Eric Staal is entering his ninth career NHL season. He’s been to the playoffs twice and captured the Stanley Cup once.
Now, he’s ready to lead the Carolina Hurricanes back to the postseason.
“We want to be a playoff team every year,” he said in a September interview. “You see those consistent teams that are in the playoffs every year, and we want to get to that. I feel like we’ve added some players that will give us that opportunity, and now it’s about us going out there and performing.”
Though the summer was prolonged for a bit longer than most hoped, the Canes made an offseason splash, acquiring Eric’s brother Jordan in a draft-day trade and signing winger Alexander Semin in late July.
“No question it was exciting,” Staal said of the moves. “I’ve been here a long time. For the last few years, I felt like we’ve been real close to being a playoff team, being a team that can compete for a Stanley Cup. I just felt we needed one or two more pieces up front.”
The organization has long pursued an elite winger for Eric Staal to play alongside. Semin, a perennial “Canes-killer,” fit that mold perfectly.
“He’s one of those guys who, sometimes he’ll just be in a game and you don’t really notice him, and then he can snap two goals real quick. He’s seemed to do that a lot against us. And now, we’ll hopefully use that to our advantage,” Staal said. “He has a ton of skill, and I think he plays a very good two-way game. I’m looking forward to hopefully developing some chemistry and playing some good hockey for our team.”
In a compacted schedule, playing good hockey is vitally important for the Hurricanes, especially at the start of the season. Inconsistency in the first few weeks, perhaps compounded by the difficulties of a long, early-season road trip, doomed the team in 2011-12.
In his first 16 games last season, Staal had just five points (3g, 2a) and was a minus-16. Looking back, he assessed his performance with a critical eye.
“I think our team in general wasn’t playing very well, and I know I’m part of that. As a group and as a team, we just didn’t get the right things going,” he said. “We didn’t have the confidence to play the way we wanted to play. We never seemed to build that momentum. You try harder and try harder and sometimes it gets worse.
“I felt like that was the case for the first two months, but then you kind of hit that refresh button and start over, building confidence a little bit at a time. It was a strong second half.”
Indeed it was. After the All-Star break, Staal posted 34 points (13g, 21a) in 31 games. In 11 February games alone, Staal led the team with eight goals and nine assists (17 points) and a plus-11 plus/minus rating. In total, he reached the 70 point plateau for the seventh consecutive season with 24 goals and 46 assists.
One of the biggest factors in Staal’s second-half resurgence was the All-Star break. For the first time since 2004-05, Staal wasn’t playing in the Olympics or the All-Star Game. He had time to simply get away from the game, rest and recharge.
“It was awesome, actually,” he said. “It was pretty awesome just to spend time with the family and totally get away from it in the middle of the season. That’s something I’ve never done. It’s refreshing, and you’re really excited to get back.
“Don’t get me wrong, playing in an All-Star game is awesome and you want to be there every year regardless, but for where I was at mentally and physically last year, those days were nice and helped me the rest of the way.”
There will be no rest in this truncated season. It will be a 48-game sprint to the end of April, where the turnaround for the playoffs will be almost instantaneous. That’s where the Hurricanes want to be, this year and in the years ahead.
Staal’s ready to lead that charge, beginning tonight in Florida.
“I think there’s a lot of potential with what we’ve got, and now it’s about performing,” Staal said.
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