Staal had three goals and three assists in those 20 games, skating to a plus-1. He went scoreless in five playoff games, skating to a minus-7.
All eyes were on him when the Carolina Hurricanes traded their captain to the Rangers at the deadline, after his waived his no-move clause to join a Cup contender and play with his brother, Rangers defenseman Marc Staal. But he was invisible on Broadway, like a show that opens and closes in the same week.
“I played in one place my whole career. Coming here was a change. I don’t think they saw the best that I can be,” he said, after a season in which he scored 13 goals with 26 assists.
Staal wouldn’t use the change in scenery as an excuse, nor would he point to the uncertainty in his pending unrestricted free agency as a distraction.
But his role on the Rangers wasn’t what he was hoping for; then again, he knew the lineup they had before he decided to approve the trade, and knew that Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan were two reasons he wouldn't be a top-six center.
“I came in here to fit, try and find a role that would be effective. Obviously you always want more as a player. It would have been nice to see what I could have done with different chances, but there were guys in certain spots playing well,” he said.
Staal, a natural center, played a lot of wing for the Rangers, including with Kevin Hayes as his center. He was shifted to center later in the season with J.T. Miller and Oscar Lindberg. But Staal didn’t have the same top- six role he had in Carolina. He averaged 19:17 per night in Carolina; he averaged 16:15 with the Rangers.
“There’s a lot of positives for me. This was a team that had over 100 points, a lot of guys in spots that were doing real well. I didn’t come here to ruffle feathers, demand to play in certain spots. I came in to try to fit and be someone that could hopefully produce, so we could be a balanced team and go for a run," he said.
"Clearly that didn’t happen,”
So as he embarks on a free-agent journey, Staal knows what he’s looking for. He’s looking out for his wife and three children, and where they might have to relocate. He’s looking for a contract that obviously won’t be the $9.5 million base salary he has now, nor the seven years, but will be fair for a 31-year-old top six forward.
But perhaps most of all, he’s looking for a chance to be a vital part of a team, rather than a third-liner with a pedigree.
“I’ve played in the league long enough. You want to be comfortably where you are, but I want to be in a role where I’m counted on. [But] I don’t need to be ‘the’ guy,” he said.
“I think I can have a good bunch of years left. I can be effective offensively, more than I have been. I can be better. But I have to stay confident and know that I have the ability to be a difference-maker on an important team, in a larger role.”
Can he find that role with the Rangers?
“I guess it depends on what happens. Like any team, when you’re as out as early as we are, there will be some changes, some things going forward that happen,” he said.
What about in another familiar place: Back with the Carolina Hurricanes, the only other team he’s ever played for and the place where his family still lives?
“I’m not going to close the doors on anything,” he said. "[I’ll] kind of just see how things play out here.”
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