All season, the Carolina Hurricanes’ underlying numbers have suggested that they’re a better team than their record indicates. The Hurricanes have spent the majority of the season boasting one of the league’s best Corsi For percentages at even strength, but thanks to an incredibly low PDO, driven by both poor goaltending and a mediocre shooting percentage, they haven’t had the results they probably deserve.
Over the past few weeks, the Canes have put together a pretty solid run, improving their record to 20-19-8 and pulling themselves right into the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff race. That said, even though their improved record puts them in playoff contention, they still have to make a decision regarding soon-to-be free agent Eric Staal.
THE PLAYER: ERIC STAAL
Eric Staal has been the face of the Carolina Hurricanes for a decade now. In 2006, he led the organization to its first-ever Stanley Cup victory, he’s been the team’s captain since 2010, and he’s second in scoring in Hurricanes and Hartford Whalers franchise history behind only Ron Francis, the team’s general manager. But he’s also reaching the end of a seven-year, $57.75 million contract that was signed in 2008, back when he was one of the game’s most dominant forwards.
Between 2005-06, when he entered the league, and 2012-13, Staal is tenth in the league in scoring with 257 goals and 339 assists. Over that time, he posted 0.98 points-per-game, which, like I said, made him one of the league’s elite. Since then, his production has been consistently dropping. Over the past three seasons, Stall has produced 0.70 points-per-game, which is comparable to players like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, David Backes, and Andrew Ladd. So yeah, certainly not terrible company to have, but it’s fair to say Eric Staal isn’t the elite power forward he once was.
This season, Staal is on pace to produce at the lowest level of his career since his rookie season as he’s currently scoring at a 0.60 PPG pace. He also owns a 58.3 Corsi For percentage at even strength, which is not only the highest on the team this season, but also the best possession numbers he’s ever posted in his career. That said, in the past when Staal had lower possession numbers, he was starting a good chunk of his shifts in the defensive zone, and over the past three seasons, he’s seen his offensive zone starts rise significantly. So that can certainly be attributed to the rise in his possession numbers.
The thing to take away from all of this is that Eric Staal is turning 32 years old in October, and while his possession numbers indicate that he can still be a good player when put in favourable situations, his production has been consistently dropping, and will more than likely continue to drop.
THE SITUATION: CAROLINA IS REBUILDING
Over the past month, the Canes have done a good job of pulling themselves together. At the beginning of December, they were in seventh place in the Metropolitan Division with a 10-13-7 record, and they had a 41.9 goal for percentage that was second worst in the league. Now, they’re 20-19-8, their goals for percentage has climbed up to 45.3, and they’re suddenly in the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference.
Along with Staal, the Canes have seven players, including Cam Ward, John-Michael Liles, Kris Versteeg, and Nathan Gerbe, with expiring contracts that are set to hit the open market this summer. Staal is obviously the prime name out of that bunch, but Carolina is loaded with players who will be ideal rentals for teams looking to load up on a short-term commitment come trade deadline time.
So like many teams in this immensely parity deluded league, the Canes have to decide whether or not to live in the short term and push for this playoff spot they’re creeping up on, or continue on with their long-term rebuild plan and sell off their assets for future pieces.
So when it comes to Staal, there’s a few possible outcomes here. They can get an extension figured out and put an end to all the mystery, they can hang on to him for this playoff run and try to hammer out a new deal when the season comes to an end, or just say “screw it, he’s old and expensive” and let him walk. They can deal him at the deadline to a team desperate for help up front (Anaheim? St. Louis?), or he can refuse to waive his no-movement clause and everything becomes moot. Of course, if he’s traded, he can also come back to Carolina as a free agent too.
VERDICT: DON’T BE STUPID, GET ASSETS FOR STAAL
We haven’t heard anything specific recently, but a few months ago, Elliotte Friedman said that Staal and the Canes are “not close” on agreeing on a contract extension. Over the last seven years, he’s had an annual salary of $8.25 million, and this year, since the deal was backloaded, he was paid $9.5 million. As a free agent, I really doubt he’s going to want to go significantly lower than that, but also, judging by his decline in production, I really doubt Carolina would want to pay him anything close to what he’s making right now.
Honestly, I’m having a hard time imagining a deal getting done this summer let alone before the trade deadline. And if Feb. 29 rolls around and there isn’t an extension banged out, or very close to being banged out, Ron Francis would be nuts to risk losing Staal for nothing in free agency. While a playoff run would be nice and all, I really have a hard time viewing the 2015-16 Hurricanes as contenders. I imagine that if they get hot and squeak into the playoffs, they would have a hard time advancing past the first round largely because of their poor goaltending.
Even though the Canes doing a lot better than pretty much everybody expected they would be at this point in the season, they’re still a rebuilding team. The future of the team revolves around Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifin, Elias Lindholm, Victor Rask, and whoever they can reel in through this summer’s draft and through selling off some of their established assets.
Somebody is going to see the name Eric Staal and either ignore his last few years of meh production and remember the elite power forward of the mid-2000s, or they’re going to convince themselves that a change of scenery will rejuvenate his game. Regardless, the Carolina Hurricanes, even if they are in a playoff position, are better off selling Eric Staal to the highest bidder at the trade deadline. Besides, there’s still a chance he could come back as a free agent in the summer if he’s traded. And even if he doesn’t, at least they’ll have something to show for it other than a handful of nice memories.