Quick Shifts: Why stunning Eric Staal trade is a clear win for Sabres

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. I hate to jinx it, but guess who picked the Dallas Stars to win the Stanley Cup a year ago?

1. When Bill Guerin’s name illuminated on Eric Staal’s cellphone Wednesday, the veteran centre walked out to his front lawn to accept the call. He assumed his GM was simply calling for a routine off-season check-in.

After all, Staal hadn’t heard from the executive since the Minnesota Wild were booted from the Edmonton bubble by the Vancouver Canucks.

Guerin stunned Staal when he said he’d been traded to Buffalo. Staal said, “OK.”

The conversation was over as fast as it started.

Staal has pretty much seen it all in his 1,240 NHL games, but he didn’t see this one coming. He just refiled the same 10-team, no-trade list as last time. Buffalo wasn’t on it.

"Out of the blue," Staal says, is how the news hit him and his family in Minnesota.

Realistically, yes, Staal understood he would be trade bait… but not until the 2021 deadline. Heck, Mikko Koivu isn’t sticking around, and it’s not like the Wild organization is flush with 50-point centremen begging for Staal’s ice time.

Like the best player in the trade, we too are still wrapping our heads around this deal — a clear win, in our books, for rookie Sabres GM Kevyn Adams, a former teammate of Staal’s in Carolina.

“When he became general manager there in Buffalo, I sent him a note just wishing him the best, knowing that he would succeed and do well. Little did I know he'd be trading for me in two months,” Staal said Friday during a media Zoom call, sporting a cap emblazoned with a buffalo.

“I don't feel like I've changed a whole ton as a player. I think confidence, even for me, over my time, is a big thing. If I can get rolling and feeling good about my game, I can go on a good long stretch and be successful offensively.”

There are doubts Johansson, an ill fit in Buffalo, is capable of the same, and it will be fascinating where Guerin — hardly done rearranging the chairs in Minny — stickhandles from here.

Yes, Staal is 35 and winger Marcus Johansson is 29, but Adams has landed the healthier, more productive player at the more important position for $1.25 million less.

Further, if either player does become a deadline rental in his upcoming contract season, surely the market for a proven top-six centre, offence creator and Cup winner will be richer.

“Hopefully [my age] is a non-issue, but it seems to always be talked about in this line of work,” Staal said.

“I may be 35 on paper, but I feel like I'm 25 with the guys in the locker room. I'll fit in fine. I'm not one of those stuffy old guys. I'll be throwing the chirps around. It'll be fun that way.”

Staal’s arrival gives superstar Jack Eichel a bona fide 2C to back him up and allows the organization more time to develop Dylan Cozens and Casey Mittelstadt.

Best case, it also helps spark former Hurricanes teammate Jeff Skinner, whose poor output in 2019-20 Staal chalks up to an anomaly.

“I’m looking forward to seeing him again and sharing the ice with him,” Staal said. “Skins is an elite talent. His skill set is unique.

“He's a fun guy to watch. He's entertaining. I hope I can help.”

Asked about moving from one hockey-mad hub to another, Staal drifted back to the Hurricanes’ Cup run in 2006 and their epic seven-game Eastern Conference final with Buffalo. He vividly recalled the packed, frenzied streets on those late-spring road trips.

“I know it’s a passionate city fan base,” Staal said. “I believe that if it wasn't us winning the Stanley Cup in 2006, it would have been Buffalo.”

2. Colleague Jeff Marek fired off this tweet in the wake of Anthony Cirelli scoring the Stanley Cup Final berth–clinching overtime goal Thursday:

It’s a sentiment that resonates in our house right now, as our own nine-year-old finds himself engaged in conversations with his peers about which level of minor hockey they’re playing. Lots of politics. Lots of comparing and judging between a number of kids over the letters attached to their team.

Cirelli’s advice to kids who feel like they might be a step behind: “When you put your mind to it and you just keep on going and keep on working hard, good things will happen. You'll find an opportunity.”

Coach Jon Cooper notes that both he and Lightning GM Julien BriseBois have children aged 10 to 13 playing competitively. They get it.

“The one thing I would tell any youth hockey parent: It doesn't matter how many A's are on the league they're playing in as long as they're playing and they're having fun,” Cooper says. “I think that's the best development of all.”

