How the Eric Staal Trade Still Haunts the Rangers

The Rangers made a mistake.

With the trade of Derek Stepan to the Arizona Coyotes prior to the NHL Entry Draft and the loss of Oscar Lindberg in the NHL Expansion Draft, the Rangers are missing some quality center depth – something that was considered a team strength for the past few seasons. Repeated swings and misses at winning the Stanley Cup have left the cupboards quite bare and the Hartford Wolfpack do not offer any viable options to fill the gaps. One huge miss was the Eric Staal trade that saw Finnish prospect Aleksi Saarela shipped to Carolina.

In case you’ve blocked the horrendous trade out of your memory, here’s a brief rundown. In 2015-2016, the Rangers traded Saarela and two second-round draft picks to the Carolina Hurricanes for Eric Staal. Staal was in the midst of one of the sharpest declines in the NHL at the time and had only 10 goals and 23 assists in 63 games with the Hurricanes at the time of the trade. It should come as no surprise, then, that he only was able to produce 3 goals and 3 assists in his 23 regular season games with the Rangers and a whopping zero points in the Rangers’ futile postseason run that year.

Aleksi Saarela—the Rangers’ third- round pick in 2015—was playing in the Finnish Liiga, Finland’s top league, at the time of the trade. From 2015 to 2017, he put up 35 goals and 26 assists 100 games. At the end of his 2016-2017 season with Lukko, the Hurricanes said, “Head West, young man.” Saarela reported to Charlotte for a brief stint with the Checkers of the AHL to close out the season. In those nine games, his first exposure to North American hockey, he had 6 goals and 4 assists.

So why does all of this matter, you might ask? Well, 20 year-old Aleksi Saarela happens to be a center. Wouldn’t it be nice to have that level of skill in the system? With the way he has developed in the Liiga and given his AHL performance, no stretch to believe that he’d be challenging for a spot on the Rangers roster this coming season given their gaps at center. If nothing else, he would have shot to the top of the Hartford Wolfpack’s center depth chart – a spot currently held by Cristoval Nieves. The 24-year-old Nieves is heading into his second full year as a pro and has not impressed thus far, with his career ceiling being projected as a depth NHL player.

Then there are the other two pieces of the Staal trade – both second-round draft picks. I will not ruminate over who the Rangers could have drafted with those picks. Since the draft picks were in 2016 and 2017, at this early stage, it is impossible to evaluate the potential options of players available at those spots. However, since we are in an alternate reality, what if those draft picks were used in a trade that wasn’t for the fading star that was Eric Staal? The Carolina Hurricanes used the 2016 second-round pick the Rangers gave them, packaged it with a 2017 third-round pick, and traded them to the Chicago Blackhawks for Teuvo Teravainen and Bryan Bickell. Teravainen was being developed by the Blackhawks as a center and shifted between wing and center with the Hurricanes in the 2016-2017 season scoring 15 goals and 27 assists. What’s to say the Rangers couldn’t have made a similar or even the same trade? The Hurricanes didn’t give up a single prospect  or roster player for Teravainen, a versatile player with plenty of untapped offensive potential who would fit very well in the Rangers system.

It has been well documented that Mika Zibanejad is expected to slot up and fill-in for Stepan’s role. Similarly, Kevin Hayes will likely move up to the second line with hopes that he can continue to improve and consistently utilize his undeniable skill. In free agency, the Rangers signed David Desharnais to a 1-year, $1 million contract () in order to take Lindberg’s spot on the fourth line.

That leaves an opening on the third line, which is where the problem lies. A prospect like Saarela or a player like Teravainen would have been perfect for this role – one in which a highly skilled player can thrive. I don’t mean to imply Jeff Gorton should have predicted the future, but to leave the cupboards so bare was careless.

Many people will point to J.T. Miller and say, “Well, he’s played center before, why can’t he slot in?” As Phil Kocher pointed out in his article yesterday, Miller had the best season of his career and was one of the best players on the team last year. He did this all mostly playing the wing alongside Hayes and Michael Grabner. Moving him to center after that seems like the wrong idea, but it’s very likely a solution the Rangers will attempt anyway.

Sure, there is plenty of crying over spilled milk going on here, but the Eric Staal trade was the result of three major errors; identifying the wrong player as a Stanley Cup run rental, overpaying for that player given recent scoring results, and disregarding future prospect depth at center. It’s possible the Rangers could pay for that error this upcoming season as they head into training camp with a series of question marks down the middle of their forward lineup.

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