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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Discussion
  1. ThirtyONE
    But... we drafted two more centers, one of which may actually play this season. Saarela isn't in the league yet. Again, not sure that one has to do with the other. Seems a tenuous connection at best, just trying to dog a shitty trade. This article would make more sense halfway through the season when Saarela has 30 points in 45 games. As of now he's nothing and we have two better prospects.

    You discredit Saarela because he isn't in the league yet, but then say we drafted Adnersson who may actually play this season...
    You discredit Saarela's European numbers, then talk about the two better prospects we drafted that have worse European numbers...
    Andersson and Chytil may very well be better than Saarela in a few years, but right now they are 18 and 17 respectively. Saarela is further along in his development. The article is true in that we'd be in a much more comfortable position if Saarela was still here right now.
    Long live the King
    Trading Saarela hurt our center depth. Hence losing two centers in one off-season stings. Pretty straight forward...
    Sent from my SM-G930V using Blueshirts Brotherhood mobile app powered by Tapatalk

    But... we drafted two more centers, one of which may actually play this season. Saarela isn't in the league yet. Again, not sure that one has to do with the other. Seems a tenuous connection at best, just trying to dog a shitty trade. This article would make more sense halfway through the season when Saarela has 30 points in 45 games. As of now he's nothing and we have two better prospects.
    What does Stepan or Lindberg have to do with Eric Staal or Saarela?
    Yeah it was a shitty trade -- we think -- but the guy we're butt hurt about losing isn't even in the NHL yet. I'm more pissed about the two 2nd rounders.
    Even still, how exactly is that trade still hurting the Rangers? Saarela's european numbers aren't exactly earth shattering and 9 AHL games isn't really worth shit. I could give you a never ending list of players who were AHL superstars that turn out to be complete duds in the NHL. Not saying this kids can't be good but why is this even coming up considering this happened two seasons ago? I guess I don't understand the point or the connection you're trying to make. How somehow the Staal trade is why we don't have Stepan or Lindberg.
    Phil in Absentia
    The AHL is, inarguably, the single best feeder league to predicting potential NHL success there is. Pointing out AHL success, especially in this case, reinforces the point that losing Saarela is going to hurt.

    is there any statistical evidence proving this? Not calling you out, just curious to see the numbers.
    Nicky Fotiu
    It was a bad trade but I believe fans value 2nd round picks much more than NHL GMs in general especially low 2nd round picks. The odds of a low second round pick becoming a all star level player are very low. I'm shocked that a 32 year old Staal had 28 goals and 65 points last season. I would be more shocked if he repeats it this upcoming season. It is unlikely one of the second round picks we traded scores 65 points in a season.

    But 65 points also isn't the measure of whether or not they're a success, and Staal didn't have that 65 points with us. If one of those second rounders could've turned out to be a replacement for Oscar Lindberg, that's still a HUGE loss. We're really hurting for centers right now.
    Ranger Lothbrok
    I didn't get that one at the time and I never will. I mean, it wasn't even like the MSL or Yandle trades where we added a productive player and paid the price for it. We traded for the ghost of Eric Staal. He hadn't been relevant in probably close to 5 years. We didn't have any first rounders left, so we traded 2nd rounders and a good prospect. Great idea. And at the time, Saarela WAS already looking like a solid prospect. It isn't like we dealt him and he came out of nowhere to light the world on fire.
    Just a dumb, dumb move. Given Gorton's track record since then, I'm inclined to believe he didn't have much say in that trade. I'm kind of thinking that was all Dolan and/or Slats. Gorton has shown that he covets having future assets.

    It was a bad trade but I believe fans value 2nd round picks much more than NHL GMs in general especially low 2nd round picks. The odds of a low second round pick becoming a all star level player are very low. I'm shocked that a 32 year old Staal had 28 goals and 65 points last season. I would be more shocked if he repeats it this upcoming season. It is unlikely one of the second round picks we traded scores 65 points in a season.
    I didn't get that one at the time and I never will. I mean, it wasn't even like the MSL or Yandle trades where we added a productive player and paid the price for it. We traded for the ghost of Eric Staal. He hadn't been relevant in probably close to 5 years. We didn't have any first rounders left, so we traded 2nd rounders and a good prospect. Great idea. And at the time, Saarela WAS already looking like a solid prospect. It isn't like we dealt him and he came out of nowhere to light the world on fire.
    Just a dumb, dumb move. Given Gorton's track record since then, I'm inclined to believe he didn't have much say in that trade. I'm kind of thinking that was all Dolan and/or Slats. Gorton has shown that he covets having future assets.
    Phil in Absentia
    The AHL is, inarguably, the single best feeder league to predicting potential NHL success there is. Pointing out AHL success, especially in this case, reinforces the point that losing Saarela is going to hurt.

    That is probably true or close to true but there are guys that perform well at the AHL level that do not carry that success to the NHL level. Too soon to tell about Saarela. Still a bad trade regardless.
    Having to read this article reopened a wound that I thought I had closed. I f'n hate Eric Staal...and I have hated that stupid trade before it even happened.
    Mikey37
    Losing 5 rolls of clear tape for Staal would hurt. Again, his production in the AHL in 9 games doesn't mean a whole lot until he proves himself consistently in the NHL. Like I said before, if he does well, it's just more salt on that deal wound.

    Sure, but the point is that given how well he performed in the Liiga and in his short AHL stint, it's pretty clear he'd be a front-runner to make the Rangers if they hadn't traded him away.
    Phil in Absentia
    The AHL is, inarguably, the single best feeder league to predicting potential NHL success there is. Pointing out AHL success, especially in this case, reinforces the point that losing Saarela is going to hurt.

    Losing 5 rolls of clear tape for Staal would hurt. Again, his production in the AHL in 9 games doesn't mean a whole lot until he proves himself consistently in the NHL. Like I said before, if he does well, it's just more salt on that deal wound.
    The AHL is, inarguably, the single best feeder league to predicting potential NHL success there is. Pointing out AHL success, especially in this case, reinforces the point that losing Saarela is going to hurt.