Staal has received much criticism, and deservedly so, for his lack of production and play this season. And I just couldn't figure out what was/is going on with him. This is a guy that has scored 100 points in a season, I'm sure he hasn't forgotten how to produce. Is it really all Erik Cole or is it something else. So I went back to randomly watch previous seasons games to examine what has worked for Staal and what hasn't. What I determined is that Staal doesn't necessarily miss Cole, but missing a certain forward line balance that works best for him.
When Staal has been most successful, he has had a good power forward that plays around/crashes the net and a playmaking, shooter that plays in the high slot. This allows Staal to go back & forth between the slot area and behind the net.; the 2 areas that work best for him. In his most successful seasons, he had Cole rushing alongside down the ice and creating traffic around the net. He also had Stillman playing quarterback in the high slot area, distributing the puck all around the ice and scoring quite often also. Notice the year after the Cup, Cole & Stillman missed a combined 50 games that season and Staal's production was the lowest of his career (outside of his rookie season). That line balance, when healthy, really worked well for Staal.
When Stillman, then later Cole, were traded away; Staal got new linemates. Cole was replaced by Ruutu and Stillman was replaced by Samsonov. While Samsonov was a good dangler, he didn't have the vision of Stillman and had to have the puck on his stick to be most effective. That didn't really mesh with Staal, so Samsonov was replaced on that line by Whitney. So the Whitney/Staal/Ruutu line started clicking. Eventually Cole was re-acquired and he was reunited with Staal, pushing Ruutu to the 2nd line. The Whitney/Staal/Cole line wasn't quite as good as Stillman/Staal/Cole, but it was still real good and productive. Staal had the line balance that worked for him and he was one of the most dangerous forwards in the league.
Then Whitney left via free agency, but Staal still had Cole. As last year showed, the Canes spent a lot of time trying to find the 3rd member of that line. Eventually Stillman was re-acquired and it seemed to work yet again. Staal had 18 points in 20 games after Stillman was brought in. Cole had 15 points in 21 games and Stillman had 16 points in 21 games. Then in the offseason Cole signed in Montreal and Stillman retired.
This season, the Canes started off by having Skinner & Ruutu as Staal's linemates. While Skinner is an excellent player, he is more in the Samsonov mold than Stillman or Whitney. He needs the puck on his stick more often than not to play his game. Ruutu seemed to be injured at the beginning of the year and wasn't really driving the net. Also, neither really seem to have the rushing ability that Staal had with Cole. So Ruutu was replaced by LaRose. While LaRose has decent speed and will crash the net, his skill level is not on par with a NHL top 6 player. So next Poni and tried in Skinner's spot and Ruutu replaced LaRose. Those players all like playing down low and neither are known for their passing abilities; it just wasn't a good balance. So Tlusty & LaRose were put with Staal. Tlusty played well, but really isn't at the playmaking level or Stillman or Whitney. Also both of those wingers still like to play below the circles. A lot of Tlusty passes originate from the goal line area.
This is not trying to make excuses for Staal, because he has not been good this year. Just while looking back, it seems that Staal needs a certain balance to his line to prosper. Maybe the coaches can recognize the same thing and figure out linemates for Staal that would help getting him on track. If Staal can start playing like Staal, that opens up a lot of things for the other lines and other players. We can go from average to above average real quick.
Looking at our current roster, here are some players that might work for "the Staal Balanced Line." You could try Poni & Jussi. Poni is a net crasher with decent hands and Jussi is the high slot player that is good at finding the open man. The major problem here is that Jussi would be off the SkinFinns line and I know that wouldn't work for a lot of the people of CC. You could also try Boychuk & Dalpe. These kids haven't really proved themselves in the NHL yet, but they have similar skills (not the same, but similar) to Stillman & Cole. Boychuk is creative, distributes the puck well, and doesn't have to possess the puck to be effective. He does seem to like to go to the dirty areas more than Stillman, but nobody is going to be the exact same. Dalpe had good speed and is a scoring forward like Cole. He's not going to attack the net like Cole would do, but he might have a better shot than Erik. You could even try Jussi & Stewart. Jussi as mentioned above, but there's still the SkinFinns problem. Stewart has some similarities to Cole's game. He will crash the net and creat havoc, but isn't as responsible defensively as Cole. Other than that, I don't really see a lot of current players that would fit the roles Staal needs.
These are just my observations, so I could be totally wrong. It just appears that Staal needs that balance to be most effective and we need him to be effective to be successful.