Steven Stamkos has been getting all of the attention, but the free agent class of 2016 could potentially be one of the best of the salary cap era. David Backes, Kyle Okposo, Andrew Ladd and Anze Kopitar could all hit the market (along with a handful of other high-end names). The one player that seems to be getting overlooked is Eric Staal.
It’s a dynamic situation is playing out in Raleigh, with both the player and team taking their time before making any final calls. TSN.ca’s Bob McKenzie recently reported that a decision isn’t “immanent” on Staal’s future with the Carolina Hurricanes, opening the door for speculation about what the team should do.
When the Hurricanes inked Staal to a seven-year deal following the 2008-09 season, he had established himself as one of the top centers in the game. From his 100-point 2005-06 campaign through 2008-09, only 10 other pivots in the NHL averaged more than his point per game pace. Only once center (Vincent Lecavalier) had scored more goals and it was a no-brainer for the ‘Canes to lock Staal up long term.
He had won a Stanley Cup with the organization already, and the future seemed bright in Carolina. In 2008-09 they made it to the Eastern Conference Final and were looking to be prime-time players for years to come with Staal as the centerpiece. That isn’t the way things have shaken out.
Since Staal’s seven-year pact kicked in, the Hurricanes haven’t made the playoffs a single time. They have finished north of 90 points once, and have averaged fewer than 35 wins per season in that time frame (lockout-shortened 2012-13 season excluded). Simply put, the Hurricanes haven’t seen much success with Staal as their leading man.
That isn’t all on the Thunder Bay, Ontario native. Carolina has struggled to surround Staal with much talent, and they have been saddled by Cam Ward’s bad goaltending for years now.
Even with this in mind, it’s tough to look at the forward’s progression over the last few seasons and come up with reason enough to give him a raise off of the $9.5 million salary he’s making this year. Since 2011-12 (among centers), he is 18th in the league in average points per game and 10th in goals. That is outstanding for the Hurricanes, but if Staal goes looking for Jonathan Toews money, talks could deteriorate quickly.
Or at least they should.
Ron Francis should have zero interest in bringing Staal back if his cap hit will be higher than it has been over the last seven years. Something in the $8.5 million range would be more than reasonable — and arguably too high — given what the nine centers ahead of him in points per game are making.
|Player||Cap Hit||First Year||Expires|
|Steven Stamkos||$7.5 million||2011-12||2015-16|
|Joe Pavelski||$6 million||2014-15||2018-19|
|John Tavares||$5.5 million||2012-13||2017-18|
|Tyler Seguin||$5.75 million||2013-14||2018-19|
|Evgeni Malkin||$9.5 million||2014-15||2021-22|
|Jonathan Toews||$10.5 million||2015-16||2022-23|
|Logan Couture||$6 million||2014-15||2018-19|
|Jeff Carter||$5.272 million||2011-12||2021-22|
|Sidney Crosby||$8.7 million||2013-14||2024-25|
As you can see, Staal was earning a high-end salary. Even strong centers that re-signed as recently as 2015 didn’t come close to the $8.25 million cap hit Staal has carried since 2009. There’s way more to a player’s worth than their points per game, but this paints a good general picture for us.
Staal was ahead of the curve in terms of what he was earning based on his output, and now the Hurricanes are in a bit of a jam. How do you ask the player who has been the face of your franchise for more than a decade to take a pay cut at the age of 31? This isn’t a rapidly declining hero taking a financial hit for one last shot at the Stanley Cup. This is still a talented player that should have three or four more 50- or 60-point campaigns in him.
But 50-point forwards aren’t worth $8.5 million.
Staal has never been a two-way pivot like a Toews or Kopitar. He’s been paid to produce points, and over the last few seasons he just hasn’t carried enough water to make that cap hit worth it. Something closer to what Jordan Staal’s cap hit ($6 million) might make more sense for the ‘Canes, but if you’re Eric, do you take a $3.5 million cut before testing free agency?
It’s impossible to know what he’s thinking, but that’d be a tough sell for Francis — especially since there may be some merit to the idea of moving on to existence after Staal sooner rather than four or five seasons from now. The Hurricanes have some good pieces in place — ignoring the fact that they could hypothetically land more assets if they traded Staal — and it might make more sense for them to build toward the future instead of focusing on the declining forward. He hasn’t cracked 70 points since 2011-12 and he’s not on pace to do so this season. In fact, he’s on pace for 50 points according to ESPN.com.
There is an excellent defensive core in place and Ward will also be off the books this summer. That gives the organization an opportunity to move on from the 2005-06 and in a different direction. If Staal is willing to take a fair offer and stay on, then it absolutely makes sense to retain him. Letting him walk just to let go of the past would be silly. He is the Hurricanes to a lot of casual observers and there is some value there.
Carolina is a team on a budget though, and overpaying Staal by a few million wouldn’t be good business. As McKenzie wrote in his recent column, “we’ll be waiting weeks, if not months, for a definitive answer.” That’s fine, but if Staal is asking for more than he has been making over the last seven years, then the conversations shouldn’t take too long at all.