Hurricanes face difficult decision to trade or keep Eric Staal

Jordan Staal scored the lone goal of the game and Eddie Lack shutout the Maple Leafs as the Hurricanes won 1-0 in overtime.

There was a time when a scoreless hockey game over 60 minutes was more than just a rarity.

It was news. It was a headline.

These days, well, any number of games in a given week threaten to go three-on-three overtime deadlocked at 0-0. It’s sure not news when it happens, a commentary on the gridlock of today’s NHL that we can only hope league general managers will choose to seriously address at their March meetings this year.

When the goal-less game occurs, you can still admire the grit and intensity and effort involved, and you can still enjoy the competition, but you don’t get much of a measure of the skill of either side, the ability to convert chances into actual goals.

On Thursday night at the Air Canada Centre, the Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs engaged in one of those games. Sixty minutes produced no goals despite a combined 64 shots on goal, 37 by the visitors from Raleigh. Two goalies, Eddie Lack and James Reimer, produced shutout performances over three periods, and neither had to be superb to do it.

The objective for this writer on the night, to try and ascertain where exactly Carolina centre Eric Staal is in his career these days, was thus frustrated. There was little room for anyone, so the fact Staal couldn’t score or be the dominant offensive force he once was was, well, it was hard to hold it against him.

Overtime, with all that extra room, offered possibilities, a chance to get a truer sense of the 31-year-old centre as he draws to the conclusion of a seven-year contract with the only NHL team for which he has ever played.

He went out for one shift with youngsters Elias Lindholm and Jaccob Slavin, lost the draw to Nazem Kadri of the Leafs, and never touched the puck before leaving the ice surface.

And that was it.

By the time his brother, Jordan, banged in the winner and mercifully ended the game with 2:06 left in OT, the older Staal hadn’t returned to the ice.

If you were an NHL scout at the game, and there were 12, including two each from Ottawa and Montreal, you probably left exasperated if the hope was to figure out exactly what Eric Staal has left, or what he might be able to offer another NHL club if they were to swing a deal for him prior to the Feb. 29th trade deadline.

It’s been like that most of the season. It appears at first blush that Staal is a shadow of what he once was - a 6-foot-4 centre who could skate like the wind, play against the biggest pivots in the sport and, at times, be a dominant force. He was a Canadian Olympian on that outstanding gold medal-winning club in 2010, but four years later was no longer a roster consideration for Sochi.

Could he just be stale in Carolina after 13 years? Would a move to another club, a club with more talented, established players, do for Staal what the move to Los Angeles seems to have done for Vinnie Lecavalier?

It really is awfully hard to say, and not just to the untrained eye. To the trained one, as well. As difficult as it is for NHL clubs to accurately project which 17- and 18-year-old players are likely to make the best picks through the NHL draft, it’s just as difficult for clubs to project which NHL veterans are on the slippery downslope of their careers, and which ones have more to give and could thrive in different circumstances.

The Detroit Red Wings, for example, gave up draft picks to New Jersey last season hoping 37-year-old Marek Zidlicky could give them a boost on the back end for the playoffs. Instead, he didn’t pick up a point in the post-season, and the Wings were eliminated in the first round.

Nashville could tell you how trading for superstar Peter Forsberg in a bid to put the Predators over the top sure didn’t work for them one year.

Ah, the life of the pro scout.

Against the Leafs, Staal had 28 shifts, managed four shots, had one hit, one takeaway and won eight of 17 faceoffs.

He didn’t do much to lift the fans out of their seats. But nobody did.

Indeed, in such a low scoring world as has been created in the NHL these days, it’s so difficult to measure the value and impact of offensive players.

Well, except for Patrick Kane.

Otherwise, it’s a challenge to attach dollar figures to output, which matters just as much as anything these days.

In the case of Staal, he’s got 28 points to show for his $8.25 million cap hit. His linemate Kris Versteeg also has 28 points. He makes $2.2 million. Youngster Victor Rask also has 28 points. He makes $680,000 in the final year of his entry-level deal.

You can see the challenge here for not only Carolina GM Ron Francis, as he ponders what to do with Staal before the deadline, but also for other NHL clubs pondering a possible move for Staal.

It’s all complicated, of course, by the fact Carolina owner Peter Karmanos wants to sell majority interest in the club but maintain control, and by the fact the Hurricanes have become a much more competitive hockey club in the last month and could make the post-season.

Trading Staal, if he agrees to waive his no-movement clause, would be a confusing signal to send to the Raleigh hockey market if the Canes make the playoffs. On the other hand, if he walks July 1st and Carolina gets nothing for him other than the cap space he represents, that could be a difficult sell, too.

You get the conundrum here?

For his part, Staal has seemed increasingly frustrated, largely because Francis has seemed unable to give him a sense of what the team wants to do, likely because Karmanos can’t tell Francis what he’s going to do.

So this story has trudged onwards for months. Staal, like Steven Stamkos in Tampa, has said over and over and over he wants to stay with the Hurricanes. If he does, it would have to be at a substantial financial haircut for it to make sense for the hockey team, a young and improving group.

It’s similar in some ways to the final season for Mats Sundin in Toronto, but also very different. Is it up to the proud veteran to give his all in an effort to make the playoffs, or his responsibility to agree to a trade if he helps his team acquire draft picks and other futures?

The Leafs wanted to trade Sundin, but he wouldn’t go for it, and some fans are still bitter about that. Staal is under no obligation to agree to a trade if the Canes propose one, but at the same time, he’s still relatively young, and this could be the chance for him to breathe new life into his career.

We know this; sixty minutes of scoreless hockey on this cold Thursday night in January didn’t convincingly solve this riddle for anyone involved.