Once upon a time, trading Paul Martin was the hip topic to discuss at the water cooler.

Okay, so that’s still an ongoing conversation…but there’s a bigger fish to fry when it comes to trades.

With reports from unnamed sources coming fro Mark Madden, Paul Steigerwald, and the infamous Eklund, fan speculation that Jordan Staal could/should be traded has heated up in recent weeks.

But why?

Staal, a monster 6’4 center fits in perfectly in Pittsburgh, anchoring arguably the best third line in the NHL. It makes no sense to trade him, right?

Maybe.

You see, Staal has just one year left on his contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2013. That’s a long way out, but with Sidney Crosby also set to become a free agent at the same time and Evgeni Malkin to follow one year later, there’s plenty of concern that there won’t be enough cap space to go around.

And it’s a valid concern.

So the options are limited.

Sign Staal to a new contract after July 1 that will prevent him from becoming a free agent next summer — but risk losing Malkin if the cash isn’t available.

Trade Staal this summer to maximize the return and salvage as much as possible.

Or hang on to Staal with hopes of re-signing him prior to July 1, 2013 — but risk losing him for nothing if he chooses to test the free agent market.

There’s no right or wrong answer for the fan to select, because, quite frankly, it’s not the fans’ decision to make.

Penguins’ general manager Ray Shero has a busy summer ahead of him with trying to find a solution to the Crosby/Staal/Malkin dilemma and also forecasting what come of the expired Collective Bargaining Agreement, which could result in a lower salary cap structure.

If Staal is traded, it will have more to do with Shero understanding his limitations and knowing that keeping the three center model could be difficult/impossible, while also maintaining a balanced roster — not to mention keeping all three centers happy with ice time and roles.

And therein lies the problem.

Jordan Staal has been the third wheel for most of his NHL career. When Crosby missed most of the 2011-12 season due to concussion and neck issues, Staal got a taste of life as a number two center, and could have a hunger to be more of “the man” than he ever will be in Pittsburgh.

While it’s true that Staal hasn’t put up monster numbers during his career, it’s also true that he is vastly improving, and the style of game he plays lends itself to the systems of all 30 NHL teams. He’d be a welcomed addition to any roster and would be a top-two center on most.

He knows this. His agent knows this. And Shero knows this.

So, while it would be ideal to keep Staal in Pittsburgh beyond his current contract, it might be difficult to do so.

And risking losing him for nothing would be poor asset management at its worst.

There’s no question trading Staal won’t be an easy pill to swallow for Shero (or for Penguin fans, for the matter), but it might just be a scenario we come to realize.

But let’s make one thing clear. If Staal is traded, it has nothing to do with his playing style, his talent, or his personality and everything to do with a quality player deserving an increased role and a larger contract.