Wild trades center and fan favorite Eric Staal to Buffalo

The search for a top center in an already busy offseason isn’t over for the Wild, but the team might end up relying on depth up the middle.

That’s because the Wild made a surprising trade Wednesday, sending first-line center and six-time All-Star Eric Staal to the Buffalo Sabres for Marcus Johansson, a center/wing hybrid who will help the by-committee approach up the middle for which the Wild seems headed.

“It’s very hard to acquire true No. 1 centers, and we might have to do it with all hands on deck,” said General Manager Bill Guerin, who acquired center Nick Bjugstad from Pittsburgh on Friday. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t work. I wouldn’t be making these moves just to make them. These are guys I have confidence in, and I like what they bring to our team.”

Staal and Johansson aren’t exactly equivalents.

Johansson, 29, didn’t make a splash at center with Buffalo, finishing last season with nine goals and 21 assists in 60 games and winning just 40% of faceoffs.

Only twice in his 10-season NHL career, which has also included stops in Washington, New Jersey and Boston, has he reached the 20-goal plateau after getting drafted 24th overall in 2009 by the Capitals.

But Guerin is confident the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Swedish Olympian can handle the position, and he’s keen on Johansson’s playmaking ability and power play skills.

The Wild also gets younger and adds speed, and coach Dean Evason is familiar with Johansson from when Evason was an assistant with the Capitals.

“They’ve got a pretty good No. 1 centerman there,” Guerin said, referring to Sabres superstar Jack Eichel, “and sometimes it’s just not a great fit. But I think Marcus fits well with us, and he’s going to get a lot of opportunity. Dean knows him very well from Washington and believes he can be an impactful centerman. He’s going to get that opportunity.”

Like Staal, Johansson has only one season remaining on his contract before becoming a free agent, but Johansson carries a steeper cap hit at $4.5 million compared with Staal’s $3.25 million.

Staal’s track record is also much longer than Johansson’s, an elite and rare career that included a meaningful chapter in Minnesota.

When the Wild signed Staal in 2016, the team brought in a member of the Triple Gold Club who won the 2006 Stanley Cup and gold medals with Canada at the 2007 IIHF World Championship and 2010 Olympics. Staal has played in two All-Star Games for the Wild and last season recorded his 1,000th point and exceeded 1,200 games.

His 436 goals rank fifth among active NHLers in goals, and he’s closing in on 600 assists. The 35-year-old tied the franchise record for goals in a season with 42 in 2017-18.

Staal was also a leader on the Wild, and his boisterous goal celebrations were a hit with fans.

“Sometimes we need to mix things up,” said Guerin, who said trade talks with the Sabres had been go

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