Inside the NHL: Eric Staal’s next move, Evander Kane vs. Sharks

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Eric Staal is a Stanley Cup champion, an Olympic champion and a world champion.

He played nearly 1,300 NHL games, scored more than 1,000 NHL points and undeniably earned the right to sit back and savour those accomplishments once last summer came and went without him receiving a new contract.

And yet, at age 37, he wasn’t prepared to let the dream die.

Staal continued to skate regularly back home in Minnesota and stay in top physical condition, and may soon be rewarded for his dedication. There’s a good chance he’ll be chosen to represent Team Canada at next month’s Beijing Olympics, and he’s still hoping to find his way back to the NHL before the end of the season.

“I still have that itch and desire to play,” Staal said Sunday afternoon. “I still feel like I can, especially watching the games and seeing some of the teams and some of the situations. I feel like I could contribute and help. It just hasn’t been the way it’s worked out for me.

“I feel like there’s still maybe an opportunity here coming up, and I think there might be a couple teams that just don’t know they need me yet, and when they do I’ll be ready to play.”

The fire burns so bright inside the No. 2 pick from the 2003 draft because of how last season ended.

It was a gruelling, difficult year that included a trade from Buffalo to Montreal, onerous COVID-19 protocols and a regular season played entirely without fans. But then life veered back toward normal in the playoffs and Staal was part of the Canadiens’ stirring run to the Stanley Cup final — a return 15 years in the making from his championship with Carolina.

He believes those experiences can be useful for a contender now. He’s ready to fill any role necessary, playing either centre or wing, and offers the natural leadership component that comes with the distinguished career he’s had.

Those qualities also hold strong appeal for Hockey Canada as it finalizes an Olympic roster that can’t include players currently under NHL contract. This would be the third such invite for Staal, who was part of the taxi squad at the 2006 Turin Games before winning gold in Vancouver four years later.

“It would be phenomenal. It’s such an awesome experience,” said Staal. “The Olympics are a special time and a special event and I’ve been so fortunate to be part of two of those.”

The ultimate goal is finding his way back to the NHL.

Staal said he never took the opportunity to play in the world’s top league for granted, and emphasized that he’s at peace no matter how it plays out. But he’s encouraged by the fact a few teams have shown consistent interest in his services.

He’s got some time to line up a new gig, too, with the NHL’s collective agreement only requiring him to sign before March 21 in order to be eligible to play in the playoffs.

In the meantime, there’s been a silver lining to his first half-season without hockey ever. He’s had time to rest his body and mind, and shuttle boys Park, Levi and Finley to their own hockey games.

“We’re in rinks most nights,” said Staal. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s been good to be around for the kids, for sure.”

Kane grievance

You seldom see an NHL team terminate a player’s contract citing breach of terms.

You never see, as in the case of Evander Kane vs. the San Jose Sharks, a team take that action on a contract with nearly $23 million (U.S.) in salary still owing.

That hefty figure guarantees there’ll be a battle here. The NHL Players’ Association announced within a couple of hours of Kane being placed on unconditional waivers Saturday that it would pursue a grievance on his behalf.

At issue is what the club described as a breach of the AHL’s COVID protocols — with Kane having flown to Vancouver in late December, less than 10 days after registering a positive test.

The Sharks, backed by the NHL, believe his actions amount to a material breach of the standard player’s contract (or SPC). Paragraph 2(e) lays out a morality clause which requires every player to “conduct himself on and off the rink according to the highest standards of honesty, morality, fair play and sportsmanship, and to refrain from conduct detrimental to the best interest of the Club, the League or professional hockey generally.”

Paragraph 14 stipulates that a club can terminate a deal if players at any time “fail, refuse, or neglect to obey the Club’s rules governing training and conduct of Players, if such failure, refusal or neglect should constitute a material breach of this SPC.”

Ultimately, an arbitrator will make the final call here.

Of note is the fact a player typically becomes an unrestricted free agent immediately after clearing unconditional waivers. In theory that would allow Kane to sign with another NHL team right away. But with a grievance pending, it’s not immediately clear if he could have a new contract approved before the status of his previous one is settled.

#AskCJ

Is this the year for the Rangers to go (all) in? Vezina candidate, Norris candidate, top 3 LW, cap space, big prospect pool for potential trades, good schedule because they already played a lot of games. Best wishes from Germany.

— @_alexsgf

Few projected the Rangers to have this kind of season, and I suspect we’ll see management respond in kind. They’d love to add another top-nine forward before the March 21 trade deadline. Even if they aren’t “all in” they certainly recognize the opportunity in front of them.

With NHL players not going to the Olympics do both the NHLPA and NHL want a World Cup of Hockey in the next couple years and make it a more regular event?

— @LTL1917

The World Cup will become a huge priority for all involved. The top male players in the sport are thirsting for best-on-best competition after seeing international hockey fall by the wayside in recent years. If done right, a World Cup could be turned into a new stream of revenue. It just makes too much sense to be ignored.

What do you feel it will take for the NHL will give up on an all-star game completely this year?

— @OriginalSin33

All-star weekend is still considered all systems go, according to sources. We’ve all learned not to take anything for granted during this pandemic, but I’d be very surprised to see the event cancelled at this late hour. It remains a big event for league sponsors and new U.S. TV partner ESPN plans to make a splash in Las Vegas. The biggest question is how enthusiastically top players will embrace the opportunity to go.

