Way back in 2003, the Carolina Hurricanes made a decision that would change the face of their franchise. Carolina grabbed young center Eric Staal with the 2nd overall pick in the 2003 Entry Draft, and set in motion a path that puts the franchise in the precarious position they are in today. From the moment he was drafted, Staal was being groomed as the eventual captain of the Hurricanes.
It seemed a strange position to take, given that the legendary Ron Francis had just captained the Hurricanes to a surprise Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2002, and center Rod Brindamour seemed poised to take that captain’s letter after Francis’ departure. But Staal had drawn comparisons to Francis before he was drafted, so what better way to teach a young player to meet those expectations than by Francis himself?
Shortly after being grabbed by Carolina, Staal was asked about the comparisons.
“I am just excited. For me, he’s an unbelievable player. He’s been around a long time. I am just going to soak everything I can when I go there and just look forward to it.”
A Not-So-Apt Comparison
Fastforward to the 2009-2010 season. Francis has long since retired, and Brindamour was finally showing his age on the ice. In January of 2010, the organization officially announced that Eric Staal as the next captain of the team, though the reality of the situation was that Staal had been unofficially leading the team since it became obvious that Brindamour’s 19-point season was not the best representation of what can be done on the ice.
Though the captaincy was undoubtedly going to Staal eventually, he did not let that eventuality affect his play on the ice. He was coming off a 40-goal season in 2008-2009, and put up 15 points in 18 playoff games as the team made its way to the Eastern Conference Finals. It was hard to argue that anyone but Staal deserved to wear the “C”.
It was obvious by this time that the Francis comparison was a bit off. Staal’s shoot-first mentality made him into a goal-scorer rather than meeting Francis’ playmaking acumen, and he was never the defensive-stalwart that Francis was. In fact, most disturbing was Staal’s ability in the faceoff circle at the time he took over as captain of the team. His career up to that point had never seen him finish the season above 46%, and his first year as captain of the team saw him winning only 41.8% of faceoffs of that year, a career low. The apparent disregard for improving a major weakness in his game should have sent up a warning flag for the organization, especially when Staal had Francis and Brindamour to learn from, two of the best faceoff men to ever play the game.
Leading by Example
When the announcement was made that Brindamour would hand the “C” over to Staal, a difference in philosophy was noted about the way the two approach the captaincy. While Brindamour was apparently more vocal in the locker room, Staal was said to “lead by example” on the ice. It’s a philosophy that’s ideal for the fans, since it allows them to judge Staal’s ability to lead by his play on the ice. Unfortunately, it’s that very same play that has put Carolina in a position to miss the playoffs for many, many years.
That seems like an odd thing to say, considering Eric has almost consistently been the point leader for the team year in and year out. Since taking over as captain during the 2009-2010 season, Staal has put up 340 points in 360 games, good enough for .94 PPG. Those numbers are certainly impressive, and one would think that if a player is producing at that rate, but the team has had a record of 163-163-52 in that time span, that player certainly can’t be to blame. Normally, that would be the correct assumption.
However, looking at the numbers closer, there’s a disturbing trend of having Staal “lead by example.” Staal is a notoriously inconsistent player, which in turn has caused Carolina to become a notoriously inconsistent team as well. His effort on the defensive side of the puck has been lackluster as well, a poor habit that has spread to many of his teammates. As their captain goes, so goes the team. To his credit, Staal has seemed to realize this at certain points in his career.
“I’ve got to be the best player on the ice, and I wasn’t,” Staal said. “It’s no fun. No excuse, I’ve got to be better than I was tonight. I’ve got to be there for our team and be the guy to step up in a situation when things don’t go our way.”
This came immediately after a 4-3 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes in 2011. Staal finished with no points and ended up a -3 on the night. But it was his defensive efforts (or lack thereof) that led to the loss that night.
In the game-tying goal, Staal enters the zone and covers…no one. He was as much a part of that play as the fans in the stand, but with a much better view of the ice. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Staal decided to one-up himself on the game-winning goal.
In this goal, Staal recognizes the man that should be covered, but rather than tie up the stick, a weak stick lift attempt is all the fans get from their captain, leading to a blown 3-1 lead on the night and another loss for the team.
No Need For a Superhero
The seemingly inconsistent effort that Staal puts on the ice has been noted by both coaches and fans over the years. In 2011, Staal had his worst start to a season in his career. 25 games into that season, Staal had only 11 points and was an astounding -17 in plus/minus. The poor start from Staal and the team caused head coach Paul Maurice to lose his job and be replaced by Kirk Muller. The first thing Muller did was meet with the team’s captain.
“I just said to him, ‘I don’t need you to be Superman,’” Muller told The News & Observer. “I told him, ‘I just want you to go out here tonight and be my hardest-working player. Just play hard, have fun, enjoy the game.’
The talk seemed to work, because Staal’s season turned on a dime, putting up 59 points in the remaining 57 games. However, much like Maurice before him, Muller was unable to get a consistent effort from Staal year after year, which largely led to their respective dismissals from the team. The questions regarding Staal’s perceived effort levels reached a point where Staal himself was forced to address the issue.
“Whether people think that or not, I’m out there competing as hard as I can,” Staal said.
The quote came late last season, after a 5-2 loss to the Washington Capitals. To his credit, Staal ha 6 shots in that game, but odds are, he earned the complaints in the games before, a 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers and a 3-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils, where he put up just 2 shots on goal in both games combined and wound up a -4. Not the kind of effort fans want to see from their captain, their top line center, or the player the team is paying $9 million to compete.
Time to Move On
This offseason, the rumors surrounding a possible Eric Staal trade appeared to have some legs, a first for the franchise. Five years without a playoff appearance and a 61-point season from your highest-paid player will certainly fuel the fires of change. There was talk about moving Staal at the draft, but ultimately, nothing developed past the rumor stage.
That changed a month into the season, when the Hurricanes went 0-6-2 in October. Staal was injured at the time, but that didn’t prevent his name from appearing in discussions with the Toronto Maple Leafs. In a televised segment for TSN, analyst Darren Dreger mentioned that the Leafs would be interested in Staal if he became available.
“I know this, the Maple Leafs have had discussions with the Carolina Hurricanes in the past, most recently in the summer about the potential availability of the Hurricanes captain,” said Dreger. “Now the asking price if Eric Staal is available at any point this season prior to the NHL trade deadline is going to be enormous. It would include a first-round pick, you’re talking about either Tyler Bozak or Nazem Kadri – because a center would have to go back – and likely Jake Gardiner. But I believe that’s a price that Toronto would be willing to pay.”
If that offer is available to Carolina, they should take it into serious consideration. Yes, neither Bozak nor Kadri will likely be able to replace the consistent 60-70 points that Staal provides over the course of a year. And yes, with the way the Leafs are playing, that first-round pick is not nearly as valuable as it might have been a few years ago. However, with the improved play from both Elias Lindholm and Riley Nash, combined with the continued lackluster effort from Staal, the loss of their franchise player may not hurt the organization as much as it once would have.
Ultimately, however, it comes down to Staal. He has a no-trade clause in his contract, and has never given any indication that he wants to play anywhere but Carolina. One brother, Jordan, also plays on the team, while another brother, Jared, is on Carolina’s AHL affiliate. He’s got very little reason to want to leave the team. However, for the future of the Carolina franchise, it may be best for the organization to explore a future without Eric Staal on the team.
Jonathan Gardner currently lives in Raleigh, NC and covers the Carolina Hurricanes.