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Pittsburgh Penguins' Jordan Staal (11) celebrates his short-handed goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) (Gene J. Puskar)
Pittsburgh Penguins' Jordan Staal (11) celebrates his short-handed goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) (Gene J. Puskar)

NHL Notebook

Is Jordan Staal on the trade block? Add to ...

After months of living without meaningful NHL trade rumours, speculation and gossip, finally something to sink our teeth into.

Thank you, Jordan Staal - or at least, the people pondering Staal’s future with the Pittsburgh Penguins, given that he is down to the final year of a contract that will pay him $4.5-million, after which he will become an unrestricted free agent.

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The thought that Staal might be available is tied mainly to two factors: one, Pittsburgh’s burgeoning payroll, and the uncertainty over how the next collective bargaining agreement will look; and two, the notion that with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin ahead of him on the depth chart, Staal will forever be a third-line centre with top-six talent, unless he moves to greener, different pastures.

So this week, there was some speculation that he might end up as an Edmonton Oiler because the Oilers could use the qualities that Staal brings to the table - size, experience, leadership, two-way play - to supplement their young kiddie corps; and that further, Edmonton, has a chip to dangle, the No. 1 choice in the NHL entry draft, which Pittsburgh is used to wielding. And hey, what a coincidence, the draft is in Pittsburgh this year. Might be fun to make a splash in front of the home-town folk.

Sorry to disappoint Oiler Nation, but no NHL team, especially one as well-run as Pittsburgh, and as well-supported as Pittsburgh, is going to make a trade just for the sake of a one-day marketing bonanza. It might make some sense if the Penguins thought that the No. 1 available player in the draft, the Sarnia Sting’s Nail Yakupov, would be a good cheaper fit on the team, maybe as a complement to Evgeni Malkin, a fellow Russian. The problem with that reasoning is that Malkin won the 2012 scoring title and is favoured to win the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player, in part because he already has great chemistry with a couple of teammates, James Neal and Chris Kunitz.

Next on the rumour front was the possibility that Staal could be traded to the Carolina Hurricanes and be reunited with his older brother, Eric. This actually makes more sense on the reality scale. In fact, it was always my belief that this trade almost happened six years ago, or just before the 2006 entry draft, when Staal went second overall behind Erik Johnson (St. Louis Blues).

The previous summer, the Hurricanes had drafted Crosby’s high-school teammate, Jack Johnson, and were trying to coax him to leave the University of Michigan after his freshman season. Johnson balked, wanting to return to school, and during that time, the Hurricanes soured on Johnson so much so that they started exploring trade options (rare for a player taken so high, at so young an age).

Pittsburgh would have been a good landing spot for him, given that at that point in their development, they’d put a young goalie (Marc-Andre Fleury) plus Malkin and Crosby into the mix through high draft choices, but needed to add to their defensive depth. It didn’t happen - and Johnson’s rights were subsequently dealt by Carolina in September of that year to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Tim Gleason and Eric Belanger.

Carolina, obviously, would have liked to have added Staal then and it wouldn’t be a shock if they went after him now. The problem, of course, is the same as it was six years ago - what to offer in return that gets the deal done. Once again, Carolina has a young defenceman that everybody’s excited about - Justin Faulk, who played as a teenager in the NHL last season; and a Jordan Staal wannabe in Brandon Sutter, who probably doesn’t have the same offensive upside (or the same salary expectations). And of course, they too have the eighth pick in the entry draft.

So there are realistic pieces that Carolina can dangle and then it’s just a matter of - oh yeah - does Pittsburgh actually go ahead and try to move Staal, or wait another year to see what happens with Crosby’s health? Organizationally, the worst thing the Penguins can possibly do is trade Staal, thinking that they’ll have Crosby and Malkin at their disposal for 82 games next year, and then one or the other is back on the injured list and suddenly a position of strength - the NHL’s premier centre-ice corps - becomes a position of weakness.

Still, it’s a talking point that will likely heat up closer to the June entry draft, as more and more Stanley Cup contenders drop by the wayside and the need to tweak and adjust, which didn’t seem nearly as pressing back at the trade deadline, suddenly becomes more of a need now.

WHITHER SIDNEY CROSBY?: When it comes to trade talks, the job of an NHL general manager is make an intelligent rationale decision at the junction where loyalty and smart business practices intersect. It sounds easy, but it really isn’t. Many times in the past, as mercenary as the industry has become, loyalty often trumps the more logical business path, when it comes to dealing - or more specifically, not dealing a player.

