Ever since they fell in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, the Carolina Hurricanes have more or less been stuck in neutral.
In that time they’ve injected some promising talent into their system, and their underlying metrics have improved, but the results haven’t changed much. Carolina has failed to make the playoffs in each of the past six years and is now on pace to finish with 63 points—well short of the expected postseason threshold.
How do the Canes buck this frustrating trend? Hard to say, but one thought has to be bouncing around GM Ron Francis’s mind: To assemble a championship-worthy roster, the status quo, which has lingered far too long, must be disrupted.
One way to do this would be to jettison Eric Staal.
Set to become an unrestricted free agent in July, Staal, 31, is nearing the end of the seven-year, $57.75 million contract he signed in 2008. That average annual value is a whopping $8.25 million—or, in other terms, superstar money
But the Thunder Bay, Ont., native hasn’t performed like a superstar for most of his NHL tenure. The second pick in the 2003 NHL draft, he hasn’t reached 30 goals since 2010-11; he’s amassed 80 points only twice, last doing so in 2007-08. Staal did rack up 53 during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, but that’s a small sample size. Staal is being paid roughly as much as Rick Nash, Sidney Crosby, Corey Perry and Claude Giroux, so, based on income, All-Star-worthy stats should be the norm, not the exception.
Those disappointing returns have put his team in a difficult spot. Carolina has not been able to lean on Staal for elite production, and no one else has been able to provide it. The Hurricanes’ abysmal scoring rates reflect this problem. A low even-strength PDO suggests that they’ve suffered from rotten luck, and bad bounces are certainly part of the equation, but adequate firepower simply isn’t at hand.
Fixing this dearth is tough because, as the front office knows, Raleigh isn’t a particularly attractive free agent destination. The weather’s nice, the barbecue’s great, the media/fan pressure’s low, but reeling in outsiders is hard when your product struggles to stay relevant. Having a relatively low amount of cash to toss around doesn’t help, either.
Due to their reputation and modest, self-imposed salary cap (the Hurricanes are currently $8.065 million under the league ceiling), gaining the pieces that Carolina needs will require shrewd trades and intelligent drafting. Despite his shortcomings, Staal can give management a shot at the former—that is, if he waives his no-movement clause.
Based on his comments in October, such a decision hasn’t been ruled out.
“I have stated I’d like to stay and be a part of getting better and getting back to the playoffs with this group,” Staal told Yahoo, “but (the) reality is that stuff will play out as it goes.”
A report from ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun said Francis and Staal plan on meeting soon to discuss their next step. Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet heard that the two sides aren’t close. A trade feels realistic here, and if they ultimately decide to go that route, there will be no shortage of interest in the longtime Hurricane. There are quite a few playoff-caliber teams who are thin up the middle—Nashville, for instance—and would love to bulk up for the stretch run.
As the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings and mountains of data have shown, a pool of good centers is essential to winning four best-of-seven series in today’s NHL. Staal wouldn’t be a No. 1 option for a club that’s prepared to go all-in, but as someone who can notch 50-60 points per season, he could fit nicely between a pair of skilled wingers. He can be shifted to the wing, too, where he’s played occasionally with Carolina.
And although Staal may not be worth his current paystub, he remains a legitimate top-six center. Those seldom hit the market during February and March. At present he’s tied for the team lead in scoring with 12 points (four goals, eight assists), so rival GMs should be confident in his abilities—especially if they subscribe to modern analytics.
From Staal’s perspective, the thought of departing Carolina might be enticing for a couple of reasons. He’d have a lot of leverage in trade talks because, thanks to his NMC, he can choose who he’d be willing to join. That power would allow him to whittle his list of potential suitors down to those in contention. Moreover, regardless of how 2015-16 ends, he’d be able to hit the open market next summer.
Staal is extremely loyal—an uncommon trait in today’s hockey landscape—but the thought of going elsewhere, to a place where he can skate beyond the 82nd game, has to be tempting on some level.
From the Canes’ point of view, dealing their captain wouldn’t rocket them up the league totem pole, but it would presumably fetch assets who are capable of chipping in down the road. That is, of course, what Carolina is focused on: the future.
The crux of the matter is, while losing Staal would hurt in the interim, it would help Carolina retool the way a low-budget organization should: by acquiring and developing young players. The Hurricanes have quietly collected a group of impressive kids—including Justin Faulk, Haydn Fleury and Noah Hanifin, three bright defensemen under 24—and if they sprinkle a few more up-and-comers into the mix, they’d have a strong, cost-efficient base on which to build.
Staal will be in his mid-30s when the next wave can take over. By then his stats will have likely dropped, perhaps even nose-dived. His value will have undoubtedly diminished. If Francis wants to be in the absolute best position to succeed long-term, he’d be wise to move (or at least try to move) his coveted, albeit aging, leader.