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Is Eric Staal the missing link for the Penguins?

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Next Derick Brassard or a fitting piece? Looking at Eric Staal as a potential trade target

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

The Penguins have a Sidney Crosby line. They have an Evgeni Malkin line (which is clicking more and more every game!). They have a buzzsaw.

But they need another line. The gamble in the off-season by Jim Rutherford was to give Mark Jankowski a shot at redemption and finding his early career form in Calgary. Give a shot to younger players like Sam Lafferty and Anthony Angello. Add Colton Scveiour in the mix, because Florida wanted to balance salaries and, ehh why not?

That mix hasn’t really worked.

When injuries cycle through, the Pens right now could have one of Jared McCann or Jason Zucker on this “extra” line, with the other playing on the Malkin line. They could also use Evan Rodrigues on the right side. But the middle is missing, as Jankowski has shown to be more replacement level (or worse) of a player as time has gone on.

The Pens don’t have to look far for a trade target to steady the center of the lineup, they’re in Buffalo right now. There’s increased speculation in the past week that Eric Staal might be leaving the Sabres soon. Staal downplayed that talk, which is as to be expected by a pro in this situation.

On the surface it makes sense, Staal is 36 years old and in the final year of his contract. Buffalo’s season is about over. Staal is unlikely to be back next year, might as well send him along as the classic veteran rental.

However, Staal is in a fairly unique situation. He has already won a Stanley Cup. He has a family. He has used his partial 10-team no trade list to block contenders from acquiring him. Eric Staal is at a point in his life and career where he has been fine with stability and riding out the season, even on teams that aren’t likely to contend for the Cup.

But he also has no connection to Buffalo — a team he got traded to and didn’t block because he didn’t think a bottom-level team would bother getting a veteran. But they did. Staal has some experience already in being a rental, the first time that happened, Carolina dealt him to the New York Rangers in 2016 and it was a flop. Staal only recorded three goals and six points in 25 games with NYR, who were eliminated quickly in the first round.

As of now, it looks like Staal might shift his past mindset and be interested in changing teams in-season.

“I’m told that he (Staal) would be open to a deal to a contender. He has a partial no-trade, 10 teams on it, but for the right team he would certainly go,” LeBrun said.

“Keep an eye on Edmonton,” he continued. “The Oilers would have to be dollar in, dollar out - they’re right at the cap, they’re in LTIR, but they are looking to upgrade their third line, and I’m told that Eric Staal is a name that has been mentioned internally by the Oilers brass.”

Rob Rossi of The Athletic was connecting some dots too.

Saying the Penguins “need” Staal though might not be that accurate. Is it true?

The Pens certainly need another good forward or two. Eric Staal is 36 years old. He’s not the player he was in 2006 or maybe even in 2018 when he recorded 42 goals and 76 points with Minnesota. And, like everyone else associated with the Sabres right now, he’s not having a good year.

Staal has played center, but is only 47.3% at faceoffs this season. Defensively, Staal has been trending downwards as he has aged, but his data on the last three years shows a very offensively dangerous player. I’m not sure how much to really trust this graphic below, being as Staal had that 42 goal, 76 point season in 2017-18 and that’s giving him a lot of shine.

It’s now 2021 and he’s not bringing a 2017-18 performance.

Staal has been on the ice for 7 Buffalo 5v5 goals for, to 17 against. Not all of this is his fault, and his expected goals percentage is 47.9%, much better than the actual 29.2%. A lot of that can be chalked up to playing on a bad team.

But Staal is certainly no defensive wizard. I wouldn’t be so brazen as to throw a Derick Brassard comparison out there, but it’s worth mentioning that placing offensive minded third line centers in Mike Sullivan’s system hasn’t always worked out. Nick Bonino did, but he had a good two-way game (and in 2016 Bonino Phil Kessel).

Does Eric Staal in 2021 feel more like Brassard or Bonino? Tough to say, but it might not be a great fit.

There are other points working against the Penguins as well. They’re near the salary cap, and Staal has a $3.5 million cap hit that Pittsburgh can’t fit without sending salary back to Buffalo. Those hurdles can be cleared if both sides want to make a deal, but is always a consideration of being a capped out team.

Another issue for Pittsburgh could be that they’re not Carolina. Pierre LeBrun mentioned that the Hurricanes, the team Staal played for from 2004-16, might consider bringing him back. Going to Carolina to again reunite with his brother could certainly be more appealing for Eric Staal.

Should the Penguins touch interest with Buffalo and see what the player and team are thinking about what it would take? 100%? Is Staal a tremendous fit for Pittsburgh? Would he even want to come or favor a different team? Do the Pens want to trade assets away for an older rental?

Several big time questions remain, perhaps adding up to not a perfect fit for any side. The Pens certainly have a need to upgrade a forward or two, and Eric Staal ought to be under heavy consideration, but there would still be a lot to have to come together to make sense for all the parties involved to complete a trade ahead of this year’s April 12th NHL trade deadline.