The seal has officially been broken on the trade deadline, as the Montreal Canadiens have acquired center Eric Staal from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for two 2021 draft choices; a third-rounder and a fifth-rounder. Buffalo also retains $1.62 million in salary, half of Staal's stipend this year.
For Montreal, the addition of a big, veteran center who has a Stanley Cup ring to his name is a no-brainer. The Canadiens are fairly comfortable in the North Division standings right now and based on games-in-hand, it will take a big swoon for them to drop out of fourth place. The team has been decent under new coach Dominique Ducharme, but they certainly can't let up, with a slew of games against Toronto, Edmonton and Winnipeg coming in early April.
Montreal's centers have not been intimidating of late, with Nick Suzuki cooling off from his torrid early-season pace and Philip Danault still with just two goals to show for the season. Jesperi Kotkaniemi has also been fine, but not a world-beater. And while Staal's numbers in Buffalo are anything but inspiring this season, it is important to remember that everything Sabres-related has been a catastrophe.
What Staal does bring is a big body and some old-man strength down the middle - something that becomes a lot more important in the playoffs. There's also the obvious advantage of depth at center, the most critical position in the game. Looking big-picture, the Habs will likely face either Toronto, Winnipeg or Edmonton in the first round of the playoffs and all three of those opponents would have an advantage on Montreal at the pivot position. Staal might not tip the scales in Montreal's favor, but he does certainly help the disparity.
For Buffalo, the Staal move is the first of likely several, as GM Kevyn Adams tries to get as much as he can for a roster that has sagged terribly this season. Staal is slated to hit unrestricted free agency this summer, so he is a classic "rental" trade. Could the Sabres have gotten more for such a coveted asset?
Perhaps what is most eyebrow-raising is that both picks are for the 2021 draft. It might have been more prudent for Adams to make one of the selections a 2022 pick, since this year's draft class has been chaotic to scout: OHL players haven't even hit the ice yet and it's hard to say if they even will at this point. Meanwhile, the WHL regular season is being limited to 24 games and many other leagues have been rocked by schedule problems due to the pandemic.
There's also the matter of Buffalo's ever-changing scouting department. As reported by The Athletic's John Vogl, an already skeleton staff is currently going under more revisions as director of amateur scouting Jeremiah Crowe is being moved over to the pro scouting side, with Jerry Forton taking over his role just a few months before the draft itself. Currently, the Sabres have a very small scouting department and that's not good news for a team that needs to keep rebuilding.
The third- and fifth-rounders in 2021 do replace previous picks that had been traded away already, so Buffalo now has eight picks for the seven-round draft - but the sixth round is the only one with multiple selections.
With Taylor Hall on top of the trade deadline target board, Buffalo is probably not done acquiring future assets, so maybe the Staal haul was simply an appetizer. It's hard to see Sabres fans releasing any of their skepticism until Adams gets some bigger prizes (like a first-rounder and/or a promising prospect) however, and it's been that kind of season.