Canes' Staal has healed physically, mentally from last season's sting

Staff writerAugust 30, 2011 

— It took Eric Staal longer than usual to recover from last season.

The Carolina Hurricanes captain played through a painful groin injury down the stretch. That needed time to heal.

There also was that big blow to Staal's psyche -- a 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the final game of the regular season. Getting that out of his system took time, too.

Win that last game, at home, and the Canes would have been in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Instead, it led to another long offseason of wondering what might have been.

"Obviously, it was a tough finish," Staal said Monday after an informal workout at Raleigh Center Ice. "You need to keep a little of that bitter taste, but also need to refresh and refocus for a new season, and with a new group, which we have."

The group no longer includes forward Erik Cole. Staal and Cole were friends and often linemates last season, and it was Cole's power down the right wing that opened up extra ice in the middle for Staal.

But Cole is gone after signing a four-year contract with the Montreal Canadiens. Replacing him might be Anthony Stewart or Alexei Ponikarovsky, free-agent wingers signed by Carolina in July.

"He's been a good friend and a guy I got to know real well, coming in at a young age in this league," Staal said of Cole. "It was a lot of fun. But that's the way this business works. He's gotten a great opportunity in Montreal and great security for his family. I'm excited for him."

Staal spent most of the summer with his family in Thunder Bay, Ontario. It was there he learned the Canes had re-signed defenseman Joni Pitkanen and forwards Chad LaRose and Jussi Jokinen, which was reassuring.

Then there were the Canes' free-agent acquisitions: Stewart, Ponikarovsky, center Tim Brent and goalie Brian Boucher. Finally, there was defenseman Tomas Kaberle, who helped the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup last season after being traded from the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"We picked up some good players, including some who might have been a little under the radar like Anthony Stewart," Staal said. "Obviously, Ponikarovsky has had a lot of good seasons under his belt although he was injured last season. Brent had a good strong season with the Leafs as a fourth-line center and played his role to a T, which is what we're looking for. And Boucher is a quality goaltender and quality guy."

The Canes are investing $12.75 million over three years in Kaberle. Staal called him a proven player who "has a great presence on the blue line" and should help improve the power play.

Speaking of improvement, the Canes allowed 2,725 shots against last season. That was 33.2 shots a game, the worst in the NHL.

"We scored a lot of goals last year and offensively we were pretty good," Staal said. "Obviously, you want to keep that going but at the same time limit the amount of opportunities we're giving up.

"We've got two good goaltenders back there. ... As a whole, defensively, we need to get a little bit stronger, a little bit tighter."

Staal wasn't the only one putting in his first informal on-ice workout Monday. Defenseman Tim Gleason, an alternate captain last season, is also back and skating.

"This is a new beginning for us," Gleason said. "I think the team is where it should be, that (general manager) Jim (Rutherford) did a great job getting the players we needed. He's done his job. It's our job now."

Staal closed with 33 goals and 43 assists for 76 points last season - all team highs - and was a team captain for the NHL All-Star Game in Raleigh. But Staal said his goals this season had nothing to do with such individual numbers or awards.

"I want to make the playoffs," he said. "That's the number one thing. You could say I felt good about my season last season, but we missed the playoffs.

"That's where I want to be and where I want to lead this team to. I want to take a lot of responsibility for that, and want that pressure."

chip.alexander@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8945

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