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Bob McKenzie

TSN Hockey Insider


The long-awaited and much-anticipated dialogue on the future of Eric Staal as a Carolina Hurricane took place yesterday.

That’s not to say there was a decision or resolution of any kind.

Carolina general manager Ron Francis and Staal's agent Rick Curran did talk on the phone on Tuesday, but basically deferred ‎all matters relating to Staal's future to the new year.

Neither Francis ‎nor Curran wanted to comment publicly, other than to indicate no doors have been opened or closed on either side and there's no timetable beyond "talking again sometime in the new year."

In a nutshell, the Staal situation appears as basic as this: Does he stay or does he go?

All we know with any certainty at this point is we'll be waiting weeks, if not months, for a definitive answer.

The Canes' captain and face of the franchise in Raleigh is in the final year of a contract that pays him $9.25 million with a cap hit of $8.25 million. He is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

Carolina has to decide whether to re-sign Staal and, if so, at what price and, if not, can the Canes trade him before the Feb. 29 deadline? Staal has to decide if he wants to re-sign in Carolina — he has publicly indicated he would like to stay — but if so, at what price? And if not, is he prepared to waive his no-move and no-trade clauses to facilitate a trade or does he simply bide his time to free agency in the summer?

It may seem basic, but there are so many moving parts on both sides.

One scenario we can likely rule out is Carolina re-signing Staal at his current cap hit and/or salary. If he gets a contract offer, it certainly won't include a raise.

The Canes are a budget team and as much as Staal has meant to the franchise — he led them to a 2006 Stanley Cup ‎victory — the 31-year-old's game isn't where it once was. That isn't to say he can't still be an effective and valued player, especially on a contending team, as much as it is an acknowledgement that he's not likely to get elite-level compensation ($8 million plus) at this stage of his career.

So what's it going to be?

Conventional wisdom is Carolina would best be served by moving on without Staal; that the struggling franchise can make better use of the dollars elsewhere in a youth movement rebuild and/or benefit from anything they could get for Staal in a trade — if the player permits it.

But this is not just a hockey decision. Ultimately, owner Peter Karmanos will have to make the call. Staal may not be the force he was once was but to many Canes' fans, he is the franchise‎. The question becomes, is there any merit, on and off the ice, in having Staal finish his career as a Hurricane?

Presumably, for those considerations, Carolina has apparently not yet closed the door on Staal coming back on a less pricey contract.

What is that number? The $6 million annual cap hit his 27-year-old brother Jordan has with the Canes could be a starting point. One would have to think Eric is not going to take less per year than his younger brother.

Does that even make sense for Carolina? Would Staal consider it? Questions, for now anyway, without answers.

If the Canes decide they want to start Life After Staal, can they convince him to waive his NMC/NTC? It's not as if he's a player who has never won a Cup before. Would he uproot himself and his family at the deadline for another Cup shot? Or would he rather enjoy what could be his last season in Carolina playing with his brother and simply wait until July 1 to determine his new hockey home?

More questions: If Carolina decides to cut ties with Eric, what of Jordan, who was traded from Pittsburgh to Carolina, ostensibly to play with his brother?

Many believe if Carolina decides to move on without Eric, it will signal a desire to move on from Jordan as well. But with seven years (after this season) left on his deal at $6 million per year, it won't be an easy contract to move.

We could see both Staals on the trade block in February. We could see neither.

There will be considerable interest in how Carolina goes about its business with Eric Staal. Many believe he's precisely the type of big centre that could put a contending team, say Montreal, over the top this season. But some will be wary, too, viewing Staal as a high-priced but diminishing asset.

Staal has played better in some recent games since being shifted from wing back to centre. He sees himself as a centre and believes that's the position he's most likely to be effective.

So now we go back to doing what we were doing before Francis and Curran spoke yesterday —waiting. 

The truth is none of this — Carolina's decision on what to do and Staal's reaction to it — really needs to play out until after the new year anyway, probably a lot closer to the trade deadline.

Staal is certain to have a quiet Carolina Christmas. Any trade interest in him will be greater the closer it gets to the deadline as the assumed financial obligation and cap implications lessen.

The ball is in the Canes' court on how to proceed long term with Staal, but the player with the NMC/NTC clauses is the only one driving the bus in the short term‎.

Check back in January, or quite possibly February, to see how it all unfolds.

Bob McKenzie is the 2015 recipient of the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award for excellence in hockey writing.