Canadiens get much-needed safety valve with Eric Staal addition

Jesse Fuchs and Eric Engels look at the Canadiens' trade for Eric Staal from the Sabres, which cost them only a couple picks for an experienced centreman.

MONTREAL -- It’s a reasonable price to pay for a parachute.

If that’s all Eric Staal ends up being for the Montreal Canadiens, a third- and a fifth-round pick was well worth it -- especially with the Buffalo Sabres retaining half of his prorated $3.25-million salary in the deal and the Canadiens owning two more picks in both of those rounds in the 2021 draft. Because relying on 20-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi, 21-year-old Nick Suzuki and rookie Jake Evans up the middle made it so that if veteran centre Phillip Danault went down, the season would go down with him, and there’s far too much invested in this season to take such a gamble.

This one feels like shoving in a stack with a guaranteed return; a sure thing considering the cost and relatively low expectations.

Staal isn’t coming here to be an incarnation of his former self, to jump into a first-line role and average close to 20 minutes a game. No, Staal is here to be a fourth-line centre who potentially moves up the lineup if an injury hits or if another centre is having a tough night. At worst, he’s insurance. On most nights, he’ll just be a better depth option than what the Canadiens already possessed.

And at his best?

“I think he’s a good two-way guy,” said an East Division executive we connected with after Friday’s trade was announced. “He’s going to get you more goals with Montreal than he would’ve with Buffalo, more of them than people expect, and he’s a big body that can win pucks. I mean, you can use that type of player on any line.

“I think he gives you more heaviness, without being a physical/killer type. But he’s a heavy guy who’s smart with his puck protection, and if you need him to get you some goals, he’ll get you some goals. If you need him to be in a different role, he’ll do that, too.”

It was anticipated the six-foot-four, 207-pound former Stanley Cup winner wasn’t likely to provide any of that for a team north of the border, at least not as of two weeks ago, when Elliotte Friedman reported he would probably remain in the United States if traded.

But the 36-year-old Staal waived his 10-team no-trade list to accept the deal to Montreal, and it’s assumed the Canadian government softening its quarantine laws -- albeit, not formally as this is being typed -- helped him change his mind.

Then again, perhaps with the way things have gone with the Sabres, losers of 16 consecutive games, he’d have taken a one-way ticket to literally anywhere else.

Still, Staal will wear the stench of a three-goal, 10-point, minus-20 output over 32 games with Buffalo, at least until he washes it out and shows something different in bleu, blanc et rouge.

“I’m not even looking at that,” said a long-time West Division scout. “Buffalo has been a total tire fire, and I don’t think Staal has just lost it completely after his last three seasons with the Wild. I watched him a ton there and, even if he’s not quite the same player, he can’t have fallen off as much as the numbers with the Sabres suggest he has.”

The Canadiens will have to hope that’s true. Staal had 19 goals and 47 points in 66 games in Minnesota last season, and that was after he produced 22 goals and 52 points in 81 games in 2018-19 and 42 goals and 76 points in 82 games during the 2017-18 season. If he’s a fraction as good as that, even a smidgen as good as the guy who captained the Carolina Hurricanes for years and was a dominant player as part of the gold-medal winning Canadian team at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, he’ll be much better than he was in Buffalo.

And that’s all the Canadiens really need from Staal, as he centres fellow Triple Gold Club member Corey Perry and whoever else remains on Montreal’s bottom line. They don’t need more as he spots in for some power-play duty and a faceoff win here or there in the defensive zone.

Granted, Staal has only won 48 per cent of his draws this season and is at 49.1 per cent over his 1,272-game career. But the Canadiens are 24th in the NHL in the category and they won’t do worse with him in the fold.

Now the question is: What else does Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin have cooking?

We suspect it’s more than one thing. And yes, we know what he said on Thursday.

“We have no cap space, so it’s money in, money out,” Bergevin stated, just 24 hours before not trading any money off the books in the deal to acquire Staal at half-pay.

“Expectation to do something at the deadline is probably very unlikely,” he added, and there might be more truth in that than he intended.

Because the Canadiens might move again well before April 12. They currently have $486,095 in cap space, and that’s with Paul Byron and his $3.4-million cap hit on the taxi squad while the team is idle through Monday due to their activities being suspended by the league after one of their players tested positive for the variant of COVID-19. That’s not even enough to get Cole Caufield, the highly touted prospect whose season ended just minutes after the Staal trade was consummated, signed to his entry-level contract.

That Bergevin wasn’t prepared to meet with media Friday to discuss the Staal trade -- or plans for Caufield, the 15th overall pick in the 2019 Draft who had 30 goals and 52 points in 31 games -- only lends to speculation that he’s got more cooking to free up some much-needed space.

For what it’s worth, Caufield’s coach at Wisconsin, former NHLer Tony Granato, said he feels Caufield authored one of the greatest seasons ever seen in the NCAA and that the sophomore should be a shoo-in for the Hobey Baker Award as the top collegiate hockey player of the year.

Granato, who was shell-shocked after his fourth-seeded Badgers were upset 6-3 by unranked Bemidji State Friday, also didn’t exactly soft-sell his belief that Caufield is already prepared to be an impact player in the best league in the world.

“He’s going to get a call, I’m sure, from his agent and from Montreal real soon,” Granato said. “The Canadiens watched him play this year, the scouts all watched him play this year, so they have a plan. I don’t know that plan. I’m assuming that plan is to try to get him up there as fast as they can, so he’ll have to answer to some calls really quick.”

In the event the Canadiens can’t clear enough space to sign Caufield immediately -- and they might have to wait a few days until he’s ready anyway, since he said after Friday’s devastating loss, in which he scored two goals and an assist, that he might take a few -- they could potentially bring the 20-year-old to Montreal to quarantine and then sign him at any point after that. They’ll accrue more space by the day in managing their roster and taxi squad and there’s no clock ticking on having him put pen to paper, with Caufield being on the team’s reserve list to enable him to sign and play with the Canadiens post-trade deadline.

Whether he does or not, the move for Staal made Montreal a better team on Friday. At worst, it provided the Canadiens with a much-needed safety valve in the middle of their roster -- and only for a pittance.

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