If Staal is available, Leafs must pounce

General manager Brian Burke has limited options to bolster the Toronto Maple Leafs’ center position.

Much like goaltending, which is another priority this off-season, the market is bare. If Burke wishes to ensure better odds for a playoff berth next season, the goaltending and center positions will have to be addressed.

How exactly that can be accomplished remains to be seen.

This year’s unrestricted free agency crop lacks depth across the board, but particularly so at center, with Olli Jokinen being the top among the list.

Bad news.

So, who’s available in the trade market? Well, none other than the oft-rumoured Jordan Staal, of course.

Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review published an article discussing Staal’s potential availability and which teams may be the suitors in a trade. The Minnesota Wild, Edmonton Oilers, Carolina Hurricanes and, you guessed it, Leafs were on the list. So what exactly does that mean? Not much, really.

The Leafs are connected to multiple rumours every off-season (Luongo seems to be the hot topic this summer) and rarely does anything come to fruition. That said, there are interesting factors to consider when analyzing a potential trade between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Leafs.

The Penguins require stability on the backend and, according to Yohe, 22-year-old Luke Schenn could be the stay-at-home defenseman the team sorely lacks. Schenn’s recent struggles have been well-documented, but he has potential as a reliable top-four defenseman that can insert some grit on the blueline. With a cap-hit of $3.6-million, Schenn would essentially replace Staal’s contract, which runs for one more year at $4-million. The other player mentioned is Nazem Kadri, who had a successful regular season with the Toronto Marlies and appears to be taking strides towards reaching the next level with 10 points in 11 playoff games thus far. If a package similar to this build is required to land Staal then I don’t believe Burke will have an issue relinquishing two young players for a 23-year-old.

The issue for the Penguins is that Staal would like increased responsibility outside of his third-line duties. He’s due for a raise that could earn him upwards of $6-million per season, especially in the UFA market next season. While general manager Ray Shero would love nothing more than to retain the Thunder Bay, Ontario-native’s services, Yohe makes mention of the salary cap issues which constrain the team:

“The Penguins have $40 million locked up in 10 players for the 2013-14 season. That figure doesn’t include Crosby, who probably will make about $10 million that season.”

That, and Evgeni Malkin is due for a new contract in two years’ time. It appears Staal, who publicly acknowledged that his time may be at an end in Pittsburgh, may don a different jersey for the 2012-13 season. And with one year remaining on his contract and plenty to prove, what perfect timing it would be for Staal.

But do the Leafs have a realistic shot at landing the 6’4, 220-pound center? That all depends on what other teams are willing to offer, but the fact that the Hurricanes are on the list is not a good sign. Consider that older brother Eric Staal plays for Carolina. Younger brother Jared Staal is in the system, too. Whether the Hurricanes are willing to part with a package of players to land Staal remains to be seen, but the team has to be, as of now, the most logical destination for Staal.

From the Leafs’ standpoint, acquiring a player of Staal’s ilk would be major coup for Burke. Staal produced a career-high 50 points in 62 games this season, but only averaged 1:59 of powerplay time on ice per game, which ranked seventh among Penguins forwards. Staal was utilized on the penalty kill, however, with 2:38 of shorthanded time on ice per game, which ranked second only behind Craig Adams (2:51 SH TOI/G). Staal played tough minutes as well, leading all Penguins players who played over 60 games in Corsi Quality of Competition (Corsi QoC) with a .264 rating. Staal’s Corsi relative to the quality of competition (Corsi rel QoC) also led the team with a 1.461 rating. This all means that Staal displayed consistency in the defensive end and was relied upon as the team’s top shutdown forward.

Staal is so under-utilized in the offensive end that only Adams and Joe Vitale have lower offensive zone start percentages, which means Staal is rarely put in a position to produce. He is used primarily as a shutdown centerman and he excels in that role, but there’s no wonder why he feels he could produce more with added responsibility.

Whether the Leafs have a realistic shot at landing Staal is irrelevant. If he indeed becomes available then he is without a doubt the best option for the Leafs at center and Burke should do whatever it takes to acquire him.

You stay classy, TCL.

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Advanced statistics retrieved from www.behindthenet.ca.