Future Free Agent Profiles: Eric Staal

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 2:50 am by Cam Lewis

The 2016 NHL free agent crop is stacked. Even with big names like Brent Seabrook, Jakub Voracek, and Erik Johnson already locked up to extensions, next summer’s class of free agents is loaded with players who have the ability to be major difference makers on teams who need something to push them over the hill. One of the most interesting names on that list is Eric Staal, who appears to be on his way out of Carolina. 

Elliotte Friedman said recently that Eric Staal and the Carolina Hurricanes are far apart on what they believe would be a reasonable contract extension. Friedman also mentioned that he thought Staal could seriously use a change of scenery, even if it means leaving the Canes as a rental, and then coming back as a free agent in the summer.  

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Courtesy of Hockey Reference 

Eric Staal certainly isn’t the player he was when he broke into the league and led the Hurricanes to their first and only Stanley Cup back in 2006. For the better part of a decade, he was one of the most dominant two-way forwards in the game, scoring at least 70 points in every season from 2005-06 to 2011-12. At one point, it looked like Eric Staal would play his entire career in Carolina. In 2012, they acquired his younger brother Jordan from the Penguins and were well on their way to putting together the much coveted ‘Staal family reunion.’ Now, at 31 years of age, Eric is producing at the lowest level of his career, and it appears that he represents the past of the Carolina Hurricanes, rather than the future. 

Outside of sentimental attachments and the fact his brother is signed until 2023, it really doesn’t make much sense for the Hurricanes to sign Eric Staal. The future of the team is Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin, and Haydn Fleury, and by the time those guys have developed into solid players and the Canes are a competitive team, Eric will be more of a boat anchor than a contributor. Also, they aren’t going to want any unnecessary cap space being spent on a relic of the past when Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk’s current contracts expire in 2020 and 2021 respectively. 

The Hurricanes are 6-9-2 just over a month into the season, and even though their underlying metrics suggest there might be something there, it’s pretty safe to assume they won’t be making a serious run at the playoffs. Along with Staal, Cam Ward and multiple other veterans are set to his the free agent market this summer, meaning there’s a good chance Carolina will be setting up shop as sellers at the trade deadline come February. Moving Eric to a team that desperately needs a big, strong, two-way centre that can produce offensively, with a household name like Staal at the deadline for a package of young players and draft picks to aid their rebuild is the most sensible option for them. And of course, like I mentioned earlier, there’s always a chance he can come back in the summer as a free agent after joining another team on a playoff run as a rental. It just makes sense for the Canes to capitalize on his value in some capacity rather than risking losing him for free come July. 

The Hurricanes are 6-9-2 just over a month into the season, and even though their underlying metrics suggest there might be something there, it’s pretty safe to assume they won’t be making a serious run at the playoffs. Along with Staal, Cam Ward and multiple other veterans are set to his the free agent market this summer, meaning there’s a good chance Carolina will be setting up shop as sellers at the trade deadline come February. Moving Eric to a team that desperately needs a big, strong, two-way centre that can produce offensively, with a household name like Staal at the deadline for a package of young players and draft picks to aid their rebuild is the most sensible option for them. 

In September of 2008, he signed a seven year extension with Carolina worth $57.75 million — an average salary of $8.25 million annually. Obviously now his contract seems like a borderline albatross, but at the time, Staal easily deserved to be one of the highest paid players in the league. He was a point-per-game player, team captain, and of course, the team was just a few years removed from winning a Stanley Cup largely based on his 28 point playoff performance. The deal was backloaded, so he’s making the most cash now in its final year. This summer, he’ll head into free agency after making a salary of $9.5 million, so it’s hard to imagine he’ll be happy to take a massive pay cut on his next contract.

So what is Eric Stall worth now? Is he still a legitimate No. 1 centre? 

As we know, his last two seasons have been the worst of his career in terms of production since his rookie year. He managed 0.77 and 0.70 points per game in 2013-14 and 2014-15 respectively, and this year, he’s started the season on a similar pace, scoring four goals and six assists through 16 games. That said, this level of production, combined with solid possession stats and the ability to play an average of 20 minutes a night makes Staal a top line centre. Over the past three years, his production has certainly dipped, but he’s still the 23rd highest scoring centre throughout that time, putting him right on par with Patrice Bergeron, Ryan O’Reilly, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Logan Couture. 

As a result, I doubt he’s going to have to take a massive pay cut from the annual $8.25 million he’s currently making. Somebody is going to see the name Eric Staal, remember the player that dominated the league from 2005-2013, and think that a change of scenery can resurrect his career to the point where he’s an elite player again. What I would be worried about is signing Staal to a long-term contract given his age and the likelihood of his play declining. If somebody gave Staal something similar to the four year, $7.5 million cap hit deal that Dallas gave Jason Spezza, it wouldn’t be a bad deal. Whoever signs him would certainly be better off overpaying in the short-term in order to get him at a reduced term, because it’s not a matter of if his game is going to fall off a cliff, it’s when.