The past few days for newest Buffalo Sabres center Eric Staal have certainly been a whirlwind of emotions.
After spending the past four seasons with the Minnesota Wild and amassing 240 points (111+129) in 311 games, general manager Bill Guerin traded the 35-year-old to Buffalo in exchange for forward Marcus Johansson. Staal did have a no-trade clause with his contract in Minnesota, but he did not list the Sabres as one of the 10 teams to not be traded to.
While a trade was something that he did not see coming to start the upcoming 2020-21 season, he says it's something that his family is ready to adjust to.
"I think just the initial shock of everything was the biggest emotion I felt and we felt," Staal said on Friday in his first Zoom conference call as a member of the Sabres. "It's been a great fit here in Minnesota for me and for my family. We really integrated well, not only on the rink for me, but my kids and my wife. To me, that's my most important thing. So when you get that news pretty much out of the blue, it kind of throws you through a little bit of a loop, but we've been able to process here a little bit more over the last two days or so. We've still got a lot to sort out and figure out, but it's something that is a change, and we can adapt to change and we can move forward. That's what we're going to do, and we're excited for the opportunity and the challenge that's ahead."
Staal has one year left on his current contract before he becomes an unrestricted free agent once again. The veteran center has only been traded one other time in his NHL career when he was in the final year of his contract with the Carolina Hurricanes. At the trade deadline, the Hurricanes traded their captain to the New York Rangers, where he ended up playing in 20 regular season games and only five playoff games.
While he knew it was a possibility that he was going to be moved in a similar situation this upcoming season by the Wild, Staal felt like he could caught out of the blue with this move before the season.
"I was just at home here in Minnesota, outside by myself and Bill [Guerin] had called," Staal explained. "I hadn't talked to him since the season ended, so I thought it was just more along those lines as end of the year stuff. He then informed me that he traded me, it was brief, and that was that."
Now Staal joins a Sabres organization that has struggled mightily over the last few years to find themselves in any sort of contention come the end of the year. The team has not made the playoffs in nine seasons, and the past three seasons have seen the team finish in 31st, 27th and 25th place in the NHL standings.
With playing in the Western Conference for the past four years, Staal was very candid when saying he did not know much about the current Sabres team. However, he did make mention of a couple of notable pieces to the team.
"I know they've got a lot of talent. I know, obviously, that Jack [Eichel] is elite. There's also 'Skins' [Jeff Skinner], who I played with in Carolina. There's guys there that are competitive and great players," Staal said.
"'Skins' is an elite talent. His skill set is unique. I think his ability to find pucks in tight areas, around the net; he's very strong, he's committed to his craft. He's a fun guy to watch, he's entertaining.
Skinner and Staal played well together in parts of six seasons with the Hurricanes, but the team failed to get into the playoffs during that stretch. In Skinner's 10-year career in the NHL, the 28-year-old has failed to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs despite being one of the better goal scoring forwards.
In his first season with the Sabres in the 2018-19 season, Skinner really set the world on fire with his clutch goal scoring, and became Buffalo's first 40-goal scorer since Thomas Vanek in the 2008-09 season. He was also just the 11th player in franchise history to score 40 or more goals in a season.
However, the 2019-20 season was not so kind to Skinner, who scored just 14 goals and put up 23 points in 59 games. This production came after signing a massive eight-year contract in the offseason that pays him an annual average value of $9 million.
With the chance to reunite with one of his former teammates in Buffalo, Staal is hoping that his presence can help Skinner get back to form in the 2020-21 season.
"I've gotten to know him very well, especially in our time in Carolina," Staal said. "I hope last year was a little bit of an anomaly for him. I think he's going to be counted on for a lot. I think, for me, along with not only just Jeff but all the guys there is be a good teammate and try to help us become a team together. If you do that, individuals will find success and you'll be going in the right direction. It'll be fun. I'm looking forward to seeing him again and sharing the ice with him."
Another person that Staal happens to be very familiar with from the Sabres organization is the man that orchestrated the trade for him, general manager Kevyn Adams.
Staal and Adams also spent time together with the Hurricanes organization, parts of three seasons in Raleigh from 2003 to 2007. Many Sabres fans will not want to remember this, but both Staal and Adams were part of the 2006 Hurricanes team that ended up beating Buffalo in the Eastern Conference Final, and went on to win the Stanley Cup over the Edmonton Oilers.
Knowing that Adams was in charge of the Sabres when Staal found out about the trade was a very large factor in feeling comfortable with joining Buffalo this upcoming season.
