LOS ANGELES – There's always been a youthful look to Eric Staal’s face since the All-Star forward was drafted No. 2 overall in 2003 by the Carolina Hurricanes.
It gave the appearance that he would never age – that his speed and skill would anchor the franchise for years and keep it competitive for the length of his career.
But there are some lines around his eyes and maturity in his voice. His famed blond hair is short. Gone is the long flow he sported early in his career.
At 30, he's not the youngster who developed at a rapid rate to lead the Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup in 2005-06 with 45 goals and 100 points. He’s no longer Carolina's young savior.
Staal always simultaneously represented the future and the present with the Hurricanes. He was so good at such a young age and kept up that consistency year after year.
Every night No. 12 was the team’s first-line center, and he often delivered.
But does he represent the long-term future of the Canes? His seven-year $57.75 million contract will end following this season, meaning if he and Carolina don’t come to some accord he’ll be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2016. And less like pending UFA statuses of some other star middle-men in the league like Anze Kopitar with the Los Angeles Kings, there’s more wonder as to whether Staal will come back to his current team, or even finish the year with the group.
“I’ve been in Carolina my whole career. I have stated I’d like to stay and be a part of getting better and getting back to the playoffs with this group, but in reality is that stuff will play out as it goes,” Staal told Puck Daddy. “I’m trying to help this team win games. If we do that it will be beneficial for me and this team. I’ve had good conversations with (general manager) (Ron Francis) and right now it’s just about worrying about my game and the team game and let that take care of itself when it does.”
Not often does a player of Staal’s caliber come on open market. Though last season his 54 points marked his lowest total since his rookie year, Staal is still a first-line center, one of the rarest commodities in the NHL. From 2005-06 through 2011-12 he had 70 points or more. In the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season he had 53 points in 48 games.
He has played his entire career in Carolina at near a Hall of Fame level. His No. 12 will likely be retired by the organization. His brother Jordan plays with the Hurricanes.
The skating, the skill, the size and the reach are still there. But he will turn 31 on Oct. 29, and the question revolves around whether the Hurricanes should give him near his reported $9 million asking price per-year. Or if they should trade him or let him walk.
“It’s just a good organization. I’ve been with the people, not only on the ice, but off ice, the character and people we have from our equipment staff to the medical staff to the management team – a lot of these people, I grew up with and care a lot about,” Staal said. “I want to be able to help deliver the playoffs back for them and for the fans. I’ve experienced the top of the mountain with this organization and the people here. It has been a long grind to get back. I think we’re going in the right direction.”
As Eric tries to come to common ground with Carolina, his brother Jordan has been an understanding sibling as well as a teammate who wants to win. Does Eric’s presence help Carolina on ice? Of course. But Jordan wants what’s best for his brother and his family.
“We both want the same thing, We want the Cup. Beyond that. I played six years on my own on different teams. We’re not the Sedins. We don’t play on the same line and think identical things, but we want to play together. We enjoy playing together,” Jordan told Puck Daddy. “We have fun but when things don’t go well, changes are made, so hopefully we play well enough to where those changes don’t have to happen.”
Eric does seem sold on Carolina’s future. He and Jordan form a strong one-two punch down the middle with 2013 first-round pick Elias Lindholm developing into a top-six forward.
Justin Faulk is a top-pairing defenseman and people around the team are raving about 2015 first-round pick Noah Hanifin.
Can the Hurricanes surprise this year and potentially make a run toward the Eastern Conference playoffs? Such a move could bring more clarity to how the team should approach Staal.
This was supposed to be yet another transition year for Carolina, which hasn’t made a postseason run since 2008-09. In their last two games at Los Angeles and San Jose, the Hurricanes have been outscored 8-2. The season is still young, but the Hurricanes are 2-6-0, which means more wonder for Staal (who has four points in eight games this season) about his future and if it will continue in Raleigh.
“We have some young guys that are getting better every year and now are expected to be stepping into bigger roles and contribute more nightly and hopefully we can get to that,” Staal said. “It’s still early in the year, but from the goaltending to up front we have a good balance of guys that can play. We’ll find our way regardless if people know us or don’t.”
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