Evaluating the Eric Staal trade

Kevyn Adams made his first splash as the General Manager of the Buffalo Sabres after dealing Marcus Johansson for Eric Staal this past Wednesday. After months of fans and local media discussing potential trades to help shore up the #2 center position, Eric Staal was not a name that came up too often and Marcus Johansson was not a player who was thought to be on the trade block.

This trade also came as a bit of a surprise because the Buffalo Sabres front office is a little empty to say the least. This June saw the Sabres clear out 22 members of their hockey staff and only three of those positions have since been replaced by new hires. Some other positions have been filled via promotions with Jeremiah Crowe taking over the Director of Scouting role and Jason Nightingale taking over the Assistant Director of Scouting role.

So basically, Kevyn Adams, a newcomer to an NHL front office in any capacity, made this trade with no Assistant General Managers and only one Pro Scout. Terry and Kim Pegula certainly appear to be fulfilling the economic part of their new “Effective, Efficient, and Economic” plan for the Sabres. This is alarming, but a little exciting at the same time. Things probably can’t get much worse for the Sabres, so you might as well have fun with it and enjoy the ride.

So let’s take a look at how Kevyn Adams fared in his first NHL trade:

The Marcus Johansson era

Marcus Johansson is probably one of the more interesting forwards in the NHL and can be a player who is very fun to watch at times. He is a finesse player who can surprise fans with a high skill play every once in a while. 

His microstats this past season were fantastic. According to Corey Sznajder’s data, Johansson was in the 86th percentile for shots assists per 60, the 86th percentile for possession exit %, and the 89th percentile for possession entry %. He was also one of the top players in the league in terms of high danger passes per 60. 

However, the Sabres signed him for one purpose: to fill in the huge hole at their #2 center position. It was a high risk move by Jason Botterill to go into the 2019/20 season with a player who was a natural winger as your 2C, but he has good passing stats and is great in transition, what’s the worst that could happen? 

Well, the worst that could happen did happen as Johansson’s game did not translate to center, Jeff Skinner was left without an actual line, and the entire middle six was in disarray for the whole season. The 330 minutes of the Jeff Skinner/Marcus Johansson experiment was just bad: not very good offensively or defensively.

Johansson’s time at center was very underwhelming and he clearly looked out of place in that position. He spent a small amount of time on the wing of Curtis Lazar last season where he arguably played his best hockey in a Sabres uniform. It’s apparent that he is much more comfortable on both sides of the puck when playing wing.

The Marcus Johansson era in Buffalo was basically an attempt to fit a square peg in a round hole because the general manager couldn’t find any better (at least in his mind) options at 2C. They didn’t utilize his strengths and placed him in a position that compounded his weaknesses. So it’s pretty interesting to see a team like Minnesota, one of the heaviest dump-and-chase teams in the league, acquire a skilled controlled transition player like Johansson. Maybe they plan on switching up their style of play under their new full-time head coach? 

Eric Staal: the Ageless Wonder

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a little over 14 years since the Buffalo Sabres took on a 21 year-old Eric Staal and the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Finals. I guess you either die a villain or live long enough to see yourself become the hero in this case.

Eric Staal will be turning 36 years-old in October, but he is a player who hasn’t fit the average NHL aging curve. He’s been playing some of the best hockey of his career in his 30s as a member of the Minnesota Wild and does not appear to be slowing down with 47 points in 66 regular season games and 5 points in 4 play-in round games. If you’re looking for the fountain of youth, apparently it is located in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Now Eric Staal is 6 years older than Marcus Johansson, but not every player ages the same. Maybe some of that can be attributed to Staal finding himself in a comfortable situation in Minnesota while Johansson has spent the majority of his last two seasons on rebuilding teams. I think the projected GSVA portion on these graphs by Dom Luszczyszyn really help illustrate how these two players are aging:

GSVA (game score value added) is basically a stat which uses Dom’s game score formula to generate individual player values. As you can see, Staal had a small step back last season while Johansson’s game has been on a steady decline for the last four seasons. Let’s say that Johansson’s season in Buffalo was an outlier and he repeats the season he had in New Jersey/Boston for the next 3 seasons. Well, Staal would still be projected to add more value to a team than Johansson during that 3-year period despite entering his late 30s.

An actual #2C

The most noticeable part about this trade is that Eric Staal is an actual center, an NHL center, who really just knows how to play the position. After trading Ryan O’Reilly for table scraps and a five dollar bill, GM Jason Botterill never really bothered to fill in the Sabres’ 2C position. Opening night in 2018 saw the Sabres run with a center spine of Eichel, Berglund, Mittelstadt, and Rodrigues. That ended disastrously. Then opening night in 2019 had a center spine of Eichel, Johansson, Mittelstadt, and Larsson. We all know how that ended.

Eric Staal is just a traditional center, in the sense that he knows what is asked of him on both sides of the puck. He’s a big body at 6’4” and 206 pounds and he knows how to use this size to his advantage. Staal may lack that extra gear in his footspeed, but his size, reach, and hockey IQ allow him to make up for that. He plays a game that should and has aged well.

Since he just played hockey last month, I decided to watch some of the Wild-Canucks play-in series. The immediate noticeable difference between Staal and Johansson is that Johansson plays more of a speedy finesse game while Staal plays more of a north-south game. His hockey IQ allows him to play a simple game, but a very effective one at that. He can play along the wall, win battles, and open up the center of the ice for scoring opportunities.

Here’s the first play I’ll bring up:

This first play is nothing too fancy, just a good, old battle along the wall. The puck bounces out of the offensive zone, but Eric Staal (#12) is quick to get back to support his defensemen on the opposing rush. Ryan Suter makes a great defensive play to slow down the rush and Staal just uses his leverage to seal off Motte from the puck to prevent the play from going any further.

