Sunday, May 15, 2016

As Stamkos grabs all the free agent attention, Buffalo shouldn't overlook Eric Staal

Reprinted with permission from

When the opportunity arises to go after a prime unrestricted free agent who happens to be one of the premier players in the NHL, you go for it. If a team has the resources to pursue him, it would be a crime against the team and the fanbase if said organization doesn’t give its all in pursuit of said player.
Steven Stamkos is a premier player in the league. Period. The stats back it up. After his 23-goal rookie season, he’s never scored under 36 goals in a full season, and had 43, 45, 51 and 60-goal seasons. He’s just shy of averaging a point per game throughout his 572-game career and has contributed 15 goals and 20 assists in 48 playoff games. At 26 yrs. old Stamkos is smack-dab in the prime of his career and about the only thing missing from his stellar resume’ is a Stanley Cup ring.
The Buffalo Sabres are said to be in hot pursuit of Stamkos and if rumors are true, have been for quite some time. Buffalo GM Tim Murray has been acquiring young-vets like Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian to anchor his rebuild and Stamkos would fit perfectly with what Murray's been doing.
That said, only Stamkos knows where he's leaning but regardless, he'll be signing a mega-contract with an eight-figure salary on a maximum term that will take him just beyond his prime and into his early-mid 30's.
With the focus on Stamkos it's easy to forget that there's another forward set to hit free agency who might be worth pursuing as well. Although he's not as shiny as Stamkos and is a little longer in the tooth, 31 yr. old Eric Staal, a veteran of over 900 NHL games and with a Stanley Cup ring to his resume' will probably also be available July 1 and might be worth a look from the Sabres.

Staal was a second-overall pick from the vaunted 2003 draft-class, one that's considered quite possibly the best ever. He scored a career-low 31 points in his 2003-04 rookie season then came out of the post-lockout NHL to hit the 100 point mark and lead the Carolina Hurricanes to their first and only Stanley Cup in 2005-06. From then until 2011-12 Staal never had a season with less than 70 points. He had four 30-goal seasons and one 40-goal season as well.
Even though there's been a decline in Staal's game from a production standpoint, he did manage to bust out 23 goals and 54 points in his final full season as a top-six center with the 'Canes in 2014-15.
Last season he had his worst production since his rookie season scoring only 13 goals and 26 assists in 83 games for Carolina and the NY Rangers. After never scoring less than 53 points in the prior decade it would seem as if impending free agency, the swirling trade talk throughout the season and the move from his home to NY contributed heavily to the drop in his numbers.
Puck Daddy's Greg Wyshinski delved into Staal's difficulties with the Rangers shortly after they were knocked out of the playoffs. Wrote Wyshinski, "He was invisible on Broadway, like a show that opens and closes in the same week. Staal wouldn’t use the change in scenery as an excuse, nor would he point to the uncertainty in his pending unrestricted free agency as a distraction. But his role on the Rangers wasn’t what he was hoping for."
“I came in here to fit, try and find a role that would be effective," said Staal in the Wyshinski piece. "Obviously you always want more as a player. It would have been nice to see what I could have done with different chances, but there were guys in certain spots playing well."
Staal didn't have good playoff either for the Rangers as he went pointless in five games as a third-line winger averaging 16:48 of ice-time. He was also a minus-7 in their five-game series loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Was last season and the playoffs an aberration as mitigating circumstances lead to a down year? Or was that the first year of a soon-to-be rapid decline in skills?
Based upon his history, one that includes steady production and impeccable durability, it would seem as if it was more of an aberration than a rapidly declining skill-set and the Sabres should be entertaining the idea of welcoming Staal to their up-and-coming team.
It's an opportunity to bring in a high-character, 31 yr. old Stanley Cup winner in a role that befits his experience and present skill-level. The Sabres already have young-vets like O'Reilly and Kane up front as well as phenom Jack Eichel who are ready, willing and able to do the heavy lifting as well as a support group of secondary scorers like Sam Reinhart and, hopefully, Tyler Ennis.
There's no need for him to be the man and at this point of his career he shouldn't be expected to carry that weight. He's already been there, and lead the 'Canes to a Cup in the process so now it's more about fitting into his role that he's comfortable with and making a run at another Stanley Cup.
Wyshinski wrote that Staal "know's what he' looking for" as he hits free agency this summer. The money will be there, although it won't be close to the $8.25M per he got on his last contract, and there should be decent term, but he more than likely won't be getting a seven-year contract either. Staal's simply looking for a home and a situation where he will fit in.
“I’ve played in the league long enough. You want to be comfortably where you are, but I want to be in a role where I’m counted on. [But] I don’t need to be ‘the’ guy,” he said.

With O'Reilly and Eichel anchoring the top-two center slots, would Staal be comfortable in a No. 2 left wing role or as a No. 3 center? Or would he feel he was in pretty much the same situation as he found himself in NY?

Or perhaps a situation that would take him away from the bright lights of Broadway and into a situation where he'd be counted on as more of a mentor, leader and role-model passing on a winning tradition as he enters the sunset of his career.

In a piece written by Staal, he talks about the great leaders that were in the Carolina dressing room his rookie season. Ron Francis, Rod Brind'Amour and Brett Hedican "were the guys who taught me what would become my routine," he wrote in the piece. "How you’re brought up in this league has such a big impact on your success. Those guys held me to a standard that made me better."

As time went on, things changed as he found himself in the role of his predecessors. "One day I blinked, and suddenly I was the veteran in the locker room," he wrote. "I was the person sitting with the kids who had just been drafted, showing them the things that Ron, Rod and all the other guys had taught me.

"Time passes by in an instant, and suddenly you’re an established NHL player watching a young kid making the same mistake you did when you were his age. So you tell him the same thing that was told to you, and the cycle continues. That transition is kind of weird because you don’t really see it happening. But what you learn is that these lessons passed down by older players aren’t given, they’re loaned."

Wouldn't mind seeing him in Buffalo "loaning" those winning traditions to the Sabres youngins.




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