If you pieced together all the things that have gone right for the Carolina Hurricanes this season, you could write a novel. Finishing atop their division and securing home-ice advantage until at least Round 3 of the playoffs, the Hurricanes have all engines running, and with that, plenty of individuals worthy of recognition.
But the one player at the center of it all, who’s been a constant throughout the Hurricanes’ dominant season, is, fittingly, their captain Jordan Staal.
While there may not be a most-improved player award in the NHL, the league does recognize those who have made special contributions to the game in work ethic or perseverance. And Staal’s terrific play this year earned him the Hurricanes nomination for the Bill Masterton Trophy.
It’s tough competition for the Masterton this year, with so many players battling personal struggles amid the pandemic. But if you want to look strictly at on-ice play, Staal has stepped into a nearly elite territory he hasn’t waded in since the prime days of his career. With 38 points in 53 games, including 11 multi-point games this season, Staal has added new elements to his patented sturdy defensive game. So it may not be the Masterton Staal is best fit for, but the Selke Trophy.
A Season to Remember
The Hurricanes were one of the first teams to be stricken with a COVID-19 outbreak, as they had five players on the protocol list early in the season. One of those was Staal, and while you might have expected him to lag a step behind, he appeared to be even stronger when he returned.
In the 11 games following Staal’s return, he scored seven goals and eight assists for 15 points. It was an unprecedented hot streak that eventually cooled off, but he still maintained that high pace of play throughout the rest of the season. While he wasn’t contributing as many points, he was dominant in all the other areas he’s known for.
This season was also memorable in that Staal hit the 1,000 games mark. In total, Staal has suited up for 583 games for the Hurricanes, the ninth-most all-time for the franchise. He’s been the sole captain for the Hurricanes for two seasons now, and worn a letter for the Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins sine 2008-09.
Though his brother Eric Staal may be more revered in Hurricanes history, Jordan has reached a similar plateau of legendary status in North Carolina, especially this season, for how great of a leader he’s been for what’s clearly the best Hurricanes team in years.
Staal’s Case for the Selke
The Frank J. Selke Trophy is awarded annually to the forward who best excels at the defensive aspects of the game. Obviously there’s a huge pool of defensively adept forwards to fish from, so it’s commonly believed that written somewhere in the fine print, good offensive numbers matter too. That’s been where Staal has fallen a bit short in his career.
Staal’s career-high in points was 50 in 2011-12, which he was well on pace to eclipse this season. Not only did he improve offensively – a 59-point pace over 82 games, but he was easily the most relied-upon forward to hold down the fort in late-game situations for head coach Rod Brind’Amour.
Defensively impenetrable and physically ferocious, Staal was a nightmare for opposing top lines to play against. He finished with 135 hits in 53 games, an average of 2.5 hits per game – the highest of his career. On top of that, he took 1,083 faceoffs for the Hurricanes this season, which was sixth in the league. He was ninth with 393 defensive-zone faceoffs, and overall, owns a spectacular 58 percent success rate. That’s sixth in the NHL.
It’s no secret Brind’Amour relies on him for those pivotal late-game draws. Staal is also a crucial member of the ‘Canes first power play unit, where he’d almost always take the faceoff to begin the power play. His success rate in that position? A sparkling 69.3 percent. If you’re looking for reasons why Carolina’s power play was No. 2 in the league, winning that opening puck drop seven out of 10 times is a pretty good place to start.
At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, Staal wreaks havoc in the blue paint. He scored a team-high seven power play goals in that position this season. He’s also an irreplaceable cog in the penalty kill, which ranked third in the NHL. Throughout the season, Staal logged 111:55 of shorthanded time-on-ice (TOI), tops among Hurricanes forwards.
So is there a more irreplaceable player than the 32-year-old captain? If you had to remove one player from the Hurricanes lineup to hurt them the most, it’s probably Staal. A case could definitely be made for No. 1 center Sebastian Aho, but behind that, Staal has easily been their most valuable player this season. His rugged play in every situation and ability to anchor the ‘Canes special teams has allowed them a kind of depth they haven’t had since their Stanley Cup win in 2005-06.
Competing Against the Elite
Previously labelled as just a solid third-line center, Staal has now earned himself a reputation as one of the league’s top defensive centers with his polished play this season. While he’s only just now entering the Selke conversation, some of the NHL’s most prominent and elite forwards have made it difficult for him to earn recognition. Especially when he’s competing against some of the NHL’s most premiere athletes.
At the heart of the Selke Trophy conversation are guys like Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, Ryan O’Reilly and Aleksander Barkov, four guys who seem to be in discussion for the trophy every year. From 2014 to 2018, Bergeron and Kopitar won every Selke, and in total, have six between them. You also have guys like Mark Stone and Connor Brown – two relatively new guys to the Selke scene, who have both had exceptional seasons.
So where can Staal gain an edge? There are a lot of big guys who play a similar two-way game to Staal, but put up more points and generally get more ice time. While all these guys are typically tasked with shutting down opposing teams’ top lines, Staal does it while managing the third line. The aforementioned players are typically first-liners who make a major impact on every game.
There’s also no category Staal is running away in. Stone leads the NHL in takeaways and logs shorthanded minutes on the NHL’s best penalty kill with the Vegas Golden Knights. Bergeron has by far the best faceoff percentage at 62.8 percent, and is probably the most reliable guy in the league in late-game situations. Brown can flaunt his league-leading five shorthanded goals with the Ottawa Senators. What is Staal’s claim to fame this year?
Staal may not get the praise and recognition he deserves, but the big thing to take away is that he does all the good things for the Hurricanes. Maybe that’s not bright and shiny enough for him to win an award, but the fact that he’s upped his play to this level is great news for the Hurricanes and their quest for the Cup, because every championship team needs a Staal.
The ‘Canes kick off their postseason on Monday, May 17 against the Nashville Predators. They have a 6-2-0 record against them this season, with their only two losses coming in the final two games of the year. Staal has been effective agains the Predators this season, scoring two goals and three assists in the six games he dressed for, including an overtime winner on March 9.
Matt Cosman is a Sheridan College print journalism graduate from Oakville, Ontario. I’ve been with THW since 2019 covering the Carolina Hurricanes, one of my favorite childhood teams. When I’m not in my hockey bubble you can probably catch me jamming out on the piano or losing money at the poker tables.