For Canes’ Jordan Staal, a bittersweet return to Pittsburgh

calexander@newsobserver.comApril 26, 2013 

— The Carolina Hurricanes’ season will finish Saturday in Pittsburgh. What began with promise will end in disappointment, with the Canes again missing the Stanley Cup playoffs.

That the final game will be played in the Penguins’ Consol Energy Center adds a twist.

Canes center Jordan Staal last played in the arena April 20, 2012. His goal and assist helped the Penguins top the Philadelphia Flyers 3-2 in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series, although the Flyers eventually won the series.

A little more than two months later, Jim Rutherford was in the building. On June 22, 2012, just before the start of the NHL Entry Draft in Consol, the Canes’ president and general manager completed the trade that brought Staal to the Hurricanes.

Many believed the acquisition of Staal, a big, strong two-way center, would make the Hurricanes a playoff team this season. Certainly the two principals – Rutherford and Staal – believed so. That perhaps will make Saturday’s game a bittersweet return for both.

“It was always a fun place to play, in Pittsburgh, and I have a lot of good memories,” Staal said this week. “It would have been a little better if it meant a little more.”

The Penguins lead the NHL’s Eastern Conference and will be the top seed in the playoffs. Center Brandon Sutter, who went to Pittsburgh as part of the Staal trade, has been an integral part of his new team’s success.

The Canes are 19-24-4. In 47 games, Staal has 10 goals and 20 assists, and a minus-17 rating. He recently said he has “let the team down” at times in his first season with Carolina.

“He’s been too tough on himself,” Rutherford said Friday. “It’s certainly not the year he was expecting. But he’s a young guy. He has played with different wingers all season. He didn’t have a training camp.

“He’s had success, he has great character and he’s a great player. And he has not played a full season for us.”

While time has passed, Staal still uses the word “surreal” while describing June 22. It was his wedding day. He was in his hometown of Thunder Bay, Ont., surrounded by brothers Eric, Marc and Jared Staal but also a lot of Penguins teammates when his agent delivered the news of the trade during the reception.

“I was sitting beside him when he was told,” said Marc Staal, a New York Rangers defenseman. “My stomach dropped. I can imagine how he felt. It was pretty emotional for him.”

Jordan Staal called it a “pretty crazy day, definitely a life-changing day.” After six seasons with the Penguins and a Stanley Cup in 2009, he would be joining his oldest brother, Eric, in Carolina.

Rutherford said he does not second-guess a trade he deems one of the biggest in franchise history. Rutherford and Penguins general manager Ray Shero hunkered down in Shero’s office at Consol Energy Center a few hours before the draft began and finished it up.

“It was a tough one to make and it was tough giving up a good player like Brandon,” Rutherford said. “But with an opportunity to get Jordan, it was something we felt like we needed to do, and he has made a difference on our team.”

The Canes had a lot of other issues in a season that was shortened and disjointed because of the NHL lockout.

Injuries took a toll on the team. Starting goalie Cam Ward was lost to a sprained knee and defenseman Joni Pitkanen to a broken heel bone. Rutherford said defenseman Tim Gleason played nearly a month with a broken foot and forward Jiri Tlusty with a dislocated finger.

The Canes were without Tuomo Ruutu for much of the season. Ruutu had hip surgery in December and will undergo surgery on the other hip after the season, Rutherford said.

Rutherford said Canes coach Kirk Muller “never had a full (healthy) lineup and all the key players at the same time.” He said he believed Muller has handled the team well given the circumstances and lack of practice time.

“I think he’s done a good job,” he said.

Rutherford praised the loyalty of Canes fans, noting Carolina set a franchise record for home attendance, averaging 17,560 in 24 dates this season. He said he’s pleased with the rate of season-ticket renewals and already looking to next season.

“As tough as this season has been for all of us, we’re in as strong a position right now to build a strong team going forward as we’ve ever been with the core group of players we have,” Rutherford said.

NOTES: Eric Staal has been nominated by his teammates for the 2012-13 King Clancy Memorial Trophy. It is the third time Staal has been nominated for the honor, which is awarded to the NHL player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy contribution in his community. ... Defenseman Justin Faulk was named the team’s most valuable player for the season by the Carolina chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. … Forward Patrick Dwyer won the Josef Vasicek Award for cooperation with the local media. … Defenseman Tim Gleason was the 2013 winner of the Steve Chiasson Award, which honors the late Canes defenseman.

Alexander: 919-829-8945 Twitter: @ice_chip

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