Buffalo Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams made his first trade on the job on Wednesday when he acquired forward Eric Staal from the Minnesota Wild in exchange for forward Marcus Johansson.
After being named as the full-time replacement to general manager Jason Botterill back in June, Adams has been primarily at work building his hockey operations department ahead of the 2020 NHL Draft and the opening of NHL Free Agency, which open in October.
A move like this to acquire a veteran player like Staal was something that was in the cards for Adams since he took over the job.
“Really looking at our roster over these last couple of months and having kind of a short-, medium- and long-term plan of what we need to do, identifying the center ice position and trying to strengthen ourselves up the middle was important,” Adams said on Wednesday during his conference call with the Buffalo media. “To be able to look around the league and being able to target and identify a player like Eric was really important.”
Adams and Staal have a past history with one another as teammates with the Carolina Hurricanes. They played together for parts of three seasons, and were part of the squad that went on to not only beat the Sabres in the Eastern Conference Final, but also win the 2006 Stanley Cup title over the Edmonton Oilers.
For Adams, acquiring Staal from the Wild was more than just a move for his on-ice achievements over the years, but it was also for his veteran leadership that is vital to a young locker room such as the one in Buffalo.
“Eric Staal has had a world class career,” Adams said. “He’s won a Stanley Cup, he’s won an Olympic gold medal, he’s won a [IIHF] World Championship gold medal, he’s been an All-Star many times, he’s still a very productive player, and what I’m telling you there is just what he is on the ice and what he’s done. He’s a tremendous person, high character, a tremendous leader, a former captain. Obviously because of the past and my experience of being a former teammate with him, I’ve seen that up close and personal. We’ve added a phenomenal player and person, which I’m very excited about.”
“There’s very few players in the league, from what they’ve done on and off the ice, that commands the respect and has the presence that an Eric Staal does. He fits in that small group of people. I think it’s a great thing for our locker room, it’s great for our organization, and he’s a winner. He’s been there. He’s been in a Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, he’s raised the trophy. These are really, really important experiences that he’s lived and he’s going to bring into our locker room that are very, very important to our team and the culture that we have.”
As for his first experience of pulling off a trade as a NHL general manager, Adams was sure to take his time understanding the process and getting some feedback on what goes into making trades at the NHL level.
“Certainly there’s a lot of thought and work that goes in before doing something like this. These decisions don’t get made in a vacuum,” Adams said. “There’s a lot of work with the player – watching and making sure you know exactly where there game is at. A lot of conversations with Ralph [Krueger], a lot of conversations with Terry and Kim [Pegula] and what are we looking to do and why, analyzing different thoughts. I like to methodically make decisions, in terms of asking questions, and that’s what I tried to do through this process.
“I feel like I’m learning a lot every day. I learned a lot today, and I’ll learn a lot tomorrow. It’s all part of the experience.”
Following the trade, Adams said he did get the chance to talk with Staal about becoming a member of the Sabres. While he said that the conversation was not long, it was a good opportunity for Adams to catch up with his former teammate in Carolina.
“What I said to Eric too was that I understand when this happens, there’s a lot of emotion,” Adams elaborated. “There’s a lot of things going on in your mind, in terms of, ‘Ok, what does it mean and how does it affect my family?’ There’s just so many moving parts when you get this kind of news.
“We’re obviously going to have a much more in-depth conversation soon, Ralph will as well, but it was great to talk with him. He’s a phenomenal human being, and that’s very important to what we’re doing here.”
Perhaps where the impact of Staal could be felt the greatest this upcoming season is with the growth of some of the young, upcoming prospects on the team.
It is possible that 2019 first round pick Dylan Cozens could become a full-time NHL player next season as a 19-year-old. After the 2019-20 campaign that he had with the Lethbridge Hurricanes in the Western Hockey League and his impressive performance on the big stage at the IIHF World Junior Championship for Team Canada, there’s a very fair argument to be made that Cozens is ready to take the next step in his development to the NHL.
The ideal development path for Cozens is to eventually become the second line center in Buffalo behind Jack Eichel for years to come. He provides some very good two-way play down the middle of the ice with his skating, vision and knack for getting to the front of the net. The question will be is he physically ready to take on the NHL with his 6-foot-3, 185-pound frame?
For years, Staal has provided a similar presence on the ice with his stellar two-way play in his time with the Hurricanes, Wild and New York Rangers. Over the course of his 16-year career in the NHL, the 35-year-old has produced 1,021 points (436+585) in 1,240 games and is already in discussions as a possible future Hockey Hall of Famer.
That experience and what Staal brings to a locker room is exactly what Adams is hoping will be a positive for Cozens if he does make the roster in Buffalo next season.
“We would all say that we’re excited about Dylan, but I probably mentioned this a few months ago: Every player’s maturation process is different,” Adams said. “Dylan is someone that we look forward to coming in and challenging for a roster spot, but at the same point, we do not want to put Dylan Cozens in a position that he’s not ready for. The underrated part of an Eric Staal in your dressing room and if Dylan Cozens is on our roster is just the ability to be with him every day and to learn from him, not just on the ice but off the ice as well.”
As for looking ahead to the offseason in Buffalo, it was reported by TSN hockey reporter Frank Seravalli that the Sabres were considering an internal salary cap in the low $70 million range due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Staal trade to Buffalo actually helps the Sabres a bit with their salary cap space heading into the 2020-21 season. The team will save just over $1 million with Staal’s cap hit set at $3.25 million, while Buffalo moved out Johansson’s cap hit of $4.5 million.
When asked about the potential internal cap crunch for the 2020-21 season, Adams said that that idea of building his roster is not something that has crossed his mind.
“With the discussions that I’ve had with Terry and Kim over these last few months, we want to do everything we can to win a Stanley Cup here in Buffalo,” Adams said. “They’ve proven over the years that they’re willing to, in terms of not just your salary expenses, but in terms of the resources, sports performance, the locker room and all that. That hasn’t changed. I want to make sure we put this organization in a position that gives us the ability to put a good team on the ice and also flexibility. We’re going to work on that over the coming weeks.”
You can listen to the entire conference call below: