By HOWARD BERGER
BUFFALO (Dec. 16) – My old pal and radio colleague, Bill Watters, created some chatter this week when he suggested the Maple Leafs were interested in acquiring big centre Eric Staal from the Carolina Hurricanes, who pulled out of a 1-7-2 nosedive by upsetting Vancouver on Thursday night. By his own standards, Staal is having a terrible season (34-7-13-20 and a ghastly minus-18), yet he’d look terrific in just about any uniform in the league. And though it presents many obstacles, Staal-to-Toronto conjecture has been heard in Raleigh, as well.
I’ve generally steered away from unsubstantiated rumor in recent years, yet a couple of valued sources told me – independently – on Thursday about the same scenario. So, while it remains the property of innuendo, I felt it might be interesting to report this rumor and consider whether it is viable – strategically and economically.
The deal I’m told may have been discussed would land Staal in Toronto for winger Clarke MacArthur and defenseman Luke Schenn. Such a trade would follow Brian Burke’s blue-print of acquiring top-end talent and – potentially – the best player in a transaction. Whether or not Burke achieved this in the Phil Kessel-for-Tyler Seguin swap with Boston will be debated for a number of years, but Kessel has been one of the NHL’s top performers in the first half of the season. There is no question whatsoever that Burke landed the best player in the Dion Phaneuf trade with Calgary, and pulled off a major heist by grabbing Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner from Anaheim. Staal, returning to form with a change of scenery, would provide Burke a terrific chance to come away with the jewel of the rumored Carolina trade. Still only 27, the native of Thunder Bay, Ont. has registered at least 70 points in each of the past seven seasons, maxing out at 100 in 2005-06 when he helped lead Carolina to the Stanley Cup. He’s had goal-scoring years of 45, 40, 38, 33 and 30. In other words, we’re talking here about a full-fledged superstar in the midst of a lousy season.
The key factor in any trade of Staal is his contract, one of the most lucrative in the NHL, requiring a commitment of $34.75 million in the four seasons after this one. Most restrictive is Staal’s annual salary-cap hit of $8.25 million – fourth-highest in the league behind Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. To make this even close to a viable economic transaction, the Leafs would virtually have to trade Schenn and his $3.6-million cap hit over the next three-plus seasons; moreover, the Hurricanes would not be interested in any deal that precluded a proven defenseman, given how thin they are on the blue-line. MacArthur would provide Carolina some zip and goal-scoring acumen, and he might work well alongside Jeff Skinner, when the sophomore pivot returns from – what else? – a concussion.
Further mitigating against this rumored deal is a deep affection I believe Hurricanes’ GM Jim Rutherford has for Staal and goalie Cam Ward – the cornerstones of his ’06 championship team. And, why shouldn’t Rutherford have that feeling? Both players are still young; superbly talented and they carry reputations, on and off the ice, that are beyond reproach. Unless Rutherford gazes at his roster and concludes the ‘Canes are going absolutely nowhere for at least the next two years, it is very difficult for me to imagine him unloading Staal… much more so than to assume how interested Burke would be in acquiring the lanky forward.
It came as no surprise that fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins were most “offended” by my blog on Wednesday, inferring that Crosby might be wise to consider retirement now that he’s sustained at least three concussions in the past calendar year.
Understandably, it is almost impossible – as a fan – to remove emotion from any such dialogue. So, allow me to repeat – unreservedly – that I’d like nothing more than to see Crosby return from his latest bout of head-trauma and perform without recurrence for the next 20 years. He’s a wonderful player; a solid citizen, and is surrounded by credibility and character on the Penguins, and in his representation, fronted by Pat Brisson. Sadly, however, Crosby moving forward in the absence of further head trauma is a Utopian scenario… even if accorded the most prudent, by-the-book convalescence in this – his second – concussion battle.
We tend to watch these superb athletes and wonder if they are somehow immune to the hazard and vulnerability the rest of us encounter each day. In some cases – particularly involving finance – this notion is beyond truth. In the case of head trauma, however, there is virtually no distinction to be made between the best hockey player in the world and an overweight businessman toiling in a beer league on Wednesday nights. All current data pertaining to concussion is unequivocal: any human being that sustains one is infinitely more susceptible to a second, third and fourth-such occurrence; the probability increasing with each episode. This is not a weakness in Sidney Crosby any more than it would be in you or I. It is simply a matter of indisputable fact.
That said, my blog on Wednesday did not flippantly suggest that Crosby should just up and quit. We all know that Crosby; the Penguins; the NHL, and every person involved in his life will exhaust all avenues before he turns to premature retirement. He’s probably more willing to engage in public conversation about his bowel habits than an early exit from the game. My point was that Sid the Kid would certainly not be the first elite hockey player to face such a conundrum (quitting, not talking about digestion). The most talented commodities in the game have long been the most targeted, and the deed of “protecting” the very best is more difficult than ever before by virtue of increasingly restrictive rules.
At what point, then, does a player encountering Crosby’s dilemma formulate a plan for the future? How does such a person distinguish between following a cherished career path and living healthy and productively with his family afterward? These are questions that No. 87 cannot answer by himself, but will almost certainly have to consider now that his brain has violently bounced off the inside of his skull at least three times.
The best course of action may be far from the most appealing.
Having spent the week at home after the Leafs trip to Washington last Friday, I kept several images from my trusty Nikon I’d like to share with you:
WHEN TAKING OFF TOWARD D.C. FROM REAGAN NATIONAL AIRPORT IN WASHINGTON, PILOTS MUST EXECUTE AN IMMEDIATE LEFT-TURN TO AVOID FLYING OVER THE WHITE HOUSE, WHICH IS BENEATH RESTRICTED AIR SPACE. IF SEATED ON THE LEFT SIDE OF A PLANE, YOU WILL SOAR ALMOST DIRECTLY OVER THE PENTAGON IN NEIGHBORING VIRGINIA (ABOVE).
ANYONE DRIVING BETWEEN TORONTO AND BUFFALO WILL CROSS THE GARDEN CITY SKYWAY OVER THE WELLAND CANAL (ABOVE), LOCATED EAST OF ST. CATHARINES AND SOUTH OF NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE. THE CANAL IS A SHIPPING ROUTE THAT RUNS BETWEEN LAKES ONTARIO AND ERIE.
THE FLIGHT HOME FROM WASHINGTON LAST SATURDAY PRESENTED AN AWESOME VIEW OF NIAGARA FALLS (ABOVE) – ITS GORGE SEPARATING THE PROVINCE OF ONTARIO (RIGHT) AND THE STATE OF NEW YORK (LEFT).
I AM CURRENTLY SOMEWHERE IN THE MASS OF BUILDINGS AT LOWER-RIGHT OF THE ABOVE PHOTO: BEAUTIFUL DOWNTOWN BUFFALO. THE HOME OF THE SABRES – NOW CALLED FIRST NIAGARA CENTER – IS THE LARGE, OVAL STRUCTURE NEAR THE MIDDLE.
BUFFALO MAY NOT BE THE SIGHT-SEEING CAPITAL OF THE WORLD, BUT IT’S A TIGHT-KNIT COMMUNITY OVERFLOWING WITH FRIENDLY, HARD-WORKING PEOPLE AND ITS ART-DECO CITY HALL (ABOVE AND BELOW) IS RATHER STRIKING WHEN ILLUMINATED.