Can Eric Staal be the second line centre upgrade Buffalo needs?

NHL insider Elliotte Friedman joins Hockey Central to try to make sense of the Minnesota Wild trading veteran Eric Staal to the Sabres for Marcus Johansson.

The Buffalo Sabres made a deal to acquire soon to be 36-year-old Eric Staal from the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Marcus Johansson, who will turn 30 in October. On the face of it, acquiring an older player is always a bit of a risk, but with just a year left on his contract at a paltry $3.25 million cap hit, the Sabres are actually saving money on this deal (Johansson makes $4.5 million).

Way back in 2015-16 in his last season with the Carolina Hurricanes, it looked like Staal was in steep decline from a production standpoint, and he didn’t fit well with the New York Rangers after being moved there at the deadline. However, his underlying offensive numbers were superb, and through four seasons in Minnesota where he averaged 29 goals and 34 assists for 63 points per 82 games played, he proved he was far from done.

It’s weird to say it considering how long Staal has been an excellent player in this league, but it seems like he’s been relatively underrated while playing fantastic hockey in Minnesota into his mid-30’s.

Still, things can go sideways quickly for a 36-year-old player. So, are there any signs that this trade isn’t the massive win it appears to be on the surface for Buffalo?

Looking at the last four years of Staal’s offence compared to the rest of the league’s forwards, there is a clear decline especially last season. Two areas that show the biggest decline relative to the rest of the league are Staal’s transition play — how often he’s moving the puck up the ice with control — and how frequently he’s recovering loose pucks in the offensive zone.

Both of those areas have a lot to do with skating. Obviously with loose puck recoveries the first thought is going to be a player’s battle level, but more than half of the battle in recovering pucks is arriving first. It takes anticipation, speed, and agility to be first on the puck, and Staal took a big hit in that area in 2017-18, and another in 2019-20, to the point where he’s now below league average in that area.

What that means is he probably isn’t going to thrive in a system that relies heavily on forechecking to get control of the puck in the offensive zone and create offensive opportunities, so it’s a good thing he wasn’t traded to the New York Islanders.

It isn’t a surprise that skating is beginning to fade for Staal at this stage of his career because it eventually happens to almost every player, but it has limited his impact offensively, as you can see from his individual expected goals in 2019-20.

However, let’s be realistic about expectations for a moment here. The Buffalo Sabres aren’t expecting to acquire 25-year-old Eric Staal. That player is gone, and he’s only making third liner money against the salary cap. He wasn’t acquired for a first round pick or a top level prospect, but for Marcus Johansson, who himself has faced some serious decline in play over the past couple of years.

While Staal might not be the player he was, he was still in the 80th percentile in offence created at even strength last season, meaning he was better than 80 per cent of all forwards in that area. Staal’s expected goals dropped, but he’s still in the 72nd percentile, which translates to high-end second line numbers for a goal scorer.

Also encouraging is the fact that Staal’s playmaking numbers haven’t dropped much. He’s about where he was two years ago in the 78th percentile of all forwards, or fringe first liner numbers, and he has seen a year between those where he jumped up to the 90th percentile, so that could happen again.

What about driving play? Staal has historically been a great play driver, but has his drop in metrics on transition play hurt his ability to get the puck to the right areas?

His first three seasons in Minnesota, Staal was brilliant. Positive impacts almost everywhere and he was a big time player that consistently pushed the needle. Last season however, things fell off pretty significantly by every single measure.

There is some added context to that drop off though, which is that Staal did not mesh with his most common linemates in Mats Zuccarello and Zach Parise after having great chemistry with Jason Zucker for the previous several seasons. In fact, he has struggled greatly with Parise in each of the past three seasons, while excelling with Zucker, Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, and Mikael Granlund. One thing you might notice about all those names is that the Wild traded them all away.

Over time, the Wild stripped away every linemate Staal found success with, until we get to this season where, after the Zucker trade, the only player Staal meshed well with was Kevin Fiala.

While the Wild may have seen a big drop off in play from Staal and think this is the perfect time to move on, I wonder how much of that drop off is of their own making. Surely at his age there’s decline in play, but it’s not like he’s actively bad.

If the Sabres can find some players who fit with Staal’s style, he could fit right back into the role of a second line centre to support Jack Eichel. It’s not risk free, but the Sabres didn’t pay a big price in salary or return in the trade. This looks like exactly the kind of move the Sabres should be making to attempt to get back into the playoff picture.

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