3. The market price for acquiring the signing rights of an impending UFA appears set as a fifth-round draft pick.

That is what the Philadelphia Flyers paid the Winnipeg Jets leading up to 2019’s free agency to get the jump on suitors for centre Kevin Hayes.

And that is what the Montreal Canadiens surrendered this week to the Carolina Hurricanes in order to lock up target Joel Edmundson.

True, one could argue that the Habs might’ve been able to sign Edmundson without giving up an asset, but (a) Montreal has had a heckuva time landing recent free agents when the marketplace gets crowded and (b) with the removal of the UFA courting period, why not spend a fifth to give your club a head start on convincing your player of choice?

Fifth-rounders seldom pan out, and by the time they do, the drafting GM may be gone anyway.

Curious to see if any other executives take this approach leading up to Oct. 9.

Specifically in the cases of Alex Pietrangelo and Torey Krug, if their current teams aren’t able to reach terms, do they make these valuable defencemen’s rights available to recoup something, anything — and give the acquiring team a chance to offer an eight-year contract and thus spread out the cap hit.

4. Composing a list of potential buyout candidates for next week’s window opening, I was struck by the number of last year’s buyout victims playing key roles on strong teams. One man’s trash and all that.

Kevin Shattenkirk has been a fast leader and steady minutes-muncher for Cup-bound Tampa, flipping from a $6.65-million bust to a $1.75-million bargain. Zach Bogosian was bought out in late February by Buffalo. Somehow the big right shot couldn’t find use on one of the NHL’s worst teams but has been an important depth player for the contender that scooped him up for a pro-rated $1.3 million.

“He knows that his abilities are still there, and you're seeing that here in these playoffs,” says Ryan McDonagh, who opened up his home to Bogosian in Tampa while he found his feet.

“He’s just as hungry as all of us to try and win this thing.”

On the left side of the bracket, Dallas has salvaged some great shifts from veteran Corey Perry ($8.65-million AAV down to $1.5 million) and, especially, defenceman Andrej Sekera ($5.5 million to $1.5 million).

They weren’t the only players bought out in 2019 who proved something by accepting one-year, small-money deals on new clubs. Patrick Marleau was a fair value addition to San Jose and, later, Pittsburgh for the league minimum. And Colorado knocked it out of the park with Dallas reclamation project Valeri Nichushkin, who totaled 15 goals for the Avs in the regular season and playoffs for a cool $850,000.

So, when some names get bought out at the end of September, some shrewd GMs will bet on second chances.

5. With Dallas advancing to the all-tax-free-state Stanley Cup final, Perry will be receiving a juicy $100,000 bonus cheque. The veteran winger can earn another $150,000 top-up if the Stars hoist the Stanley Cup.

No one can accuse the Stars of getting this far on a budget. Perry’s latest bonus increases the club’s 2020-21 bonus overage penalty to $3,047,866 (per CapFriendly.com).

6. When you stop drafting Jamie Benn to your regular-season fantasy squad, you can start appreciating the 2015 Art Ross Trophy winner all over again.

“He’s just laying it all on the line. He’s doing what you want your captain to do,” lauds Stars coach Rick Bowness. “He’s a huge inspiration, a lift to our team. He’s playing the best hockey I’ve seen him play in the two years I’ve been in Dallas, and he’s the Jamie Benn I remember coaching against when we were in Tampa. It’s great to see.”

Bowness encouraging us to look beyond goals and assists totals. We don’t see Benn’s work ethic in practice, feel his influence in the locker room, or hear his encouragement on bench.

How to explain the most engaged Benn in years?

“It’s the intensity of playoffs and the opportunity to win the Stanley Cup,” Bowness says. “It’s there for us all.”

Defenceman Miro Heiskanen still leads Dallas in scoring, but Benn tops all Stars forwards with 18 points and is winning an impressive 55 per cent of his draws. He has potted goals in eight different games this post-season, most of them timely. No player has scored in more games since the restart.

“He’s our leader and our captain. And whenever there's big moments, he's always the frontrunner in changing the momentum or keeping the momentum,” longtime linemate Tyler Seguin says.

“He's playing the best that I've seen him, and I think he's still got another level.”

