Yesterday, I wrote about the challenges Marc Staal faces this upcoming season with new defensive partner Dan Boyle, and sans blue line standout Anton Stralman. Staal is entering the final year of a five-year contact that began when Staal was really hitting his developmental stride back in 2010.
But beyond this season, or even when thinking about this full season, there's no guarantee Staal will remain a Ranger. With the salary cap slated to go up again, Staal and his camp will be seeking a pretty substantial number in terms of contract value. His teammate and former defensive partner Dan Girardi was given a deal that pays him $5.5 million annually. Staal could easily fetch $6 million per on the open market next summer, something both he and his agent will be well aware of whenever Glen Sather and co. engage in negotiations.
And the Rangers showed last season they're not afraid of making what could be the unpopular decision. Shipping away Ryan Callahan seemed unthinkable to some, but was the right business decision.
Shipping away Staal—unless there's a golden haul at the other end of the line—would not be the right business decision, and college prospect Brady Skjei does not make Staal expendable.
I bring this up because, in the piece I wrote yesterday, this was something raised in the comments. That Skjei, a 20-year-old defenseman currently playing at the University of Minnesota, gives the Rangers organizational flexibility when it comes to potentially parting ways with Staal.
Skjei is shaping up to be a steady NHLer. His effectiveness at both the collegiate and international levels even had the Rangers brass urging Skjei to forego his junior year and turn pro this offseason. And those requests are not made unless the team thinks the player has a legitimate shot at an immediate roster spot. So when pondering Skjei's ability to make an immediate impact, there's some context.
But philosophically, there's something askew in thinking a player as green as Skjei could make a seven-year pro with the prowess of Staal expendable. And that's not just to say in a one-for-one exchange, the Rangers would be immediately disadvantaged by replacing Staal with Skjei. That's obvious, but there's more to this point.
NHL teams go through cyclical boons and swoons. There's only so long a team can go on being really bad before its futility catalyzes its success. The Penguins stunk, and their stench earned them Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Teams like the Panthers and Sabres are bad now, but stockpiled with and continue to accrue more young talent.
The Rangers never quite got really bad, but took a middle route, one in which a team of its market status used its own resources (re: Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, etc.) to put top-end talent around its homegrown. The guys like Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Ryan McDonagh, and now Staal, who has earned a bigger contract.
But this is the Rangers window. And it's a window that may open up a bit more next season if the Rangers can keep their skill guys around and round out the roster with the likes of a Skjei, or an Anthony Duclair, or a Pavel Buchnevich. It's quite easy to justify dumping Staal because there's another big defensive prospect on the way. But until Skeji lives up to the billing, he's only a prospect.
And then there's that matter of competitiveness, and the blending of high-end, proven talent with high-end, young talent. It's a formula that's made the Blackhawks so darn good the past five or so years. The same big names are there: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook ... the list goes on. But Chicago's ability to keep those guys around, and then plug in the likes of a Ben Smith, or a Brandon Saad, is what makes it a top tier team.
To put it in Rangers terms, it's like signing a free agent like Kevin Hayes, a big move to bring in a young, talented player at a low number. An influx of young guys, supplementing the established group the Rangers have built, seems like the most efficient approach toward team-building.
It's just probably not the time to pull chute on Staal; not with the team so close to potentially achieving its Cup goals.