On June 21, 2012, a report created waves around the NHL.
According to TSN’s Bob McKenzie and Darren Dreger, Pittsburgh Penguins center Jordan Staal turned down a ten-year, $60 million contract extension with the team.
Though Staal still had another year left on his four-year, $16 million deal with the Pens, the writing was on the wall for then-Penguins general manager Ray Shero; Staal would not be a Penguin for long.
That “for long” ended up being a little more than one day.
On June 22, 2012, the first night of the 2012 NHL Draft, league commissioner Gary Bettman went to the podium in Consol Energy Center (now PPG Paints Arena) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and said a series of words that I likely won’t ever forget hearing on my television:
“We have a trade to announce... And for those of you in the building, you will be particularly interested.”
Then, met with a barrage of fan reactions in the arena, it happened.
The Pittsburgh Penguins had traded rising star center Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes for fellow young centerman Brandon Sutter, defensive prospect Brian Dumoulin, and the eighth-overall pick in the 2012 Draft, which ended up being defenseman Derrick Pouliot.
But what if that never happened? What if the trade that united the Canes’ captain with his younger brother never came to fruition?
Let’s discuss it.
For starters, there’s a good chance that Staal still would have been traded at or shortly after the draft to a team in need of center help. According to then-Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford, Shero called him just before 4:30 pm on the day of the draft to tell him that the Pens would trade Staal.
The eventual deal was consummated at 6:45 on that same day.
So, if that would have never happened, it seems like the Penguins were pretty set on selling high on their third-line center who was fresh off of a 25-goal season despite playing a supporting role and missing 20 games due to injury.
A story line through this was that Jordan wanted to play with one of his brothers, so there’s still a chance that he would have played the 2012-13 season and hit the free agent market. From there, the Hurricanes likely would have been the clubhouse leader to sign him, especially since he turned down the exact same deal with the Pens that he eventually accepted just a week and a half after getting dealt to the Canes.
Instead of making that assumption, let’s say the Hurricanes were never able to get him and the player instead signed a long-term deal elsewhere.
In this situation, Brandon Sutter would have stayed with the team. He was the real centerpiece of the outgoing package from Carolina in the deal, so let’s start with him.
Sutter was scheduled to be a restricted free agent after the 2013-14 season, so the Hurricanes were essentially guaranteed another three years of retaining his services before he would have unrestricted free agent rights.
While he was a great two-way player in Carolina, his offensive production has never reached the point it was at in his second season in the league, wherein he netted 21 goals and a career-high 40 points. He had 29 and 32-point years in the next two years in Raleigh before being dealt.
He then went to Pittsburgh and put up more modest numbers before signing in Vancouver where he is now nothing more than a third-line center.
Had he stayed in Carolina, perhaps things would have gone better for him. There was a point where many hoped/thought he would be a great second-line center behind Eric Staal. Maybe he would’ve been, but his offensive production has never resembled that of a reliable top-six guy, even considering how good he was defensively.
If he spent a minimum three more years with the Hurricanes, he probably would have floated around the 35-point mark each year while continuing to wear a letter on the front of his jersey.
Brian Dumoulin was an afterthought in the trade, but he has panned out like Pittsburgh hoped. Once a good defensive prospect, the American has since turned into a good, defensively-reliable defenseman for the Pens.
There’s no reason to think he couldn’t have been that in Carolina. Assuming he had developed the same way, I think it’s very unlikely the Canes would have signed Calvin de Haan this offseason. Additionally, perhaps it would have changed the 2014, 2015, and 2016 drafts.
Would the Hurricanes have drafted three left-handed defensemen in as many first rounds if they had Dumoulin? Maybe the Canes would have drafted William Nylander or Nikolaj Ehlers instead of Haydn Fleury in 2014 if they had a strong defensive defenseman in Dumoulin about to break into the NHL.
The final piece of this, and the biggest “what if”, is the eighth-overall pick.
The Pens missed pretty badly with that pick as they took Pouliot, a defenseman who was once highly regarded for his offense in the Western Hockey League. He never broke through in Pittsburgh but he seems to have found his comfort zone with Sutter in Vancouver.
Other names that were available for the Hurricanes at eight if they didn’t make the trade? Jacob Trouba, Filip Forsberg, Radek Faksa, and Teuvo Teravainen.
The name that was rumored a lot for Carolina was Faksa, who has turned into a good third-line center, but he’s nothing special. And, of course, the Hurricanes did eventually get their hands on Teravainen.
The name that sticks out the most is Forsberg. He’s probably the best forward from that draft, and I remember watching the draft and hoping that he’d fall to eight, which he did. There’s an alternate universe wherein the Canes take the Swedish winger and, in turn, take a perennial 30-goal scorer.
To double and triple down on this “what if” scenario, what if the Hurricanes had just not traded for Staal, instead kept Sutter and Dumoulin, picked Forsberg with the eighth pick, signed Staal in 2013 free agency, and drafted Nylander or Ehlers in 2014 since they already had Dumoulin? Of course that last point assumes they’d still have a top-ten pick.
There’s a real chance that Carolina’s top-nine center unit would have been Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, and Brandon Sutter. That would have been pretty solid with Forsberg, Nylander or Ehlers, Jeff Skinner, and company supporting them on the wings.
If the Hurricanes had never traded for Jordan Staal, they may have been better off. They could have turned into a constant playoff threat, and once you’re in the playoffs, you never know what could happen. Maybe they’d have another Stanley Cup.
Is all of that likely? No, not at all.
The reasonable way to look at it is that the Hurricanes, without a shadow of a doubt, won the Staal trade. The only player that has stuck in Pittsburgh is Dumoulin. Meanwhile, Sutter and Pouliot both flared out and wound up in Vancouver’s rebuild.
At the end of the day, the Carolina Hurricanes have an outstanding player, person, and leader in Jordan Staal. The Canes were in a situation wherein they had an opportunity to get a great player, and they pulled the trigger - which was the right decision.
Everything beyond that is just butterfly effect, but it’s fun to think about what could have been.
Perhaps most importantly, had that trade not happened, we likely would have never gotten this awesome piece of hockey history: