allows the offensive play to flow; players know where to find each other and what play to make next. Those qualities explain why the Phillip Danault unit finds so much success despite not having any game-breaker. Staal brings that same element. He plays with less energy and defensive focus — although his defence remains a relatively strong point at this stage of his career — but he can become that same reliable offensive presence for another unit and bolster it with his unique set of tools.

You shouldn’t expect any dangles or bursts of speed from Staal — his stride rate isn’t what it once was — but he can still keep pace with the play, as his skating still has power through great mechanics. To reinforce his counter-attacks, he will still need a bit of speed and confidence on his wing, players who can take his short, one-touch, relay passes and win the offensive zone for him.

Once he gets there, the centreman can get to work, bypassing defences with his frame. He prepares every single one of his puck touches in the same ways: he scans for options, speeding up his next play, and creates a pocket of space to handle the incoming pass. Staal backs off against defenders, places his rear-end on their hands, frees his stick, and prevents them from accessing the puck. He can play a cycle game with that technique, but doesn’t like to extend offensive sequences unnecessarily; he looks for the fastest way inside the slot.

Away from the puck, Staal aims for the net. He slips in between the goalie and defenders and shoves them away to win inside positioning net-front. He keeps his large frame in front of the net-minder and his stick away from defenders, not committing it until there is a chance at a tip or rebound. His net-front presence, the way he anchors himself near the blue paint also attracts defensive attention and creates space for teammates on the periphery.

There aren’t just hard, close-quarter tools in Staal’s kit, however. Less frequently, he can also find space away from the net, get lost in coverage for dangerous shots, and also create a bit with passing deception — although you shouldn’t expect fakes on Corey Perry’s level.

Chemistry will be an important factor to consider for the coaching staff when inserting Staal in the lineup. Not unlike his veteran counterpart, he isn’t necessarily a play-driver at this stage, but more of a play connector. He needs teammates with whom to exchange the puck, ones that will offer the dynamic qualities that he lacks and/or complement his wall-game.

Montreal has a variety of players to try on his wings, and, in time, will probably be able to find the right combination. Which leaves only the second piece of the puzzle, the question of whether or not they paid a fair price.

What the Canadiens gave up for this rental project essentially amounts to some magic beans. Montreal traded their own 2021 third and fifth-round picks to the Sabres, a pittance to pay particularly when they still have two selections in both of those rounds. They have third-round picks from Chicago and Washington, plus fifth-rounders from Philadelphia and Ottawa. As such, they are likely picking in similar, if not better, positions in each of those rounds.

If there was ever a year to trade away selections for Montreal, it would be this one, given the massive unknowns surrounding prospects and the lack of in-person scouting due to the pandemic. Plus, as explained before in this article, the current draft class is shaping into a weaker one.

Buffalo is also retaining roughly half of Staal’s cap hit — avoiding any cap issues for Montreal — and since Staal is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, there’s no commitment involved beyond this year. If it doesn’t work out, there’s zero pressure to keep him around since they didn’t part ways with much to get him in the first place.

Overall, it’s an extremely low-cost move that shores up an important spot in the lineup for the stretch run. With a player of Staal’s caliber and experience anchoring the bottom six, the Canadiens are well-poised to round back into their early season form in the home stretch of the season.

The worst-case scenario is the Habs lost two mid-round picks in a weak draft with tons of uncertainty surrounding it. The best-case scenario will depend on what Staal looks like in this lineup, but finding out is worth the price.

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