Seguin was asked about the look the visor-free Benn gets in his eye late in a tight game.

“I didn’t look him dead in the eye,” Seguin replied, “but I’ve seen those eyes that you’re probably talking about.”

7. By making prospect Adin Hill’s contract extension a one-way, cap-conscious ($800,000) deal for 2020-21, doesn’t that absolutely signal that new Arizona Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong will be trading one of Antti Raanta or Darcy Kuemper?

Hill, 24, has never been given more than 13 NHL appearances in a single season. After a .918 showing this past season in limited work, he’s ready for the next step in his development.

8. Quote of the Week arrives courtesy of Peter DeBoer. Suffering the fresh pain of leaving the bubble one round too soon, the Vegas head coach describes the end of a deep playoff:

“It’s a 100-metre sprint in an 80-metre gym.”

9. Three years in the league, three years without a captain.

The Vacant-C era in Vegas will end in 2020-21, DeBoer confirmed. The Golden Knights will have anointed the first captain in franchise history by the time they hit the ice again.

Oddsmakers say the “C” will be stitched to the chest of Mark Stone, who had been in line for the same promotion in Ottawa prior to switching conferences.

As the club’s best, most passionate, highest-paid and most-secure player, it’s a no-brainer.

“Anytime you get into the playoffs, you always think you can win. This year felt different because this is the best team I’ve ever been on. We felt we had as good a chance to win the Stanley Cup as anyone,” a clean-shaven Stone told reporters this week.

“I'd love to open up with 20,000 fans at T-Mobile and that would be awesome, but no one knows if that's going to be possible.”

10. The NHL’s behind-the-scenes playoff docuseries, Quest for the Stanley Cup, is giving us some fantastic mic’d-up moments that capture the raw emotions of these battles. (Earmuffs, kids.)

I’m loving the fly-on-wall perspective of the coaches’ pre-game and intermission speeches. Urging his group to hang on to the puck and create in the Islanders’ end, Jon Cooper reminded the Lightning what they do well: “We’re the second-best team in the league at generating offensive-zone possession in the offensive zone.”

During Game 2 of the Eastern final, we hear Luke Schenn joyfully request a fight with Matt Martin early in the second period: “Marty! Marty! Let’s go.”

Martin immediately obliges, no questions asked, and when the combatants enter their respective penalty boxes to serve majors, a smiling Schenn pipes up over the glass: “Marty! I know you were looking for one at the end of the [first] period.”

Following the players’ very next shift, a gasping Schenn, the winner of Round 1, returns to bench and tells a teammate: “He asked me for another one. I was like, ‘Let me have a shift!’ ”

Fun stuff.

11. The job belongs to Manny Malhotra, but free agent Bruce Boudreau’s interest in joining Sheldon Keefe’s bench is worth noting.

The long-established head coach told Squid & The Ultimate Leafs Fan podcast that he wouldn't take an assistant role with any team but the Toronto Maple Leafs. (“Gabby” also tells an incredible streaking story during his podcast appearance at the 30-minute mark — “The charges were dropped in the end,” he says — that is worth two minutes of your life.)

If final-bound Rick Bowness accepts Jim Nill’s offer to shake the interim tag in Dallas, there won’t be any seats left in the coaching carousel for high-profile UFAs like Boudreau, Mike Babcock and Gerard Gallant.

Waiting to pop in as a mid-season replacement is not the worst idea. For the second straight season, the Western Conference will be represented by an interim coach in the Cup Final. And for the third straight season, it’s being repped by a first-year coach.

Perhaps the most coveted landing spot will be in Seattle. Does Ron Francis think Gallant can do for the Kraken what he did for the Knights?

12. “Talent borrows. Genius steals,” goes the famous Oscar Wilde quote.

I was impressed by the ingenuity of a Boston Bruins’ set play in their Round 2 showdown with Tampa in which Brad Marchand set up backdoor and purposely redirects the puck into the net with his skate blades.

Well, the Lightning learned from their victimization and attempted the same play in overtime of Game 6 against the Isles. Watch Mikhail Sergachev fire a hard cross-ice pass into the feet of Ondrej Palat — set up smack in the Marchand spot — that nearly ended the series.

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