Have there been any rumblings about the Heritage Classic on March 13th being cancelled or moved with the Ontario lockdown currently in effect?

— @kburleyyy

The NHL is proceeding as if the game is going ahead, but as I reported on TSN’s “Insider Trading” last week there is still some question about whether it will actually happen. There hasn’t yet been any firm indication from the province about whether restrictions will be placed on an outdoor crowd at Tim Hortons Field, and it’s unlikely the NHL will choose to play if a reduced capacity is required. Expect to see the Maple Leafs and Sabres go outdoors next season if it doesn’t happen in March.

How much pineapple are you going to want on your pizza at the party before the game in Hamilton?

— @joshuakloke

Here’s my view of pineapple on pizza: I don’t love it enough to order it that way, but I’m willing to eat it if that’s what you’re offering up. So mark me down for a healthy helping. We need this Heritage Classic to happen so that I can finally try Kloke’s world famous pie.

Hi Chris. Who gave (you) your big break in journalism?

— @stewspringsteen

I was incredibly fortunate to land a job at The Canadian Press almost immediately after moving to Toronto to study journalism at Ryerson. Neil Davidson was the sports editor there at the time and gave an 18-year-old a huge break by hiring him to write small stories on junior hockey games three nights per week. Neil once jokingly told me that his only concern about hiring me was that he might be breaking child labour laws. Had he not given me that opportunity, it’s hard to imagine my career turning out so well.

What’s the closest you ever came to ending your running streak?

— @FrankConforti07

I had an uncomfortable bout with strep throat earlier in the pandemic that produced a few days where I didn’t really feel like getting out. There was also a muggy 10-day stretch in Tampa for the Stanley Cup final last July which tested my commitment. Only an injury or act of God will stop me now.

Tidbits

The Montreal Canadiens begin the second round of interviews for their general manager vacancy on Monday … With 103 games already postponed or rescheduled, the NHL is expected to extend the season a week beyond the current April 29 end date to ease the backlog … How significantly has the Ottawa Senators season been interrupted by COVID delays? They were supposed to play Game 41 on Monday and instead remain stuck at 29 games played … Jack Eichel will arrive in Vegas over the coming days and take the next step in his recovery from artificial disc replacement surgery in his neck. He’s on track to make his Golden Knights debut in February … The John Klingberg situation bears watching in Dallas: He’d welcome a trade after talks on a contract extension ground to a halt, and the defenceman told reporters over the weekend that he doesn’t feel “appreciated” by the Stars … The Canucks are open to moving veteran goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who is due a $1.25-million (U.S.) bonus once he appears in two more games and could claim an additional $250,000 for keeping his save percentage at .905 or better. That $1.5 million would be carried as a cap overage into next season by the Canucks if Halak isn’t traded … Dallas Eakins is in the final year of his contract with Anaheim and is deserving of an extension with his surprising Ducks in the thick of the playoff race … The Leafs are 20-4-2 since Oct. 25 … Cale Makar is on pace for a 43-goal season, which would be the third-highest total ever for an NHL defenceman … Paul Coffey (48 goals, 1985-86) and Bobby Orr (46, 1974-75) are the only two to top that number … Jesper Bratt, a former sixth-round pick and pending restricted free agent, quietly has 32 points in 34 games for the New Jersey Devils … The NHL hopes to announce next year’s slate of outdoor games during all-star weekend, but there are still plenty of details to be finalized and only four weeks remaining before we get to Las Vegas.

C.J.’s Top Five

There are few things more important to an NHL player than the contract year leading into unrestricted free agency. Here are the top five performers likely to earn a raise on their impending deals:

1. Jack Campbell

Not only is the Leafs goaltender a legitimate Vezina Trophy candidate, he’s shouldering a major workload while earning $1.65 million against the cap. His next contract will likely start with a 5 — if not a 6 — and that’s going to make Campbell difficult for Toronto to keep.

2. Nazem Kadri

The feisty Avalanche centre couldn’t have picked a better time to have a career year. Kadri is fifth in NHL scoring with 44 points in 28 games, and he’s setting himself up for a big bump on the contract worth $4.5 million annually that’s about to expire.

3. Filip Forsberg

He’s delivered solid value for Nashville on his existing $6-million contract and will have plenty of suitors if he hits the open market. Forsberg is producing at better than a point per game this season and on pace to eclipse career bests of 33 goals and 64 points.

4. Bryan Rust

A depth contributor on Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup teams who has developed into a reliable scorer with consecutive 20-goal seasons. He’s having another big year and will cost much more than $3.5 million on his next contract.

5. Johnny Gaudreau

Thriving in a situation where many thought he’d struggle under demanding Flames head coach Darryl Sutter, Gaudreau is turning back the clock. There’s little doubt his next contract will be richer than $6.75 million annually. The only question is if it’ll be signed in Calgary or somewhere else.

Parting thought

Should Carey Price ever entertain waiving his no-movement clause for a trade out of Montreal, a logical landing spot would be Edmonton. The most impactful move the flailing Oilers could make right now is adding stability in goal. And Price’s contract runs through 2025-26, which lines up nicely with the Oilers’ established window to contend.

Chris Johnston is a Toronto-based journalist with a new gaming company. His work will be seen on the website and app for the new gaming company, and also in the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterchris

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