Five days to go until the Carolina Hurricanes' future direction becomes much clearer. While there is still some reasonable disagreement over whether the Canes will pull the trigger on trading Eric Staal, everything else is coming into focus quite nicely.
John-Michael Liles has seen his ice time increase to the point that he led the team's defensemen in Sunday's loss to the Lightning, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he's being showcased for a deal. Riley Nash could fetch a surprisingly decent return if the Canes move on him. Kris Versteeg and the Florida Panthers continue to seem to be a match made in heaven.
At the other end of the spectrum, Bill Peters, who has played coy all year with his goaltender rotation, came out and admitted outright after Friday's game that Cam Ward would be his man in net for the rest of the year, which seems to be the strongest indication yet that the Canes' longtime goaltender will not be moved at the deadline.
The trade market with Eric Staal is much more complex, thanks in large part to his $8.25 million cap hit. Few teams have that kind of cap space that would be at all interested in his services. The Canes do have the option of retaining up to half of his salary, which could make a big difference but will still require some creative accounting from a few teams to fit Staal under their cap.
What would the Canes want in return?
The thinking is that the Canes would want to obtain a first-round draft pick and a nearly NHL-ready prospect, preferably a center, plus any contracts that the other team would want to dump in order to make the math work. The Canes have well over $30 million in cap space, so even the worst contracts could be in play, although the Canes will want to be careful that they don't get stuck with a long-term deal (David Clarkson, for example, would be a non-starter, not that the Blue Jackets are in the Staal sweepstakes to begin with).
Wait, another first round pick? Don't they already have two?
Doesn't have to be a 2016 pick, although if the Canes were to wind up with three picks in the first round of the 2016 draft, their rebuilding process would probably be accelerated by a significant amount, to the point that the playoffs next season would be a realistic target rather than the years-long rebuild we have all been braced for.
Whither Jordan Staal?
It was suggested in a column yesterday that the Canes could be looking to sell high on Jordan Staal. While this doesn't seem like an absurd idea on its face - it's probably true that his trade value right now is as high as it will ever be - it basically consigns the Canes to a lengthy rebuild. JStaal is, unquestionably, the most valuable player to the Hurricanes right now, and trading him now could easily trigger a Columbus-like perpetual rebuild. There's no need to chance that right now. I'd be absolutely shocked if he moves.
So, where could Eric wind up? I'll hang up and listen.
Thanks for the call. These are in no order and are pure speculation, so rumor mongers, if you're reading, it's C-A-N-E-S-C-O-U-N-T-R-Y that you want to credit. All numbers are taken from General Fanager.
Record: 27-23-10, 64 points, 2 points out of wild card
Cap space available: ~$3 million
Trading Staal to Minnesota would give the Wild two 1A centers in Staal and Mikko Koivu, but that may be about it. Mikael Granlund would be the obvious name to return, and the Wild do have a first-round pick available but they've traded their 2016 second and third round picks. Unless the Canes would be willing to send a pick back the other way, it seems unlikely the Wild would give up their first three draft picks. Not to mention, the Wild would need to clear out about $5 million in salary to fit Staal under their cap, and all of their high-earning players are on long term contracts. Probably unlikely given the hurdles.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Record: 34-22-4, 72 points, 2nd in Atlantic
Cap space available: $1.5 million
Would be highly unlikely if not for the Jonathan Drouin saga. The Canes have undoubtedly called Steve Yzerman asking what it would take to pry the disgruntled winger from the Lightning, and offering Eric Staal to a team that would have incomparable depth down the middle were it to make the trade would be an awfully juicy carrot to dangle. Drouin would be the main piece to come back to Carolina, and the Lightning would need to include a good number of contracts to even the money out, almost certainly including Braydon Coburn and perhaps J.T. Brown, son of N.C. State football great Ted. The Canes would definitely need to eat some of Staal's cap hit, as well. A trade with the Lighting would be tough to pull off, but not impossible. This is a logical landing spot given the circumstances. Keep an eye on it.
Record: 34-20-6, 74 points, 2nd in Metropolitan
Cap space available: ~$3.5 million
There has been a lot of smoke, fanned by the likes of Larry Brooks and Elliotte Friedman, surrounding Staal to the Rangers. I can't see it, though. The Rangers traded a first round pick in either 2016 or 2017 to the Coyotes in the Keith Yandle deal, and I think it's pretty unlikely that they would trade the other first-rounder to acquire Staal. On top of that, the Rangers don't have any obvious young players to offer, save J.T. Miller, who they would be highly unlikely to move for a rental. I just don't see this happening.
Record: 34-18-7, 75 points, 1st in Atlantic
Cap space available: $23.5 million ($27 million on deadline day)
Almost too good of a fit here. The Cats are getting Aleksander Barkov back tomorrow, but how comfortable are they in having their playoff chances in the hands of a bunch of players - Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Vincent Trocheck - who have never even sniffed the playoffs? Versteeg is an obvious fit here as a third-line voice in the locker room, but Staal going to the Panthers would be the equivalent of the Doug Weight deal for the Canes in 2006: a message to skeptics that they are for real and they're going for it all. They have a first-round pick to offer, oodles of cap space and a solid veteran mix to shepherd them through a deep playoff run. Could the Canes package Staal and Versteeg and pick up some combination of Trocheck, Brandon Pirri and Lawson Crouse, plus a pick? Don't bet against it. There are a ton of options here, which makes the Panthers my clubhouse leader right now.
Record: 38-17-6, 82 points, 1st in Central
Cap space available: $9 million ($10.5 million on deadline day)
The Stars have the cap space, they need to hold off the hard-charging Blackhawks and Blues to avoid playing one of them in the first round, but they already have Jason Spezza and Tyler Seguin. Would Staal accept a trade to a place where he would be the unquestioned third banana? Similar to the Lightning, a Stars move for Staal would give them depth that would be the class of the Western Conference, but it could be that the Stars feel that what they have now is good enough. Mattias Janmark is the obvious name to return in a deal, but it wouldn't surprise me a bit to see the Stars decide that they're going with what they've got. Worth keeping an eye on, but not likely.
St. Louis Blues
Record: 35-18-9, 79 points, 3rd in Central
Cap space available: $3.3 million
The Blues could sure use Staal. There's no telling how much David Backes has left in the tank, and Staal would give the Blues a ton of flexibility. However, there's nothing really obvious for the Blues to offer in return. There's been some rumblings that they've considered offering Ivan Barbashev for Drouin, and Barbashev would be a nice return as part of a package for Staal. The Canes would need to retain some salary, and probably take on a contract, which would likely be...Troy Brouwer. (I know, I know.) This has potential, maybe the most likely Western Conference landing spot, but I'd still rank it behind both Florida teams.
Who else do you think has a chance to land the Canes' captain?