Loyalty is the primary factor behind the Calgary Flames’ ongoing reluctance to trade Jarome Iginla. Roberto Luongo made life a lot easier for his general manager in Vancouver, Mike Gillis, when he said in exit interviews that he would consider a move out of town, to make way for Cory Schneider as the team’s new No. 1 goalie.

The Canucks might have made that decision on their own anyway - and tacitly did, when they gave Schneider the key starts in their first round playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings - but Luongo could have made trouble because of his no-trade contract, which has 10 years to run.

Instead, he let Gillis off the hook, and now it’s just a matter of finding a home for Bobby Lou - and talks can start right away because all the principal trading partners (the Florida Panthers, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Columbus Blue Jackets) are on the sidelines already.

If you’re Ray Shero, the GM in Pittsburgh - and you strip emotion, history, a recent Stanley Cup victory and all his health issues out of the equation - the cold, hard logical choice in Pittsburgh is not to move Staal, but to ponder what life might look like with Crosby in a different uniform.

Sacrilegious? Maybe. Likely to happen? No.

But from a business standpoint, the Penguins would have to acknowledge that all the hockey they played without Crosby these past two years, they were a pretty good team. Statistically, Malkin produces more points when Crosby is on the sidelines as opposed to in the line-up.

Staal is more productive too - he gets to play on the second power-play unit and his role on the team is more clearly defined. (Note that among Penguins’ forwards, Staal played the second-most minutes this season, 20:03, behind Malkin’s 21:01. He also had five goals on the power play and three on the penalty kill, which suggests that his value is known to the coaching staff, even if he is down at No. 5 on the scoring chart, with a highly respectable 50 points in 62 games).

So then we turn to Crosby, who had a mere 37 points in 22 games this season, which prorates to a 138-point season, which would have been 29 more than Malkin produced this year to win the scoring title. For all the Crosby haters and doubters out there, that is a phenomenal upside, which naturally, all rests on the possibility that his concussion and neck woes are behind him now.

What a lot of people haven’t discussed is that Crosby’s contract expires after the 2012-13 season, in the same way Staal’s does. Currently, he is playing on a five-year, $43.5-million contract he signed before the 08-09 season. The salary cap charge is $8.7-million annually. Because the deal was front-loaded, Crosby has earned $9 million in each of the first four years of the deal and actually takes a pay cut, to $7.5-million, next year to play out the deal. Once the Penguins get past July 1, they can officially open negotiations on an extension with both players (a provision of the current CBA), although there is nothing to prevent them from informally exploring the landscape, even as we speak.

When Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk and Mike Richards and all those players were signing those lifetime contracts (with the Washington Capitals, New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers respectively), the agents for Crosby and Malkin (CAA, based out of Los Angeles and Calgary) settled for five-year deals, on the sensible grounds that it provided flexibility for both the player and the team. Malkin signed a contract identical to Crosby’s, and it will expire in two years time. At the very least, the Penguins need to explore - now rather than later - a sense of what Crosby’s intentions are going forward.

Years ago, when Crosby signed his contract originally, there was some thought that the Montreal Canadiens might have a shot at signing Crosby when he hit free agency for the first time (the 24-year-old Crosby turns 25 in August). Montreal was the team he supported as a youth; and wouldn’t he be a nice building block for new GM Marc Bergevin who, as it happens, counts Penguins’ owner Mario Lemieux among his close friends. But Crosby wasn’t particularly well treated by fans at the Bell Centre during the Canadiens’ playoff series win over the Penguins in 2010, and his affection for that team has allegedly waned.

Shero cut his managerial teeth in the Nashville Predators organization before joining Pittsburgh, and so, he traditionally tends to err on the side of conservatism. The biggest moves he’s made (Kunitz for Ryan Whitney, Alex Goligoski for James Neal) are modest transactions compared to the tremors that a move involving Staal, or (far less likely) Crosby would make.

In his post-season comments, Shero acknowledged that with the uncertainty over how the next collective bargaining agreement is going to unfold, it may be difficult to keep all three of the Penguins’ top centres - and some have even suggested that Malkin should be the odd man out.

But given how Shero operates, the most likely outcome is that all three are in Pittsburgh colours in September, and the Penguins adopt a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to their strength down the middle - postponing the discussion until they see what a new CBA looks like, which would then give them a far clearer look into what the future may hold.

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