This play is simple, but I bring it up because the Sabres have not really had this basic type of play from a center outside of Eichel since 2017/18. I know I may sound like an old school hockey guy here, but it seemed like the Sabres could never win any battles along the wall and sustain offensive zone pressure whenever Johansson played center. When more passive forecheckers, like Skinner or Johansson, got opportunities to play alongside a puck hound, like Larsson or Lazar, a switch would turn on for that line offensively.

The next play is just some pressure by Eric Staal, on the puck carrier Elias Pettersson:

This play is also fairly simple, just some pressure by F1 when Elias Pettersson is trying to bring the puck up ice. Staal gets through the pick and is able to keep up with Pettersson as he cuts across the ice. He elects just to drop the puck off to a defenseman and Staal doesn’t let him walk away from the play without some contact. He made sure Pettersson knew he was there throughout this game. He just loves a good battle with his center matchup. 

In terms of overall defensive play, I do not think he is going to be a guy the Sabres are going to want to consistently match up against other team’s top lines. He’s solid defensively and knows his role as a center but he’s not going to be that Selke-caliber player. 

Offensive Boost

Outside of providing value to the Sabres due to being an actual center, Staal will provide the Sabres with great value on the offensive side of the puck. While the Sabres under Ralph Krueger made huge strides defensively, the offense was still bad and arguably worse than the prior season. The Buffalo Sabres 2.05 xGF/60 rate was the 2nd worst in the NHL in 2019/20. Only the Red Wings had a worse rate (2.00 xGF/60) and they only won 13 of their 71 games in regulation last season.

Eric Staal is the guy who can provide that offense, both at 5v5 and on the power play. In 2017-18, he managed to score 42 goals in the regular season and finished 19th in offensive GAR. He’s still had solid offensive production over the past two seasons with the same amount of 5v5 points as Jeff Skinner (61) with just 16 additional minutes of ice time. Also, Eric Staal has 1.81 5v5 points per 60 over the past two seasons which is better than Marcus Johansson’s 1.44 5v5 points per 60 over that same period.

He has that veteran savviness in the offensive zone that allows him to find soft ice and predict where the puck is going to be. We’re talking about a player who has 12 NHL seasons with at least 20 goals and was on pace for 13 seasons with at least 20 if it were not for the COVID-shortened regular season. He is also 71st all-time in NHL goals with 436. The guy can flat out score goals.

The goals he scores this late in his career may not be the flashiest goals, but a goal is a goal. He is great at using his 6’4” frame to fight his way in front and create opportunities. Here is one he scored off the backhand against Edmonton this past October. Nothing fancy, but he does a good job getting to open ice, tracking the loose puck and putting it in the back of the net:

Despite Eric Staal’s amazing goal numbers, he is more than just a pure heavy shot volume and goal scorer guy like Jeff Skinner. His offensive game was pretty well-balanced in terms of passing and shooting as you can see in the graph by Corey Sznajder below:

When talking about Eric Staal’s offense, you cannot forget to mention his power play ability. He’s been an above average player on the power play for most of his career and could be the guy who can help revive that 2nd power play unit in Buffalo. He has the ability to make pinpoint cross-ice passes and can use his size to finish plays in front. 

Reunion with Jeff Skinner?

Eric Staal alone should provide a boost to the offense, but the Sabres also hope he will be the guy who can activate Jeff Skinner. Undoubtedly it was a disappointing 2019/20 campaign for Skinner, but that’s honestly the way his game goes. His offensive game is heavily reliant on his shooting percentage which has made his career a roller coaster of production. Skinner’s offensive woes were also compounded by not having an actual center to play with all of last season.

If Eric Staal is able to come in and revive his former teammate then that is a double win for the Sabres. A Skinner-Staal combo should help lift the offensive production burden off of Jack Eichel’s shoulders. We all saw how good Jeff Skinner looked in his short period of time on Johan Larsson’s wing last season. I am optimistic that a center like Eric Staal, who can also win puck battles at a high rate but with better offensive skill set, can improve Skinner’s play too.

The two players were teammates in Carolina from the 2010/11 to the 2015/16 season but Jeff Skinner only played around 22% of his 5v5 ice time with Eric Staal. They saw their most time together in 2013/14 with 326 minutes of ice time. While they were a bit of a disaster defensively (that whole Hurricanes team really wasn’t good defensively), they managed to have some fantastic offensive impacts. With a more sound defensive system under Ralph Krueger in Buffalo, there’s a chance the Skinner-Staal combo can help create a valuable 2nd line. 

Conclusion

It’s still too early to tell, but Kevyn Adams first trade is looking like it could be one that helps the Sabres improve while also saving them some cap space. Definitely an encouraging start for the rookie general manager.

But, his job in fixing the Sabres forward corps is far from over with only four NHL-level forwards (Eichel, Skinner, Staal, Okposo) being signed for next season. If Johan Larsson walks in free agency then the Sabres will need to really pursue a center who can handle a heavy load of defensive matchups. You do not want to go into next season placing the burden of those defensive minutes on your top offensive lines or a line centered by a rookie.

At 36 years-old, Eric Staal is more of a stop gap center than anything. It’s not even certain that he will still be in the league after this season. Dylan Cozens looks like he could fill the 2C role someday, but he is far from a finished product and has yet to play an NHL game. Casey Mittelstadt has struggled in the NHL and was just ok in the AHL, it’s difficult to see his game ever translating to center at the NHL level. So, I think the Sabres should still keep their eyes on the center market this offseason. Maybe even go after a player like Philip Danault.

I mean at this point, all Sabres fans can do is trust the process even though nobody really knows what that process is going to be.

All shooting heat maps from HockeyViz.com, all statistics from EvolvingHockey.com

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