RALEIGH — It has taken a lot longer than he wanted, but Jordan Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes believes he finally has learned to relax and play.
Don’t worry about the big contract. Don’t worry about how many points he has. Don’t worry about what people might be saying about him.
“I’ve been just going out and playing and letting my mind go a little bit,” Staal said Wednesday. “There has been a lot of ups and downs mentally for me since I’ve been here. Wanting so much more for this team and for myself and not having it was frustrating for me.
“I’ve learned a lot, how to mentally carry myself from day to day. I’m still learning, but right now things are going well, but it’s because of hard work and getting the mind frame right.”
At times in recent Canes games, Staal has resembled Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks or Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks – both quintessential power centers. He has been a force on the ice, a presence, checking the other team’s best line but also more of an offensive threat.
“He’s playing a simple, hard game,” Canes captain Eric Staal said. “Not thinking, just playing. That’s when he’s at his best.”
No doubt, a line change that has Jordan Staal playing with wingers Jiri Tlusty and Alexander Semin is a big part of that. Staal has two goals and three assists in the past three games, scoring the game-winning goal Tuesday in the Canes’ 3-1 victory against the New York Rangers.
“Their line has been very effective,” Canes coach Kirk Muller said. “(Staal) is getting different results, so he’s feeling better. That was the big thing he wanted – the extra responsibility.
“I think he’s coming into his own, playing his best hockey since he’s been here. He’s become a power forward, taking the puck wide, going to the net.”
Muller smiled, adding, “Now, what we’re saying is, ‘Hey, there’s nights you can be the best player on the ice and that’s OK. Push yourself that way.’”
That’s the kind of play the Canes expected when they obtained Staal in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins during the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. The Canes then quickly signed Staal to a 10-year, $60 million extension.
Staal was the Pens’ third center behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He was eager to join his brother, Eric, take on a bigger offensive role with the Hurricanes and justify the investment in him.
But Staal had a modest 10 goals and 21 assists in the NHL’s shortened season last year. He had just one goal and two assists in the first 14 games this season as Carolina stumbled to a 4-7-3 start.
“That’s the difference between playing here and playing in Pittsburgh,” Eric Staal said. “You play in Pittsburgh with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, they’re going to take the brunt (of criticism) when things aren’t going well. He’s in a smaller market with a big contract, so people are going to be harder on him.
“That’s life. That’s the way it goes. I’ve been down that road for a lot of years now. I know what I can bring and what I can do, and you need to believe in yourself and believe in your ability and try not to think. It’s hard, because you care and want to do your best every night.”
Jordan Staal’s line may now be the Canes’ top line. Tlusty, who also had a goal and assist in the victory against the Rangers, is a smart two-way player and Semin is underrated defensively.
The Hurricanes (28-28-9), who face the Buffalo Sabres (19-38-8) on Thursday at PNC Arena, will need consistent production from that line and nearly everyone on the ice if they are to somehow claw back into playoff contention.
“For me to play at an elite level and lead this team, I need to be mentally and physically ready every night,” Jordan Staal said.
The Canes are counting on it.
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