After missing the playoffs for the third time in four years, Staal and the Hurricanes begin the season with high hopes Thursday in the first of back-to-back games against the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki, Finland.
“The biggest thing for me at this stage in my career is wins,” Staal said. “I want to be in the playoffs. I want to play when it counts, and in order to do that, you’ve got to play hard for 82 games in the regular season to earn that right.”
Staal missed 12 games with an upper-body injury last season and finished with 70 points, his fewest since 2006-07, as Carolina ended up 11th in the Eastern Conference. His slow start - five points in his first 13 games before getting hurt in November - played a role in the Hurricanes opening 2-12-4 to doom their playoff hopes.
“(Staal) just needs to be himself because he’s a natural leader,” general manager Jim Rutherford said. “The advantage he has is he’s a gifted player, so anything he says to his team, he’s able to go on the ice and back it up.”
Carolina (35-37-10) looks to improve on last season’s 80 points, eight behind Montreal for the East’s final playoff spot. The return of a healthy Cam Ward(notes) should provide a boost after injuries last season limited the goaltender to 47 games, his fewest since he was a rookie in 2005-06.
“I’m comfortable with where we’re at,” coach Paul Maurice said. “It’s harder to gauge certain things when you’re not in your normal environment (in Finland), but the focus and the communication on the ice and all of the things that we had set out at the start of camp to be good at - we’re still good at.”
Backup goaltender Josh Harding(notes) already has been lost for the season with torn knee ligaments, and former Hart Trophy winner Jose Theodore(notes) has been added to play behind starter Niklas Backstrom(notes).
Last season, center Pierre-Marc Bouchard(notes) did not play again after suffering a concussion in the opener, and the Wild were without defenseman Brent Burns(notes) (35 games missed), right wing Chuck Kobasew(notes) (33 games) and Backstrom (22 games) for long stretches.
With Bouchard’s status for the start of the season still in question, Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher added John Madden(notes), Eric Nystrom(notes) and Minnesota native Matt Cullen(notes) - who has at least 40 points in each of the last three seasons - through free agency to provide depth at forward.
Still, the key to the offense may remain captain and leading scorer Mikko Koivu(notes), who signed a seven-year, $47.25 million contract extension July 15. The Wild also need improvement from Havlat, who had a minus-19 rating and only 18 goals last season after signing a five-year, $30 million free-agent contract.
“There is a lot more depth on our team, a lot more experience with winning, and I think in a long season that’s what we need,” Koivu said. “You need some leadership and character to win the games, especially when things aren’t going the way you want. You need guys who have been there to lead the way. It looks good right now.”
The Hurricanes and Wild split two meetings in 2009-10, with each winning on home ice. The teams meet again Friday in Helsinki before heading back to North America.