The shock for Eric Staal remains, but he's ready for a role as "shepherd"
Put yourself in Eric Staal's shoes. The 16-year NHL veteran with a list of accomplishments that includes a Stanley Cup ring, as well as gold medals in international play (including Olympic Gold in 2010,) was in a great situation as he winds down his professional hockey career. Staal rode out some tough times in Carolina going from Cup champion with Hurricanes in 2006 to bouncing near the bottom of the Eastern Conference for eight of the next nine seasons on the team that drafted him 2nd-overall in 2003. He was traded as a rental to the New York Rangers in February, 2017 and after a brief "sibling reunion" with his brother Marc in The Big Apple where the Rangers were bounced in the first round to the 2016 NHL playoffs, Eric signed a three-year free agent deal with the Minnesota Wild.
In Minnesota he found a home for himself and his family not far from where he grew up in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada and after that deal was done he re-upped for a two-year extension at a bit of a hometown discount. He's said to have built his retirement home in The North Star State and despite a career in Minnesota where he produced like he was in his mid-20's, in a Zoom call this morning, the first thing that popped into his head as he reminisced about his time in Minnesota was, "shoveling off the pond and having and outdoor rink for my kids," showing just how much family meant to him.
Staal had some great success in Carolina scoring 775 points (322+453) in 909 games. In addition to the Cup ring, he was a four-time All-Star with the Canes and was their team captain from 2009 until he was traded in 2016. He also his career best season of 100 points (45+55) in that Cup-winning 2005-06 season. Yet, in Minnesota, he seemed to come home as shoveling that rink gave him "that cool feeling of being out on the ice outside and kind of bringing back memories of me as a kid of skating outdoors," he said. "That's the number one thing I'll remember."
He was so content in Minnesota that as the Wild began to fully engage in a youth-movement this long off season, Staal was said to have structured his modified no-trade clause to scuttle any attempts by "playoff clubs that kept calling Minnesota over the last few years to see if they could convince the center to move at the deadline," according to The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun who cited sources close to the situation."
"It never occurred to Staal or his veteran agent Rick Curran," continued LeBrun, "that the struggling Sabres would see fit to trade for a player who will turn 36 on Oct. 29. So you can see their thinking, there. I wouldn’t have had Buffalo on the list, either. Who saw this coming?"
The shock still seemed to be there for Staal two days after he was traded to the Sabres as he took questions this morning and it didn't take long for him to talk about it. "The initial shock of everything was the biggest emotion I felt and we felt," he said right off the bat in an answer to the first question. "It's been a great fit in Minnesota for me and my family. We really integrated well not only on the rink for me, but my kids and my wife. And to me that's my most important thing.
"When you get that news (of the trade) pretty much out of the blue, it kind of throws you for a little bit of a loop."
Staal would mention "out of the blue" a couple of times to emphasize the surprise he and his family felt but also said that they've been able to process the situation a little more while admitting that they still had a lot to sort out and figure out. "But it's a change," he said, "We can adapt to change. We can move forward and that's what we're going to do."
Having said that, the cool thing about trading for Staal is that he's a true professional and Sabreland should expect nothing less than that approach when he steps on the ice in the Blue and Gold. Yes, his world was rocked and we're pretty sure there's a sense of dead running through the entire family, but "that's sports," he said.
First-year Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams knows Staal from their days in Carolina and both have rings from that 2006 Championship season. “The fact that I was fortunate enough to sit next to Eric in the locker room and we won a Stanley Cup together, I know what he’s all about," Adams told the media during a Zoom call Tuesday night. "He’s a winner. He’s been there. He’s been in a Game Seven of a Stanley Cup Final. He’s raised the trophy. These are really, really important experiences that he’s lived that he’s going to bring into our locker room.”
Added the GM, “There’s a lot of thought and work that goes in before doing something like this. It definitely gives me comfort knowing the person he is, the family man he is. I know his wife very well. Certainly, having that knowledge and background is helpful when you make a big decision like this."
The feeling is mutual.
When asked how important Adams was, Buffalo's new center said, "That's been a very large factor. I've gotten to know Kevyn very well over a number of years. He was very good to me as a young player in Carolina. I'd been over his house numerous times as a young guy. We just got along real well.
"When he became general manager in Buffalo," Staal continued, "I sent him a note 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."
That Adams/Staal, veteran-to-young-player mentoring was also a theme of this morning's Zoom call. We don't know what the two discussed in their brief conversation but by the way Staal kept coming back to veterans guiding young players, one could easy speculate that it was touched upon.
Staal admitted that he didn't know a much about the Sabres lineup outside of Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner, a fellow Cane he played with for six seasons. Yet he's 35 yrs. old, knows that any team in the league will have younger players that need mentoring, and he paid tribute to those vets in addition to Adams who helped guide his young career. When asked whether he could help a player like 19 yr. old center prospect Dylan Cozens, Staal said, "the number one thing; I know all that help for me was watching these guys that had careers of 15, 16, 17 yrs. and see what they do. When I came in I watched Rod Brind'Amour, Cory Stillman, Ray Whitney, Brett Hedican, and as a young player you watch what they do and just try and have that kind of success. For me it's being a sounding board if [Cozens] has questions. It's about coming to the rink, being a pro, being prepared, having fun, enjoying it, all those things I know I'll do because that's who I am."
It would seem as if a veteran center like Staal, who can still produce and who plays a 200' game, would be more of a fit for a contender, hence the structure of his modified no-trade clause. And all that is true. But the Sabres will take that production on the second line and have themselves a player who embodies true professionalism while being willing and able to pass on his 16 years of NHL knowledge not only to young players like Cozens, Casey Mittelstadt and even defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, but to every player on the team. This young group of Sabres led by a captain in Eichel, who's just 23 yrs. old himself, needs a player who learned from grizzled vets and who's been in the tough situations throughout his career and who can pass that knowledge and experience on to a group that showed immense promise for a stretch or two, but ultimately failed as a group.
Working hard and having your sweat turn into winning is always the most fun. The Sabres have done much of the former, but haven't been as successful in he win/loss column as they stretched their playoff drought to a league-high nine seasons last year. It's a futility that Staal went through in Carolina and he stated the obvious, "it can weigh on you."
Staal mentioned more than once that he's in the twilight of his career and expectations for himself are in place as he's still in good shape and his body feels good. But he will be 36 yrs. old when the season starts and though it's not impossible for him to put up a 35-goal/70-point season, something like that would be a real stretch (like Buffalo trading for him? hmmmm.) However the hope is that he can hold down that No. 2 center spot and have a positive impact in Buffalo as he'll be on a team with an elite No. 1 center in Eichel and a player in Skinner whom he said was, "an elite talent with a very unique skill-set who has a strong commitment to his craft." His unfamiliarity with the rest of the team left out other talented players like Dahlin and Sam Reinhart, but regardless of players, confidence reigns supreme in his book
"Hopefully I can be impactful," he said. "That's the plan. I don't know a lot about the team but I know they have a lot of talent. Hopefully as a group we can develop that team atmosphere, that desire to compete and win every night. I think if you can collectively gel and be a group like that, tight-knit, you'll find success. I think confidence goes a long way for younger players. If we can get that confidence up in all these young guys early I think we can do a lot of good things."
"I'll just try and shepherd that along as I get integrated with the group."