When the Carolina Hurricanes blow onto the home ice of the Minnesota Wild Saturday night, Eric Staal might just do a double-take. It may very well take him a second or even a third look to take in all the changes he encounters with his former team. Sure, it has been a while since Staal donned The Eye, but it’s possible he could be amazed at this year’s model of the Hurricanes.
Through Staal’s Eyes
First of all, if Staal watches tape of the team’s play so far, he is likely to exclaim, “Hey! They started on time!” His perspective might easily call to mind those postgame recitations of the regular mantra, “We just did not start on time.” Unfortunately, this was said way too many times during the past four years, and even Staal in all likelihood will notice the difference in these Hurricanes and the ones he captained.
At the end of the 2015 season, I interviewed most of the players at the end of season media availability. I asked everyone I talked with about how often the “didn’t start on time” excuse was offered. To a man it was agreed on that it was a matter of preparation and mindset.
Staal also had this to say, “I think in the last two months or so we had a lot of young guys in the back end and you get teams that are excited and desperate for points jumped on us I think we just didn’t handle that as well as we could of, and once we realized it was still hockey we settled in and got better as the game went on. Sometimes it felt like we were a little bit overwhelmed to start the games and with experience and with time that gets better.”
As the team captain for a decade, Staal was in a position of responsibility to make sure the team was mentally prepared. His comment about being overwhelmed was shocking and said a lot (not good) about where that bunch of Hurricanes was regarding being mentally prepared.
This year’s model under new head coach Rod Brind’Amour is quick off the puck drop and keep grinding for the full 60 minutes of play. (Insert here the obligatory, “It’s only been four games” reminder). Of course, there are a bunch of games left and many things can happen to change the enthusiasm of a team. But, these Hurricanes are not Staal’s, who himself at times received criticism for his somewhat lackluster play.
— Doug Abrams (@dabrams2021) March 11, 2016
Staal’s career has been renewed with the Wild. He scored 42 goals last season. A career that seemed to be winding down in Raleigh has been revived. Most Hurricanes fans are happy for Staal and glad to see him doing well. But, there is no doubt that his former team will work very hard to keep him from lighting the lamp Saturday evening.
Staal Looks Behind the Bench
Eric may end up being a little overwhelmed by what his former teammate and co-winner of the Stanley Cup Finals, Brind’Amour, has in store. A fast-paced, relentless brand of hockey that will, in all likelihood, start on time and not stop until the final horn will invade the Wild’s ice. This is a different approach to what Staal last played under and last encountered from the Hurricanes when they last played the Wild.
It was former coach Bill Peters’ team going back to 2014. Staal played for the old-school Peters who stressed fundamentals and a strict brand of positional hockey. Peters was a defensive coach as part of Mike Babcock’s staff on the Detroit Red Wings prior to coming to the Hurricanes. Not surprisingly the Hurricanes’ strength over the past four seasons has been their defense.
Brind’Amour, while not a slouch when it comes to understanding the fundamentals of sound play on defense, has a different thing going with his group of young, talented players.
Saturday night Staal might see and remember some of that defensive strength, but he might also see a newly-found offense as a part of these Hurricanes. The past two games, a 5-3 win over the Vancouver Canucks and an 8-5 win over the New York Rangers show that this group can score in clumps. Had Staal really been paying close attention he would have seen that this started in the preseason and has not let up.
Staal might not be too surprised at the youth on the ice, as the Hurricanes have been trending younger for the past several years. But, he might take a second look at guys like Andrei Svechnikov and Warren Foegele who are playing with their hair on fire. The chaotic brand of hockey that characterizes what the Hurricanes are bringing to other teams will certainly challenge Staal to keep up.
Staal Will Not See Cam Ward
For as long as Staal played with the Hurricanes, the goaltender was Cam Ward. When it came to the Hurricanes the one constant was that Ward would be in-goal. But he has moved on to the Chicago Blackhawks. Will there be any feelings of nostalgia, a “Where’s Cam?” moment for Staal? Maybe if only for a second.
Scott Darling is out with an injury so Staal won’t see him in-between the pipes Saturday night. It will either be Petr Mrázek or Curtis McElhinney in the big pads holding the paddle. Leading the Wild currently with three points, one goal and two assists, Staal ultimately will not care who is behind the mask as he tries to score. But, there will no doubt be an initial “wow” factor for Staal when he looks down the ice and there is no Ward.
The Wild at 1-1-1 so far this season are thought by many to be a playoff team again this season. They’ve not changed their lineup much and another good outing by Staal to go with the expected great play of Zach Parise and a healthy Ryan Suter should have them contending. The Hurricanes at 3-0-1 have not faced a team expected to contend so far this season with the possible exception of the Columbus Blue Jackets who they beat, 2-1 in their house.
Adam Getz wrote about the Hurricanes last Tuesday for NBCSports.com, “This team looks fun, and there are a lot of reasons for you to pay attention to them.” Staal would do well to keep that in mind Saturday night.
Mark lives in the Raleigh, NC area and covers the Carolina Hurricanes.