"I've gotten to know Kevyn really well over a number of years. He was very good to me as a young player in Carolina, I was over at his house numerous times as a young guy, and we just got along really well," Staal said of his former teammate. "When he became the general manager in Buffalo, I sent him a note just 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. I haven't talked to him a lot. It's been pretty whirlwind here for the last two days, but being able to play for him and knowing the type of character and person he is is important to me."
While Staal may not know much about the current Sabres team he finds himself on, he is very familiar with the city of Buffalo with the passion of the fanbase, as well as the stories he hears from other current and former players around the NHL.
"Obviously playing there in '06 in the Conference Final, our hotel was, I think, right near downtown, and the streets were packed with people every night during that run for them. So I know the fanbase there is very passionate," Staal recalled. "As far as the city, I know a lot of guys that have played there and a lot of guys that have spent time there and speak highly of it. There's a lot of guys that end up retiring and staying there, so positive things, and I'm looking forward to seeing the arena and getting comfortable with everything as we move forward."
While his off-ice adjustmemts will take some time before the start of the 2020-21 season, Staal will fit in just fine with the locker room and in the lineup.
One of the biggest needs for the Sabres this offseason was to find a stable second line center behind Eichel. Since the departure of Ryan O'Reilly after the 2017-18 season, Buffalo's depth down the middle after Eichel has been far short of reliable.
The team thought Casey Mittelstadt was ready to assume that role after a promising start at the end of the 2017-18 season, but his development since has not come along as expected.
Last season, it was Johansson who was signed as a free agent who was thought to come in and fill in as a suitable fit as the second line center. While he did play center in his time with the Washington Capitals, he had played mostly on the wing for several years and his struggles for the Sabres at center showed.
In his 16 years in the NHL, Staal knows that in order to have a successful team, it is important to have some good depth at the center ice position. However, he knows that it goes well beyond just center ice depth to make a team that much better.
"I think most teams that are successful have that [depth], but to me, the biggest reason for success is a team playing like a team," Staal said. "You need everybody. Not just guys up the middle, but you need commitment from guys throughout your whole lineup from the goaltender to the [defense]. It's cliché and boring to say, but you don't win unless you're a team that's tight knit and committed to success, especially in this league. It's too hard, it's too close, it's too competitive.
"The biggest thing is having your group committed to finding success together, and leaning on each other and believing in each other. I think you always strive for that. It's just obviously the teams that win the championships end up doing that. That's a goal you try and help be a part of, and that's what I'll try to do when I come to Buffalo."
While Buffalo has needed a center that can produce offensively and be a reliable asset down the middle in both ends, the team has also lacked a player of Staal's caliber who can be a leader in a group of young players finding their way in the NHL. A player who can be a role model of success for a young prospect getting a chance to step in to the NHL shortly after their draft year.
2019 first round pick Dylan Cozens is a player who could very well find himself in the NHL this season after a year in the Western Hockey League where he showed the organization that he's accomplished everything that he's needed to accomplish while playing at the junior level. Having a player like Staal to look up to as a very similar style of player could be very impactful for a 19-year-old kid looking to make his mark.
Staal understands what kind of role he brings now as a veteran after going through a similar development path after he was selected as the second overall pick in the 2003 NHL Draft by the Hurricanes.
"I know that help for me was to watch these guys that had careers of 15, 16, 17 years and see what they do. When I came in, I watched the Rod Brind'Amour, Cory Stillman, Ray Whitney, Brett Hedican; these guys made 15, 16, 17, 18, 20-year careers out of their time, and as a young player, you watch what they do to try and have that success," Staal explained. "I think for me, just being a sounding board if he's got questions. It's about coming to the rink, being prepared, having fun, enjoying it. All those things that I know I'll do just because that's who I am, and I'll enjoy just being there with the guys and playing the game. There's nothing better. Those things you learn, and the younger guys will be able to pick up on their own, hopefully, and you're always there for support for any teammate."
As for his own expectations, Staal is just hoping to come in to Buffalo and try to be the same guy he's been for years in the NHL. He's also hoping that his addition will also been an added piece to some team success for the Sabres heading into the 2020-21 season.
"Hopefully, as a group, we can develop that team atmosphere, that desire to win and compete every night. I think if you can collectively gel and be a group like that, tight knit, you'll find success," Staal said. "I think confidence goes a long way, especially for younger players. If we can get that confidence up and all these young guys early, I think we can do a lot of very good things. I'll just try and shepherd some of that along as I get integrated with the group, but for the most part, I'll be myself and be a pro, and push guys to compete every night and have success to try and win."
You can listen to the entire conference call below: